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There are a number of ideas about dogs that have originated in their genetic connection to wolves and our understanding of wolf packs. Most of these ideas are wrong.
We’ve made great strides in the past two decades in our studies of our closest animal friends. Only relatively recently has research been done exploring the way our dogs think. The way we look at wolves has also evolved since some of these theories about dog behavior came about. Science has shown us an entirely new understanding of dog behavior, yet society still operates under the myths that science has overcome.
the study of wolves has come a long way. There was a time when, in order to look at a species, we took all our data from observing captive species in zoos and the like. The creation of technologies such as wildlife cameras and GPS trackers have revolutionized our ability to study these creatures. What we have found is that animals behave very differently when placed in captivity. There are a few reasons for this:
- When wolves were captured and confined the entire pack was not taken. Generally lone wolves or wolves that had strayed from the pack were captured. So the groups that ended up in enclosures were unrelated and had no existing social hierarchies to fall back on. We were no seeing the behavior of wolf packs. We were seeing the behavior of unrelated groups of wolves thrown together. They didn’t know each other or how to react to one another because their social group was gone.
- In the wild, the best bet for survival is escape. It doesn’t make sense from an evolutionary perspective to fight. One might be injured or killed. There are no veterinarians to patch up wounds, and infections can be deadly. In order to survive it is best to avoid any interaction that might result in an injury. When there is a fence there is no escape. One must find alternative ways of coping with potentially deadly interactions. While these will be based in existing patterns of behavior, they take on entirely new meaning in an artificial situation. Behaviors that were once reserved to be used to show affiliation between group members morphed into what were interpreted as submissive behaviors used by one wolf to convince another not to attack.
Wolf packs are now known to be family groups that rarely have any sort of aggression between family members. The “alpha” pair is the breeding pair, and the rest of the pack is almost always made up of their offspring. So called submissive behaviors are performed to greet each other and show affiliation and are not about submission to any sort of social dominance.
How long young wolves stay with their parents varies depending on environmental factors. Pack size is directly linked to what sort of food source is around. The larger the prey animal the more wolves need to be involved in killing and eating the prey. In this situation it is advantageous for offspring to stay on until they are mature enough to safely survive on their own, and sometimes even longer. With smaller, less dangerous prey, the pack needs fewer wolves to be successful. Offspring are more likely to venture out and find a mate and begin their own pack.
So what does this have to do with our four legged friends? Not much. The wolves we have long studied are the American timber wolves. Dogs do not share DNA with these wolves, but rather share a common ancestor with European gray wolves. In addition, dogs are separated from wolves by thousands of years of evolution. There is no evidence that the common ancestor they share bears any resemblance to the modern day wolf. According to renowned veterinary behaviorist Ian Dunbar, “Learning from wolves to interact with pet dogs makes about as much sense as, ‘I want to improve my parenting – let’s see how the chimps do it!'”
Not a wolf….
Not a wolf…
Still not a wolf…
Seriously. Not a wolf.
Okay… that last one is a wolf.