One of the more bizarre fights that happens in the world of dogs is how to classify them. Within these debate is always a background of what it actually means to care for a dog “naturally” and what their “natural” life should be.
It actually shouldn’t be this way. Whether one considers a dog to be its own species or a subspecies of Canis lupus, there is no natural way to care for them or natural life for them. That’s because a dog is a domestic animal, the oldest of domestic animals, and there is very little that is natural about them. Over the thousands of years that have been part of human societies, they have adapted very nicely to our needs. Dogs have even developed cognitive short-cuts that have made them better readers of human body language than virtually any other animal, wild or domestic.
The natural way of keeping a dog is that a dog lives with people. It’s an oddball among domestic animals in that is derived from a very old domestication, and it is also the only large carnivoran that has ever been domesticated. Almost all other domestic animals are herbivores, and the other domestic carnivorans–the Near Eastern wildcat, the European ferret, and the red fox– are all small species. Most large carnivorans consider humans to be prey, so there is something very unusual about domestic dogs.
I get that.
But I am not among those who thinks that there is a species called Canis familiaris. I think dogs are most correctly classified as a subspecies of Canis lupus.
As soon as I say this, people just lose it. That’s because when you say this, it is almost like justifying abusive dog training methods that are based upon dominance. It also might be justifying raw feeding, which is also contentious issue in the world of dogs.
Those are implications that I soundly reject. There is nothing inherent in a classification of an organism that tells you how to feed it or train it, especially when you’re dealing with the real oddball among domestic animals.
Note that it is never controversial to say that a pekin duck is a mallard. In the photo at the top of the page, you can see the old pekin drake that used to rule the pond. His mate was that Rouen-cross hen, which was sold at a feed store as a mallard. They were both of the same species. Her ancestors were some kind of Western Europe mallard, while his were wild mallards living around Nanjing that were later transplanted to the area around Beijing, where they were selected for larger size and white plumage.
Both of these animals were quite different from the true wild mallard that I see swimming in rivers here in West Virginia. She was twice the size of a wild mallard hen and much darker in color, and he was three times the size of wild drake. Neither of them could fly very well. The Khaki Campbell crosses in the photo were actually much better fliers than either of them.
Performance-strain Rouens are not far removed from the wild mallard. Although they are larger and cannot fly, they still produce the large amounts of oil in their plumage that keep them warm and dry even when they swim the coldest water. Female Rouens also retain the brooding instinct and can hatch out their offspring.
Pekins don’t produce as much oil and aren’t as cold tolerant, and if incubators didn’t exist, there would be far fewer pekin ducks in this world. Most pekin hens have no broody instinct. Further, they also grow so much more rapidly the either Rouens or wild mallards that they are prone to growth disorders.
Even though it is so far removed from the wild mallard, the pekin duck is still a mallard. It is as much a modification on a mallard as a St. Bernard is on a wolf.
The only difference is that no one is going to launch into a culture war tirade over the classification of a pekin duck, but if you say a St. Bernard is a wolf, then you will be asking for it.
It is certainly true that dog domestication happened a lot longer than mallard duck domestication. I cannot find any good literature on dates for mallard domestication, but it’s pretty clear that ducks have been kept in Southeast Asia for thousands of years. Dog domestication dates and locations are still quite contentious, but the best evidence I’ve seen suggests that they were domesticated from an extinct wolf population between 15,000 and 32,000 years ago.
Some will argue that this extinct wolf population actually is a different species from modern Canis lupus, but I’m quite skeptical. Wolves themselves are among the most varied species in the wild. If we were to go back in time see that ancestral wolf population that gave rise to domestic dogs, I think it would be hard to say that they weren’t within the diversity of phenotype that we see in current Canis lupus populations.
I think the big difference is that these wolves had far fewer reasons to fear people and were actually quite curious about our kind and were actually fairly easy to habituate to living near us. Over time, these wolves became incorporated into our society.
Much has been made that dogs and wolves have different reproductive strategies, but the truth is wolves actually have two reproductive strategies. One of these is the pair bond, where a male and female become partners and their grown offspring help care for the puppies. This is the most successful strategy for wolf reproduction because all the resources and attention of the pack can be devoted to a single litter. Another strategy goes on in parallel. Young male wolves leave their natal packs, but they often cannot find a mate or suitable territory. So they often try to mate with the grown daughters that are part of an established pack. These daughters cannot mate with their father, who is pair-bonded to their mother, who will attack them if she catches them in the act. So these females do often mate with these roaming male wolves. They often become pregnant and even have puppies, but in the wild, they almost never get a chance to raise those pups. In the early years of wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone, prey was so abundant that many packs raised multiple litters every year. One would be born to the mated pair, while others would be born to these unpaired daughters and the roaming males. The way dog genes get into wolf populations is almost always when one of these non-paired females in a pack hooks up with a roaming male dog, which is why dog hybridization in European wolves went unnoticed. Most studies on wolf DNA looked at mitochondrial DNA alone, and if a wolf had dog ancestry coming from a male dog, it simply never would have been noticed.
