Last month I wrote an article on Superstitions about Howling. The article was fun to research; it covers the likely origins of the belief that a howling dog is an omen of death or extreme misfortune. Even though that notion is reinforced in literature and films, of course it’s not the real reason dogs howl. But what is? Why do dogs really howl?
Turns out, there are many reasons dogs howl.
As a Response to Environmental Triggers
Many years ago I lived in New York with a mixed breed dog that looked like a blend of a yellow Labrador retriever and a Samoyed. She was precious and stunningly beautiful. Out of all the dogs I’ve shared my life with, she was the most primitive. There were times when I thought she acted more like a wolf than a domesticated pet, and when she started howling, the primal sound of it would chill me to the bone.
This dog howled in response to environmental triggers, especially to the sounds of sirens. Dog howling is often a response to outside stimuli and the triggers are varied. Many dogs respond to ambulance, fire-engine or police sirens. Some respond to other dogs howling, music, certain instruments, etc. Apparently the pitch of certain sounds awakens an otherwise dormant genetic memory in domesticated dogs. The reasons are unclear, but some experts believe when dogs hear some sounds, they howl to join in and be part of the action. Read More »
Scientists are still trying to unravel the mystery behind how wolves evolved into dogs. It happened so long ago, the only evidence scientists have to work with is in archaeological research into how humans evolved and fossilized teeth and bones of early canines. Researchers have a basic understanding of the approximate time when humans and wolves began to interact. New discoveries are occasionally found which adds another piece to the evolution puzzle; hopefully one day we’ll have a complete picture of how dogs became man’s best friend.
The scientific community is still debating whether wolves approached humans first or if it was the other way around. A partnership between man and domesticated wolves would have been a beneficial relationship; wolves could help bring down larger game with enough meat to share between humans and animals. With no refrigeration or knowledge of how to preserve meat, leftover kills wouldn’t have stayed fresh for long. Women were gatherers, collecting edible berries, roots, nuts, green plants and smaller animals. A tamed wolf would have given them protection as they searched for food.
The more likely scenario that led to domestication, however, was a mutual relationship of “you leave me alone and I won’t bother you” agreement between man and animal. With an advancing Ice Age, humans were forced to turn to other sources of food. Larger plant-eating animals began to die off as cooler temperatures caused their food source to become scarcer. Early humans were nomads following Mammoth and other large game because it didn’t make sense to carry a kill long distances. When their main meal, the Mammoth, became harder to find, humans were forced to turn to other sources of food. They gave up their nomad life about 10,000 years ago, settled down in small villages, and turned to agriculture for a food supply.
With the introduction of grains, the human digestive system began to evolve to better digest carbs, and scientific evidence shows the wolf’s digestive system also evolved at the same time and for the same reason. Modern dog has 10 genes that aid in digesting starches and breaking down fats. Scientists found changes in three of the genes, which is what makes it possible for dogs to split starches and absorb sugars. Today’s wolves can’t process starchy food, and that’s one thing that sets them apart from modern dogs. This discovery, however, has nothing to do with when dogs became our best friend.
I admire the spirit of wolves, an animal who has found the world to be a hostile place, even though man has embraced a species that was born from them. There are similarities between dogs and wolves, but dogs are not wolves. The reason why is because of a makeup in their genome – the total genetic makeup of a cell.
After comparing D.N.A. from dogs and wolves, geneticists have determined that dogs are indeed related to the gray wolf. They studied the mitochondrial D.N.A. which remains unchanged as it’s passed down through the mother’s (maternal) line and found identical D.N.A. in both animals. Genetically, dogs and wolves are 98.8 percent identical.
Scientists are still debating when and how domestication of dogs took place and whether it was humans who first tamed wolves or if wolves found associating with humans in their best interest. Some scientists go so far as to say our early relationship with domesticated wolves was an important part in the development of the human species. The working relationship between wolf and man enabled humans to bring down bigger game which provided them with more food. More food led to larger families and a growth in human population. Wolves joined with man for a mutual relationship that benefited both sides.
