Running With The Wolves

The Wolf In Our Dog
by Betsy Sikora Siino
Siberian Huskie Pup Siberian Huskie Pup Siberian Huskie Pup

The modern dog's direct ancestral line has been a source of contentious debate for years.  One side believing the dog descended from the jackal or coyote, whereas another side supported the wolf-as-direct-ancestor theory.  Agreement occurred only discussing the time period of domestication:  12,000 to 14,000 years ago.  In 1993, however the results of an exhaustive study proved scientifically the validity of the wolf theory.
The Code of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature made this official when they announced that dogs and wolves are indeed members of the same species, Canis Lupus (the dogs official subspecies being Canis Lupus familiaris).  Just does this mean to those of us who live with dogs?  It simply validates what many have presumed all along.  In understanding the wolf we gain an even greater understanding of the dog.  This understanding allows us to form a deeper bond with an animal of an entirely different species that has decidedly different roots.

There is no written record of the events leading to our own shared destiny with the dog or the events that launched the dog's deliverance from its wolf ancestors, so we are left to our imaginations.  Our fates, no doubt, had much to do with our mutual culinary tastes, and the recognition by both human and dog that we could help each other in the quest for game.
The promise of prey probably attracted the wolf to the camps of primitive peoples.  In time some savvy humans were struck by the ideal, that this animal, though often pursued as food itself might make a valuable tool in humans never-ending quest for substance.  As the wolf became a hunting partner, it gradually found itself welcomed within the human's camp, the two recognizing that their similarities surpassed those of pursuing game for food.  The wolf felt comfortable within the pack-oriented structure of the human family, and the humans realized that this was an animal with which they could communicate rather effectively, both in work and companionship.  From this, a natural partnership developed and grew.
The dog is presumed to be the first animal to be domesticated and the only one to succumb to the process voluntarily.  Keep in mind that domestication--far different from simply taming an animal-requires generations of selective breeding and molding efforts.  Domesticating animals does no occur overnight or with a single breeding.  The wolf, maintaining its devotion to a pack existence, accepted humans over time as its pack.  In doing so, we assume, the wolf became the dog.
From this ancestral, human-wolf partnership we have forged a unique, lasting dependence, relying on dogs for all manner of work, protection, play and perhaps most important friendship.  In the process, we have created through diligent and usually very methodical selective breeding efforts, more than 400 breeds worldwide.  We owe all this to primitive humans who had the foresight to recognize the yellow-eyed animal's potential as it lurked among the trees surrounding their encampment. 

Although we have lived with dogs of all sizes, shapes, colors and talents for centuries, what remains consistent among all of them is a shared canine language.  Natural canine instincts and the language that guides them are the products of the dog's wild ancestry, expressed to varying degrees by each breed and by individual dogs.  Some dogs are adept at hunting, some at herding, some at guiding the blind, some at guarding sheep, some at pulling sleds, some at pursuing criminals and some at companionship.
We may look to the dog's wild cousin, the wolf, for a primer on the language that all canine species share.  What follows is an overview of this unique language, which you will no doubt recognize in your own dog if you observe and take note of the wolf within your dog.

For survival's sake, wolves reside in packs that operate according to a complex structure of dominance and submission.  The leader of the pack is the alpha male.  He bonds to the alpha female (the two are typically the only pair that mates), followed by a descending roster of subordinates, each of which knows it's place within the pack.  The foundation of this structure is the wolves' distinct and often very dramatic language, both vocal and physical.
In a domestic setting, our dogs adhere to the same pack-oriented lifestyle, only with humans replacing fellow canids as pack members.  Although a hierarchy of dogs usually exists within a multi-dog household, dogs in any household are most secure when they may look to a confident and consistent human owner as the alpha, or top dog, and when their own role within the family's pack structure is clearly defined.

Overall body position:  It is striking to observe a wolf pack in action and see that many of the postures the wolves assume are similar, if not identical to those displayed by our own dogs in their daily activities.  A wolf at play, for instance, may first initiate a game with a play bow, followed by chasing, face licking, muzzle biting, pawing and tail wagging.  Sound familiar?
Wolves also express their position in the pack hierarchy with their posture.  The alpha male stands proud and tall, while on the opposite end of the social spectrum lover-level wolves stand hunched with heads and tails tucked, essentially bowing submissively to their superiors.
consider, too, the similar stance wolves and many dogs take when feeling aggressive or ready to attack.  In the classic case, the animal stands tall with ears erect, tail stiff and typically horizontal wagging tail (or a wagging rear end) as the sign of a friendly, playful demeanor, but it may also indicate that the dog or wolf is paying homage to a superior or is nervous (hence the necessity to heed accompanying body-language signals, as well).  A tail held high and proud indicates a confident dog or dominant wolf, whereas a horizontally held tail could mean either animal is about to attack.  A tail held down and relaxed typically indicates an animal at rest, yet if that drooped tail is held between the legs, and the dog's or wolf's back is arched or hunched, you're witnessing a submissive and possibly frightened animal.