The pair bond strategy exists because it about the only way to raise wolf pups. It is very common in all other dog species. In fact, a study of Chicago coyotes revealed that they are almost 100 percent monogamous, and similar findings have been discovered in golden jackals. However, in a wolf pack, preference toward the bonded pair during the mating season means lots of stress. They mated pair has to spend lots of time making sure no one mates with the wrong wolf, and they also will try to kill any of the roaming males that come near the unpaired females, which is also why the roaming male strategy isn’t as successful with wolves. Natural selection would favor pair-bonding over roaming male mating strategies.
Domestication changed this equation. When wolves began to hook up with people, people began to provide food. These wolves may have pair-bonded and mated in that fashion, but the chances of these secondary females to raise litters to maturity were much greater. Over time, pups born to roamers and unpaired females would start to outnumber those that were born to the pair-bonded wolves, and thus, a relaxation of selection pressures for pair bonding would become ubiquitous in these wolves. When pair-bonding became broken, then it became easier to selectively breed them. One could have a stud that mates with many females, and this promiscuous behavior could have been heavily selected for. Dogs are able to reproduce at much faster rates than wolves do, and one of the weird effects of domestication has been that female dogs are no longer monestrus and become sexually mature at younger ages than wolves or virtually any other wild dog.
Dogs and wolves have continued to exchange genes since the initial split. Black wolves in North America derive from domestic dogs that mated with wolves, as do black Italian wolves. Wolves in Italy also can have dewclaws on their hind legs, which also originated from dog and wolf matings. Historians ranging form Pliny the Elder to the Plott hound historian Bob Plott have documented cases of hunters breeding their dogs with wolves, a practice that still goes in parts of Russia. It was just recently revealed that the livestock guardian dogs of Georgia have a rather significant amount of gene flow with the wolves of the same region.
So yes, I do recognize there are differences between wolves and dogs, but dog is a modification on the original wolf template.
The final important reason why I classify dogs as being part of the wolf species is that evolution has within it a nested law. This is the law of common descent. One can never evolve out of one’s ancestry. Humans are always going to be great apes, and humans are always going to be primates, not matter how different we become from our ancestors. A whale will always be a mammal, even if it somehow evolved gills.
A dog is always going to be a wolf. We change them through selective breeding, as we have with all our other domestic animals, but we are never going to change their fundamental ancestry.
All that I’m doing when I use Canis lupus familiaris is that I’m putting dogs where they fit on the tree of life. I’m showing my respect to their evolutionary heritage. I am paying homage to their phylogeny.
I’m not making excuses for Cesar Millan or anyone else.
Many people who promote science in our understanding of dogs are actually engaging in what I call “phylogeny denial.” Many people bend over backwards to show how dogs aren’t like wolves, which I supposed is harmless, but I think it gives people a false impression of what a dog actually is in terms of its evolutionary history. It’s not a domesticated golden jackal or coyote or African wild dog. It is a domesticated ancient wolf, but that wolf was just an older form of the modern Canis lupus.
When you classify an animal according to its phylogeny, you aren’t doing anything else but classifying it. If a whale is a mammal, it does not automatically follow that it is a land mammal, does it? And classifying a dog a subspecies of wolf doesn’t mean that it evolved to hunt moose in Alaska.
I really wish people were taught to think about natural history in this fashion more often. It clarifies a lot of misconceptions people have about evolution. If I had a nickel for every time I get asked about humans evolving from modern chimpanzees, then I’d be a pretty wealthy individual. The last common ancestor between humans and chimps was not a chimpanzee. It may have looked more like a chimpanzee, because chimpanzees retain a lot more of the original African ape’s features than humans do, but it was not a chimpanzee like we have today.
By contrast, the wolves that gave rise to domestic dogs were probably indistinguishable from Eurasian wolves living today. Further, dogs and wolves continue to affect each other’s evolution through a rather significant gene flow. Humans affect chimpanzee evolution only through hunting them for bushmeat, destroying their forest habitats, and spreading disease. There is no gene flow between the two species, and because we have a different chromosome number, any “humanzees” would likely be sterile.
Finally, Canis familiaris creates a stumbling block in understanding the natural history of dogs, which is why you still run into people who think dogs derive from any number of different species of wild dog. Canis lupus familiaris neatens up that confusion very nicely.
Classifying a dog as a wolf shouldn’t be any more controversial than classifying a pekin as a mallard, but dog people just have a much harder time thinking in this way. I have never seen an internet flame war erupt between pekin duck owners over the classification of their ducks. In fact, I don’t think many pekin duck owners actually know that their ducks are mallards and do not actually occur anywhere in the wild.
But with dogs, charlatans have used the dog as wolf idea to justify all sorts of bad human behavior towards dog, but scientific facts remain scientific facts, whether charlatans misuse them or not. In terms of their ancestry, as has been revealed through copious analyses of their DNA, dogs are in the Canis lupus lineage.
They simply aren’t anywhere else in the tree of life. This is where they belong. Accept it, and move on.