It’s hard to miss the neighborhood dog choir howling their mournful tune as a fire truck or ambulance whizzes by. Dogs raise their heads in a howl to signal when we leave the house and when we return. One begins to howl and is soon followed by other voices in the area, but why do dogs howl? Are they really that sad when we leave and that ecstatic when we return?
Researchers understand why wolves howl. Their howls, in various tones, help the sound travel farther than a simple bark would go. We know wolves howl as a signal to the pack, “Come see what I found” or to let other members of the pack know where they are so they can meet in a single location. Wolves recognize each pack member’s howl and if an unfamiliar voice joins in, the pack leader knows an intruder may be in his territory. So a howl is also a warning to outsiders to stay away or else. It’s also a way to account for each member of the pack when they are separated by the hunt or for any other reason. Each wolf joins in signaling they are present and accounted for, and everything is OK.
Through responsible breeding and centuries of domestication, dogs are certainly man’s best friend. But how much of their ancestral instincts have dogs maintained even with continued breeding that has calmed ancient instincts? I sometimes wonder as my dogs lay sleeping if there is a quiet and secret wolf at my side. Are wolves and dogs close relatives?
Scientists have discovered that the DNA of wolves and dogs are identical. They share certain traits as well as a knowledge of pack hierarchy which provides each animal with a place in the pack along with protection and defense of the pack and their territory. Although scientists are uncertain whether man domesticated the dog or they tamed themselves, we do have evidence that dogs have been living with humans for centuries. What is known is that dogs have an instinctive knowledge of their wild counterpart, the wolf.
Wolves and dogs belong to the same family, Canidae, and come from the same species, Canis lupus. All dogs from the tiniest Chihuahua to the massive English Mastiff are related to wolves. Although most dogs look nothing like their wild ancestors, they do share a few qualities that have not been completely lost through responsible breeding.
Like wolves, dogs are loyal, protective of their pack and home, and they want to be near their pack leader. Both dogs and wolves are social animals who want to please the one in charge. But that is where similarities end. Shy and recluse, a wolf’s instincts tell him to avoid humans. They would not make a good or safe pet, especially if children are involved. Wolf sightings are rare in the wild and if you are ever blessed with an encounter, you will be among a privileged group.
A pack of wild dogs, on the other hand, are more dangerous than a wolf pack as far as humans are concerned. Wolves prefer the secluded safety of the forests, but wild dogs have no fear of man and are more likely to invade our space as they search for food. Where a wolf pack is stable and more predictable, the wild dogs roaming in packs usually have no clear leader and can be erratic in temperament and reaction to situations they encounter — including encounters with people.
I’ve always admired the resilience of wolves, their intensity and intellect to function together as one for the common good of the pack. However, a wolf is not a pet and belongs in the shadow of the mountains and forests. My dogs are pets and in reality, no longer share much of their ancient past. Breeding has removed most wolf tendencies and my sweet dogs have the ability to protect those who make up their pack and give us their loyalty and trust, but have very little in common with today’s wolf.
Wolves also differ from dogs in that our pets would not be successful on a hunt. They have lost the concept of working together for the take down. Like wolves, dogs are scavengers if necessity dictates, but most dogs would have a difficult time trying to survive on their own. A dog is described by some animal behaviorists as being similar to an adolescent wolf because our dogs exhibit the same maturity as a young wolf by playing and licking our faces.
In the long run, it doesn’t really matter. Even though wolves and dogs belong to the same family, the few traits dogs have retained from their early ancestor is what makes dogs unique in their own right. As I watch my dogs sleeping at my feet with one beside me resting her head on my leg, I know they share the DNA of a wolf, but if there is a wolf hiding inside, they aren’t aware of it, and only their dreams hold secrets to an ancestor they no longer know.
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The personal opinions and/or use of trade, firm, corporation or brand names, in this blog is for the information and convenience of the reader. Such use does not constitute an official endorsement or approval by CANIDAE® Natural Pet Food Company of any product or service to the exclusion of others that may be suitable. All opinions in this blog are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® Natural Pet Food Company.