New Research Explains Why Dogs Aren’t Wolves

January 6, 2011

By Linda Cole

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.

Dogs and wolves share a hierarchy within a pack. Both are social animals who are family oriented and protect and care for their young and both are intelligent. However, the similarities between dogs and wolves end there.

Dogs have the ability to read our emotions by observing our face, reading our body language and understanding our tone of voice. Scientists studying the human/dog bond have been discovering some amazing things about dogs. For one thing, they now know dogs are much smarter than once thought. Dogs outperform chimps in tests dealing with understanding human emotion, recognizing objects by name or color and being able to find objects by following a pointing finger. They’ve been testing to see just how much of our spoken language dogs understand. Of course, dog owners are way ahead of scientists on this issue.

Researchers at Eotvos Lorand University in Hungary wanted to find out if wolf pups raised in a home from birth would behave like puppies that are raised in a nurturing environment. They took a litter of five-day-old wolf pups from a wolf sanctuary and raised them exactly like puppies. They cared for them 24/7 with bottle feedings, regular cleaning and sleeping with them. The wolf pups related to the researchers just like puppies – until they reached eight weeks of age. Then the pups started going in a different direction in their relationship with the people raising them, despite a close bond that had been established. The wolves had no interest in what the humans were doing and couldn’t figure out what a pointing finger meant, like puppies can. They wanted to do their own thing and unlike dogs, wouldn’t even make eye contact with humans, which is basically how a wild wolf pup would react.

As the wolf pups grew, they didn’t respond to attempts to train them. They became more possessive of their food, toys and anything they found of interest. The older they got, the more they simply acted like wolves, destroying things and paying no attention to the humans who raised them. What this shows is that the ability to tame a wolf to act like a dog is almost impossible. It also proves that dogs are far from just socialized wolves and have evolved to the animal sleeping at our feet because of thousands of years of domestication through selective breeding.

To try to understand how quickly domestication can happen, Russian researchers in Siberia began a breeding program of silver foxes in 1959. They chose the silver fox because they are a close relative to the wolf. What they discovered was within three years, aggression was bred out of the foxes they selected for domestication. By the time the eighth generation was born, the foxes viewed humans as nonthreatening and had begun to show dog-like affection towards people. After 50 years of research and continued breeding, today’s foxes are much different in appearance and behavior from the original group who began the experiment in 1959.

Researchers discovered through an experiment in the domestication process of silver fox, as aggression was bred out, physical changes and coat color began to take place fairly quickly in the early years of the breeding program. So the process of domestication in dogs was probably achieved within a short time. Selective breeding changed the appearance and nature of the gray wolf to what we know today as our lovable and loyal dog.

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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