Aside from their legendary howl, wolves don't tend to be as vocal in the barking sense as domestic dogs.  The howl is typically used by wolves to locate other pack members or to stake claims on territory.  The meaning of much of the howling behavior, such as group howls within the pack is currently being debated.  to date, there is no evidence that wolves howl at the moon, but we do know that certain dog breeds--the Alaskan Malamute, for instance--are more inclined to howl than to bark.  Wolves also bark.  Although they do so less than their domestic cousins, it is usually done for the same reasons: in response to the presence of strangers or a threat, or as part of play.  Wolves actually tend to be more partial to a complex language of squeals and squeals that make up their day-to-day language, a vocabulary style that some domestic dogs have also inherited.

Once you have acquainted yourself with the nuances of wolf/dog language, you might be tempted to assume that as goes the wolf, so goes the dog.  Be warned, however, that such as assumption is a mistake.  Human being' tampering with the species throughout the centuries has dulled and altered various instincts and behaviors within the domestic dog, making the wolf far more consistent and reliable in its communicative signals than its domestic cousins.  Spend time with a wolf and you will witness an intensity that few dogs can match--and this has nothing to do with the hypnotic gaze of their yellow eyes.  the wolf, a definite type-A, is both conscious of the messages it is sending and the messages, both verbal and physical, it is receiving from all species it encounters.
Now take a look at the domestic dog.  You'll find a very little consistency there,  the 400-plus breeds we have created sport everything from floppy ears to the lack of tails to short legs to all variations of coat type.  Life with humans has in many cases also diluted in the dog the keen senses that made the wolf the consummate hunter.  In our dogs, we have dramatically altered the communication tools the wolf relies on for consistent communication, so assuming that all members of the wolf family, both wild and domestic are identical in their communication methods and skills can lead to serious trouble.
Take, for example, the case of the domestic dog that happens to be a fear biter.  Here we have a dog that instead of exhibiting the customary warning signals expected from a wolf at the moment of pending attach sends mixed messages.  It exhibits raised hackles yet wags its tail as if greeting a friend; and it lays its ears back like a submissive pack member, before sinking its teeth into the object of its aggressions.  This contrasts with what has been understood previously about wolf-based canine body language.  This is not to imply that the lessons learned from wolf communication and behavior should be ignored.  Much educational value remains in what our domestic pets have inherited from their wild cousins, much of which remains intact to this day.  We must simply approach the situation on a individual basis.
some breeds and some individual dogs are fare more in touch with their primitive roots-their inner wolf, if you will--than others.  The wolf-looking northern breeds, for example--Malamutes and such--tend to be quite intense about pack order and body language, whereas certain heading breeds-the Border collie comes to mind-have been known to regard the wolf with an intensity matched by that of the wolf.
Although a domestic dog's communication and behavior may not be identical to, or consistent with, that of the wolf, understanding the wolf is useful in learning how to read and communicate with your own dog.  The key is to get to know your own pet, as each dog is unique and manifests what it has inherited from the wolf in its own special way.  You can safely assume that your dog, like the wolf, watches you carefully for what you are trying to convey with your voice, gestures and subtle body postures.  It will be most grateful to know that you are trying to return the favor.  Over time, with careful, mutual effort and observation on both parts, you will improve and perfect the mutual communication and in turn, deepen your bond and strengthen your relationship.
When all is said and done, we are all one big, if not always happy, family.  Humans resemble the wolf in our lifestyles and communication methods, and yes, in our predatory ways, as well.  Domestic dogs are products of wolf genetics and of human meddling in their DNA, temperament and the contemporary manifestation of their wild legacy.  We revel in the fact that our dogs are technically wolves in dog's clothing, ad we are wise to acknowledge that we may use this link to our advantage in our relationships with our dogs.  It's also wise to admit that we really don't want our dogs to be wolves in the pure sense.  By keeping that wolf ancestry in perspective, honoring our dogs for what they are and respecting the wolves for what they are, we can all live happily ever after.

Betsy Sikora Siino is an award-winning author based in New York who has written extensively on animals and their care and who has won special acclaim for her coverage of wolves, other wild canids and wolf/dog hybrids.

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