Dogs vs Wolves

DOGS_VS_WOLVES_FeaturedMany people assume that since dogs evolved from their wolf-like ancestors, we can and should easily draw parallels between the two, and use what we see in wolf behavior to help explain how to understand our domesticated dogs.

Bad idea.

Even though dogs and wolves are genetically similar, they are separated by at least fifteen thousand years of domestication that has changed them in many important ways. Today’s domestic dog is approximately as genetically similar to the wolf as we humans are to chimpanzees. When you consider the evolutionary and behavioral chasm between chimps and ourselves, it becomes clear that although wolves and dogs share certain physiological and behavioral traits, they are far more different from each other than traditional pack theorists would have you believe.

Dogs are not socialized wolves. Not only has domestication set them apart physiologically, but it has greatly influenced their emotional development as well. The difference in developmental stages between wolves and dogs in early life is acute enough to affect their ability to form social relationships throughout their lives.

Although dogs generalize their social relationships to humans and are good at adapting to changing situations, wolves are very specific about their social attachments and do not adapt well to novelty, even when raised in captivity with or near humans.

So if the captive wolf model has led us down the wrong path, what model should we use to help us understand the dynamics of a modern dog pack?

Observing feral dogs gives us a much more accurate picture of the domestic dog’s social structure than either wild or captive wolf packs. It is more likely that modern domestic dogs are descended from solitary feral dogs that scavenged human garbage for food than from a true familial pack. Scavengers do not need a team to track and bring down prey; they are usually more successful when operating by themselves rather than being reliant on other members of their group to find food.


Thousands of years of separation from the wolf have also altered the social behavior of feral dogs, because they do not stay in fixed family packs. Although the only wolves that mate in a pack are the breeding pair, in the feral dog population mating is unrestricted; it can occur among dogs within a family group or between dogs of different groups.

Bottom Line

Although their similar appearance and genetic proximity to one another make it tempting for us to assume that dogs and wolves behave the same way, they are dissimilar enough to warrant two different, separate studies of their behavioral tendencies.

When we fail to comprehend these differences and misapply behavioral understandings from one to another, it can lead to gross misconceptions. Indeed, the most important distinction we can draw between dogs and wolves is that, other than the fact that they are both animals whose primary natural instinct is to be safe and survive, dogs and wolves learn in very different ways and place contrasting premiums on the value of interaction with other species.
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12 thoughts on “Dogs vs Wolves

  1. Duncan Schroeter

    Interesting and I certainly agree with this in general. "Feral" of course largely refers to domesticated dogs that have for what ever reason recently returned to living free. What I would like to see properly studied is the free living Canaan type desert dogs in the Arabian peninsula. These dogs have lived free for thousands of year with little if any human assistance. Relatively few of them are used by Bedouin in a watchdog roll around camps and with goat or sheep herds but most remain entirely self supporting. There is anecdotal claims of them pairing for life but little evidence of survival rates of litters, life span etc. Some associate with baboons in rubbish dumps etc. (Arte channel may release a "documentary" on this soon.) Wild life agencies sadly see them as just dogs and a potential threat to endangered wild life and fear they could interbreed with wolves (although DNA studies of a few wolves failed to show this. I feel that we could learn much from a proper study of these dogs before they are lost. Do you have any reference to the similarity of dogs to wolves being similar to that of humans to chimpanzees?

  2. Erik Rakovský

    The problem is that we haven't any wolf not threatened by humans for comparison. So after approx. 1-2 thousand years of christianity in Europe (wolf was considered "unclean", in contrast to most of antic and tribal cultures where it was respected and often idolized), surviving wolves are harshly sorted-out paranoics.
    "Cultural pressure" is the strongest selection pressure, apparently not only in humans, but also in species affected by humans.
    I can easily agree with pack theory is substantially flawed, especially in its oversimplified, "folklore" version.

  3. Barbara ODay

    When in Campbelcroft, Canada looking at a new horse, they had quite a few problems with feral dogs attacking the foals! Those dogs weren't looking for garbage at all.... they were more than happy to pull down and eat, as a pack, sheep, cattle and horses!! In the pack there were what looked like German Shepards, Dobies, Rotties, as well as some that looked like Pointers and even a Golden Retriever ( maybe mix breeds).

