Okay, I know I’ve touched on this before.
But I think I’ll go ahead with another post on this topic.
Dogs are wolves. They differ at most 0.2 percent from wild wolves in their MtDNA sequence. I needed to italicize that “at most” because it is very common to see it written that dogs differ 0.2 percent from their MtDNA sequence. That means the maximal difference between dogs and wolves in their MtDNA sequence is 0.2 percent.
Historically, they did interbreed quite a bit. Accounts exist of settlers on the American frontier using bitches in heat to bring in the dog wolves, which would mate with them. Because dogs remain tied together after mating, it was easy to dispatch the copulating wolf with an axe.
This interbreeding has caused a great deal of genetic pollution in the European wolf population, leading to unusually colored wolves and wolves with dewclaws on the hind legs. We also have evidence that the black coloration in wolves in North America came from cross-breeding with dogs.
Now, a dog is a wolf that has adapted to a particular environment. It is just like the Arabian wolf is adapted to the deserts and the Arctic wolf is adapted to the frigid wastes. Neither animal could live in the other’s environment, yet they are of the same species.
A dog is simply a wolf that can live safely with people. It can read people better than the wolf can, and as a result, it is better able to learn from people than virtually any other non-primate species.
To me, it makes sense to call dogs Canis lupus familiaris. It makes as much sense as calling the Arabian wolf Canis lupus arabs or the Arctic wolf Canis lupus arctos.
Now, there are three groups of people who don’t like to call dogs wolves.
One of these groups are the people who hate wolves and like to talk about the negative aspects of their behaviors. They don’t want them to be associated with the domestic dog, an animal that most people like.
Another group is the people who don’t want people owning wolves. If dogs and wolves are the same species, shouldn’t we be able to keep a wolf like a dog? The answer is no. Wolves are too reactive and powerful for the average person to own. Their predatory behavior can be easily stimulated, which means that children and other domestic animals could be at risk from these animals.
However, I should also say that there are domestic dog for which this same caveat applies. And there are wolves that are very dog-like and not even remotely reactive or nervous (like this one.) But most dogs behave like dogs, and most wolves behave like wolves.
The other group that would rather I not call dogs wolves are the positive reinforcement dog trainers. After all, the training methods they hate are based upon an assumption that dogs are wolves, and wolves form packs that are ruled by a tyrannical alpha. If dogs are not wolves, then their behavior is very different, and thus, we can get away with training them using other methods.
Now, I do have an answer for this one.
The studies that determined that wolves live in packs like this have their roots in Switzerland. Rudolf Schenkel studied captive wolf packs in the Basel Zoo in the middle part of the twentieth century. These wolves were unrelated animals and were kept in close confinement together. To prevent fights, they formed a really strict hierarchy, and Schenkel assumed that this type of pack behavior was indicative of how wolves behaved in the wild.
Of course, we have since found out that wolf packs in the wild are much more libertarian organizations. They are nothing more than family groups, and if one wolf gets ticked off at another, it disperses. Indeed, virtually all wolves disperse from their natal packs to form their own families.
But even these pack forming behaviors are not absolute with wolves. Sometimes they form super packs in which several breeding pairs and their offspring live as a single group. And some wolves never form packs larger than the mated pair, particularly in the Arabian and Indian wolf subspecies.
Moreover, the most studied wolves are the big game hunting wolves that live in northern Eurasia or northern North America. These are actually quite specialized wolves.
To assume that these wolves can tell us anything about dog behavior is a bit of a stretch, but what it says to the positive reinforcement crowd is that wolves have always had variable behavior in the wild. Dogs are not set in stone to follow leaders any more than wolves are. Dogs and wolves are both intelligent animals that have always adjusted their behavior to fit their circumstances. That is why the species was so successful. Indeed, it still is successful, because some individuals figured out how to live with the naked apes that would later claim dominion over the whole planet.
I do recognize dogs to be a subspecies of wolf. However, I am not denying that there are differences. However, this species is already diverse in terms of behavior and phenotype in its wild form. Shouldn’t we also expect a lot of diversity in its domesticated form?