Don't Be Fooled: Dogs Are Not Wolves


I am sick of seeing commercials and print ads about caring for the wolf in your dog.

There isn’t as much of the wolf in your dog as marketers are suggesting. In fact, there is very little grey wolf in any domestic dog. Several studies, including one from PLOS GeneticsGenome Sequencing Highlights the Dynamic Early History of Dogs, disclose that dogs and grey wolves share a now-extinct common ancestor. While dogs can breed with wolves, it turns out that dogs did not evolve directly from the grey wolf, and we can only surmise details about the ancestor today’s domestic dogs.

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 today’s wolves.

The theory still holds that circa 40,000 years ago, Cro-Magnon men weren’t so adept at recycling. They maintained garbage dumps on the perimeters of their villages and figured out that having relatives of today’s grey wolves hanging out there was actually a good thing. Those wolf-like creatures ate disease-carrying rats and also warned one another when predators approached. These warnings gave the people in the villages time to mobilize and use whatever weaponry they could against the sabre-toothed-type predators. A symbiotic relationship began to occur, benefiting both the now-extinct wolf species and our Cro-Magnon ancestors.

Over time, bold individual canines infiltrated the human settlements, which afforded them protection and food. They even raised their puppies alongside humans. While nowhere near domesticated, the puppies raised with people were tame.

Cro-Magnon humans began to hunt with these canines, and began to crudely breed for the skill. Again, both species win. Pre-Uber, dogs were all we had, and they could find dinner—the dinner we had just shot with a bow-and-arrow—faster than people. Any leftovers were likely provided to the canines.

We know through DNA records and archeological 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 other’s companionship? Some bond must have formed, because humans were sometimes buried with these canines.

No wonder we bond as we do with dogs. Some have suggested that today that “feeling” is hard-wired in our human DNA.

The DNA from today’s grey wolf, as well as the jackal and coyotes (which come into the story later), is sprinkled in today’s domestic dogs. Scientists are still unraveling the details to determine the exact correlation, but it’s clear that dogs are not wolves any more than we are chimpanzees.

How dogs differ from wolves
Dogs (canis familiaris) are the most diverse species on the planet. From the Chihuahua, which can weigh as a little as 2 to 3 pounds and fit into the palm of the average human’s hand, to the Irish Wolfhound, which might as well be measured in hands like horses, standing as high as 35 inches. But size is only the beginning of the differences between the many dog breeds. Coat color and texture, general body shape, temperament (based greatly on what individual breeds were first bred for), and other characteristics show how diverse the species truly is. Arrive here from outer space and it might be difficult to believe that the Pug and the Great Pyrenees are the same species.

Wolves are smart, some have suggested they’re 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 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.

Of course, wolves are far better hunters than dogs. 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 they do hunt, dogs hunt as individuals, not in packs cooperatively as wolves do, and dogs aren’t very good at it, either.

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. They found that wolves work together better than dogs do. 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 wolvesfrom muzzle-nipping to growlingevery wolf, even the 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.

Famed TV personality Cesar Millan, aka the “Dog Whisperer,” suggested training dogs using certain methods because the head of the household needs to act like “the boss,” like an alpha wolf. Millan had it wrong on several levels. For starters, dogs know we are not dogs, and there’s never a reason for a person to be dominant over a dog, it’s unclear what that (or be be dominant over a dog) 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 and 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. Wolf biologists no longer even use the term alpha to describe wolf pack relationships.

Of course, wolves primarily eat meat, though they will forage, depending on the species and geography of where they happen to live. Dogs are far more omnivorous.

Here’s a shocker: Dog GI systems and nutritional needs are in some ways more like ours than wolves. This is based on a 2013 study, which others have since confirmed and are further investigating.

Erik Axelsson and colleagues compared the genes of wolves and domestic dogs and found some very interesting differences. Dogs have three genes that wolves don’t have, all of which 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 was 28 times 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 do 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 the pup who shares your bed is no wolf. Think twice before you fall for the marketing ploy.