Wolf In A Dog
I am sick of seeing commercials, print ads and even suggestions made on pet food packaging itself, about caring for the wolf in your dog.
There isn’t as much of the wolf in your dog, at least advertised.
In fact, there is very little grey wolf in any domestic dog! Several studies, including one from PLOS Genetics, Genome Sequencing Highlights the Dynamic Early History of Dogs, discloses that dogs and grey wolves share a now extinct common ancestor. It turns out that dogs did not evolve directly from the grey wolf, and we can only surmise details about the ancestor dogs did really evolve from.
While dogs can breed with wolves, they are decidedly not wolves. Studies indicate via analysis of genomes from wolves and the dogs that dogs are more closely related to each other than to wolves.
There does exist some amount of genetic overlap between some modern dogs and wolves. But this is thought to be the result of interbreeding after dogs were domesticated, not a direct line of descent from one group of wolves. And this is a huge point to realize.
The theory still holds that circa 30,000 years ago, Cro-Magnon men weren’t so adept at recycling. They maintained garbage dumps on the perimeters of their villages. They figured out that having relatives of today’s grey wolves – a totally different species, which little is known – hung around for scraps. They ate disease carrying rats, and also warned one another when predators approached. These warnings gave people time to mobilize and use whatever weaponry the could against the sabre-toothed type predators. A symbiotic relationship began to occur, benefiting both that now extinct wolf species and our Cro-Magnon ancestors.
Over time, bold individual canines infiltrated human settlements – which afforded them protection and food. They even raised their puppies alongside humans. While nowhere near domesticated – puppies raised with people were more tame, and it's likely tamer individuals were constantly being selected for.
Cro-Magnon humans began to hunt with these canines, and likely began to also crudely breed for the skill. Again, both species win. Pre-Uber, dogs were all we had, and faster than people to find dinner. However, people had bow and arrow by now. Likely leftovers were provided to the canines.
We know through DNA records and archaeological findings that people began to share their huts with these canines. After all, they didn’t have space heaters, and the canines provided warmth. But even then – thousands of years ago – might both species have appreciated the others’ companionship? Some bond must have formed, because humans were sometimes buried with these canines.
No wonder we bond as we do with dogs. Could it be we are hard-wired to bond with dogs, that the feeling is deeply rooted into our human DNA?
Today’s grey wolf, as well as the jackal and coyotes come into the story later, and DNA from these species is sprinkled in today’s domestic dogs. It’s not an easy answer, as scientists are still unraveling details. However, dogs are not wolves any more than we are chimpanzees.
Regarding differences between dogs and wolves, let’s start with the obvious. Dogs (canis familiaris) are the most diverse species on the planet, from the Chihuahua, which can weigh as a little as two to three pounds and easily fit into the palm of the average human’s hand, to the Irish Wolfhound who might as well be measured in hands like horses, standing as high as 35-inches. Not only diverse in size, there are so many differences, from coat color to general body shape, even temperament (based on what individual breeds were first bred for). Arrive here from outer space and it might be difficult to believe that the French Bulldog and the Greyhound are the same species.
Wolves are smart, some have suggested cunning. Dogs aren’t as smart, and their brain size compared to body size is smaller than the wolf. When given a problem, after a while (sometimes sooner than later) a dog will look to a person for the solution, or just give up. Wolves are more resolute to problem solve, and are more likely than dogs to work with a friend to find the solution.
Wolves raised with people may ask people for help and follow human the human gaze. However, these attributes are hard wired in all dogs, which from an evolutionary perspective makes sense as their survival may depend on people.
Wolves are better hunters
Of course, wolves are far better hunters. In places where there are stray dogs – such as third world countries – dogs primary source of sustenance are garbage dumps or handouts. On the rare occasions that they do hunt, dogs hunt as individuals not in cooperative packs as wolves.
Friederike Range, a behavioral biologist at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna and her colleague Zsófia Virányi studied a captive population of wolves and dogs raised together at the Wolf Science Center outside Vienna. For one thing, they found that wolves work together better than dogs. For example, Range and Virányi observed the behaviors of groups of wolves or dogs sharing a common food source provided by researchers. Although there was more aggression among wolves—from muzzle-nipping to growling—every wolf, even the so-called lowest ranked, was able to negotiate a share of food. Dogs are less aggressive with one another, but the food-sharing is far from collaborative.
A TV personality/dog trainer (certainly not Victoria Stilwell) suggested training dogs using certain methods because the head of the household needs to be act like “the boss,” like an alpha wolf. That notion is wrong on several levels. For starters, dogs know we are not dogs, and there’s never a reason for person to be dominant over a dog, it's unclear what that even means.
Yes, dogs do seem to have a certain rank among members of their own species, either living in our homes, or at garbage dumps as studied by Raymond Coppinger and others. However, these relationships are complex, based on context, and are frequently in flux. Wolf packs are different - they are merely families, and the head of the family is the head of the pack. It is as simple as that (in most wolf species). Wolf biologists no longer even use the term alpha to describe wolf pack relationships among any wolf species.
Of course, wolves primarily eat meat, though they will forage (depending on the species and geography of where they happen to live, and availability of food); dogs are far more omnivorous.
Here’s a shocker – dog GI systems and nutritional needs are in some ways more like ours than wolves. I point this out based on a 2013 study, which now others have confirmed and are further investigating.
Erick Axelson and colleagues compared the genes of wolves and domestic dog and found some very interesting differences. Dogs have three genes that wolves do not that play an important role in the digestion of starch (the genes are AMY2B, MGAM and SGLT1). This means that dogs can handle carbs!
Axelsson, an evolutionary geneticist from Uppsala University in Sweden compared dog and wolf DNA to learn which genes were important for domestication. They sequenced DNA from 12 wolves from around the world and from 60 dogs representing 14 breeds. They first looked for individual letters in DNA, called bases, that varied from one genome to the next, identifying about four million of these so-called single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). They ignored regions with the most SNPs and instead focused on places where there were very few or no SNPs. That lack of variation signals DNA that was so important for survival during domestication that any variation there was lost, so most dogs have the same SNPs. Those regions were the ones the researchers were most interested in.
Dogs had four to 30 copies of the gene for amylase, a protein that starts the breakdown of starch in the intestine. Wolves have only two copies, one on each chromosome. As a result, that gene is far more active in dogs. More copies means more protein, and test-tube studies indicate that dogs should be five times better than wolves at digesting starch, the chief nutrient in agricultural grains such as wheat and rice.
Dogs and wolves to have the same number of copies of another gene, MGAM, which codes for maltase, another enzyme important in starch digestion. But there are four key differences between the sequence in dogs and wolves. One difference causes dogs to produce longer versions of maltase. That longer protein is also seen in herbivores, such as cows and rabbits, and omnivores, such as mouse lemurs and rats, but not in other mammals, suggesting length is important to plant-eaters. These differences make the dog maltase more efficient.
So, it turns out dogs are behaviorally different than wolves, their brains have developed differently, and their nutritional needs are different. Good or bad I don’t know – but I do know that pup who shares your bed is no wolf, so think twice before you fall for the marketing ploy.
Steve is a certified animal behavior consultant, and the author of several books, including ebooks “Good Cat!” and “Good Dog!” He’s a co-editor of “Decoding Your Dog” (by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists” which Victoria wrote the foreword. He’s the host of several radio shows, including nationally syndicated Steve Dale’s Pet World, and can be heard on WGN Radio, Chicago. He has a long list of TV credits., from Oprah to Animal Planet shows, including his current appearances on “HouseSmarts TV. He serves on several Boards, including Winn Feline Foundation.
His website/blog: www.stevedalepetworld.com.
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