  4. Mandi Merlenbach

    Pack theory and the dominance rolls have already been debunked and not by Victoria. She is going off of new research found on wild wolves VS captives wolves that when compared to the studies that were done in the past face inaccuracies.

    It was found that the original research done on wolves was first done on wolves in captivity that were NOT from the same family, this made the wolves act very different than a true pack would because real packs are made of mother and father, sometimes their siblings, and their pups. It is rare for non related wolves to be in a wild pack.

    So they studied the body language of the captive pack and came to the conclusion of dominance and pack hierarchy. The problem with this was that in the wild wolves it is a myth. In the wild it is nothing more than parents reprimanding their children. So they applied what they learned from an unnatural pack to real packs and made a blanket statement of this is how canids that live in packs work.

    Dogs also do not form packs like wolves do. Dog packs are completely different than wolf packs. Socially, behaviorally, and physically a different type of pack.

  5. rachsavagesam

    The latest research in the year 2016 is....dogs are not descended from modern wolves but split from a common ancester...taxa. Dogs and wolves evolved from a common ancester between 11000 to 34000 years ago. The common ancester is believed to been huge. ( for people who want to believe in the fairy tale Hollywood story about wolves the scientist Larson). There is some exciting scientifc research going on). You can not compare a dog with wolf behavior. Domesticated dogs do not have the behavior traits of wolves such as traveling in packs. Oh a google the difference between wolves and dogs. There is a big difference. For example you dont see a male dog being involved with raising a offspring. Its more like ...well ...spliting from the scene. Victoria is only saying that there is scientific research out there. And people should get informed with science. I see from the posts...some people are into mystical thinking and old age myths.

  6. rachsavagesam

    Only because they were not domesticated and were most likely starved. I am sure after the feral dogs ate....they split and went individually on their merry way.

  7. rachsavagesam

    Please read the latest SCIENTIFIC research. There is a lot of SCIENTIFIC literature out there. GENTICS. DNA Genes. Environmental issues. Do you intellectually talk to your relatives the chimps.

  8. Mark

    You're getting a few critics, but you're still right.

    People here don't seem to be able to separate "dogs are essentially wolves" from "you still treat them differently because they're domesticated."

    Positive reinforcement training and the fact dogs are wolves aren't incompatible!

    Look: Dogs can interbreed with wolves easily. Humans can never breed with chimpanzees. There is just no scientific basis for separating them. If the research by Greger Larson that a following commentator pointed to does not dispute this - all Dr. Larson is trying to work out is WHEN humans started domesticating wolves. (hint: likely between 15,000-30,000 years ago. Practically zero time in evolutionary speak.)

    But the bottom line is THIS: None of the fact that this article is completely wrong, affects the effectiveness of positive reinforcement training. Just say: "Dogs are domesticated, wolves are not, so they must be treated differently because of their different temperaments. Positive reinforcement works: look at this evidence."

    Not that even *domestication* matters. Positive reinforcement training was invented for dolphins ... it works fine on a wide variety of creatures, domesticated, genetically separated, or not.

  9. Josefin

    Why isn't this brought forward on the TV (where the masses get their information)...?

    I truly wish that someone could come along and once and for all beat Cesar Millan out of the game on TV, his shows are still aired spreading misinformation. I suppose it doesn't draw a lot of attention when someone doesn't paint dogs out to be dangerous and always out to dominate and conquer everything... Sad but true. For someone who claims to love dogs, Cesar Millan sure did a good job setting dog training back 50 years, bringing many factually incorrect methods and views into the 21st century...

  10. Lise Brekke

    As a fellow biologist, I want to point out that the ability to interbreed can also be obstructed by a mismatch in behavior, not just dependent on genetics. A lot of dog breeds are unlikely to be able to breed with wolves, and there are enough differences between dogs and wolves for many of us to consider them two different species altogether. And remember; the concept of a species is man-made, while nature is often a lot less black-and-white. When species diverge it's rarely something that happens over night.
    This article focuses on behavior, and arguably the behavior of dogs vs wolves has changed considerably since they diverged. If we just focus on the shared DNA, then a comparison between humans and chimps is justified. Humans did not, as far as I know, evolve as a result of artificial selection. And we are still a ways off from designer babies. Thus, our divergence from our chimp-like ancestor will have seen a more natural pace of evolution compared to dogs.

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