Posts Tagged ‘dog’

Wolf in the snow

The Beothuks were the indigenous people of Newfoundland who were living there in the early colonial period.

Contrary to what you may read, the Beothuk probably did not own dogs. There are no archeological records of dog remains near Beothuk settlement, and most of the earliest accounts of the Beothuk make no mention of canines.

But they did have a relationship with the Newfoundland wolf that might be called semi-domestication. (I disagree very strongly that these accounts are of a feral or a semi-domesticated Native American pariah dog. There apparently were none of these animals on Newfoundland when Europeans arrived! There probably were dogs associated with European and Míkmaq settlements on the island, but none with the Beothuk.)

This account, published in 1620, comes from Richard Whitebourne, an early colonist and cod fisherman who had originally served on his own ship against the Spanish Armada.  Whitbourne set up a cod fishing colony at Renews, Newfoundland, sometime after the Armada was defeated. This is his account of the relationship between the Beothuk and the wolf of Newfoundland:

For it is well known that they are a very ongenious and subtile kind of people (as it hath often appeared in divers things), so likewise are they tractable, as hath been well approved, when they have been gently and politically dealt withall; also they are a people who will seek to revenge any wrongs done unto them, or their wolves, as hath often appeared. For they mark their wolves in the ears, with several marks, as is used here in England on sheep, and other beasts, which hath been likewise well approved; for the wolves in these parts are not so violent and devouring as those in other countries, for no man that I ever heard of, could say that any wolf. . . did set upon any man or boy.

Richard Whitbourne Discovery and Discourse of the Newfoundland (1622 printing)

(The Beothuck were called “Red Indians” because they painted themselves with ochre.)

The relationship here is rather weird. There is no evidence that the Beothuk were feeding their semi-domesticated wolves, nor were they using them for anything, such as hauling loads or guarding. They were hunting and fishing people, who relied upon the sea’s bounty, as well as the herds of caribou to feed them.  They were known for setting up elaborate deer fences, which they used to drive the caribou into a central arena where they could be easily dispatch with the use of bows and arrows.

Whitbourne’s mastiff dog eventually goes wandering in the wilderness. Today, if such a thing happened in wolf country, the dog would be at risk.

Whitbourne’s mastiff was greeted by the wolves, who then decided to play with the dog. In fact, the mastiff would disappear for days to play with its lupine brethren.

The Beothuk had no reason to hate the wolf. They were a hunting people, who may have seen the wolf as a comrade that kept the herds healthy. Very little was ever written about Beothuk mythology; most contemporary accounts claim that they had no religion, which is a very common (and probably inaccurate) statement by many early European colonizers. Because of this lack of a good account of their religious beliefs, we are left with no understanding of how the wolf fit into their cultural and religious worldview.

However, this is one of the best accounts of the relationship between a hunter-gatherer people and a population of wolves that had not suffered wide-spread persecution. There are accounts of the Beothuk trapping wolves for their fur, but whether this habit was part of their original culture or something they adapted to fit into the European market economy is a good question. In fact, because the Beothuk began to see the wolf pelt as something valuable to trade with the Europeans, it may have ultimately led to the break down of the relationship between hunter-gatherer man and wolf.

It is accounts of relationships like this one that possibly tell us what early man’s relationship with the wolf was like. Wolves were curious about people, and people were fascinated by wolves. The fact that they hunted the same prey forged an unusual relationship that lasted until man began to raise livestock. When that happened, all bets were off, and the wolves that could live with man and his stock became dogs. Those that could not became wolves, and man then decided to make the wolf become extinct. This push to near extinction put a selective pressure on all wolf populations that made them nearly impossible to domesticate and far more reactive than they once were. That is why virtually all wolves today are very difficult to keep in captivity, and why most experts very urge people not to keep wolves as if they were dogs.


On a somewhat unrelated note, here is a photo of Adolph Murie with his family and the pet wolf named Wags.

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Below is some excellent closeup footage of a wolf at Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Indiana.


You can see how much more massive his head is than any domestic dog. His muzzle is also much longer than you’d expect to see in most dogs.

And because he’s a captive wolf, his muzzle and head are not exactly the same as the wild wolf’s. A wild wolf has to use its jaws and head muscles to actually kill large game, and the muscle and bone interact in such a way to produce an even more robust head.

Now, here, I’m talking about the big wolves of the northern continents. These are big game hunting wolves.

The smaller wolves of a more southerly distribution have smaller heads.

I’ve always found it interesting that the feral dog literature always says that no population of domestic dog has ever reverted to the wolf phenotype or wolf. However, I think that part of the reason why this appears in the literature is that the researchers making that analysis compare feral dogs to the big game hunting wolves.

That’s a false comparison, for most feral dogs live either where the garbage eating is far easier than hunting (so much so that the local wolves compete with the dogs for garbage–as it is in Italy or Romania) or they live in an environment where the heat prevents the evolution of large body sizes (like Australia, where the most wolf-like of feral dogs lives.) If we humans would disappear, dogs would probably evolve back into their lupine form and probably combine with wolf and coyote population.

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Dogs have some inherited people reading skills that even habituated and socialized wolves never develop.

Dogs have some inherited people reading skills that even habituated and socialized wolves never develop.

The real important difference between wolves and dogs isn’t that nebulous term called intelligence. For my purposes, discussion about intelligence has relevance only when talking about my own species, and I am fully aware that talking about intelligence in humans is, well,  also nebulous. See Stephen Jay Gould’s Mismeasure of Man.

Until relatively recently, most ethologists talked about how much more intelligent wolves were than dogs. The famous experiment by Dr. Harry Frank of the University of Michigan used a malamute (which is inbred corruption of the original Artic sled dog), a malamute/wolf cross, and a pure wolf. The wolf learned to open the door by watching the researchers turning the knob. The wolf cross eventually also eventually opened it, and the dog never did.

We do know that wolves have proportionally larger brains than dogs, and that evidence coupled with the Frank experiment is supposed to tell us that wolves are far more intelligent than dogs.

I have had three golden retrievers that, when confronted with a door knob, also learned to open it. In fact, one golden learned it, and the other dog learned it solely from watching the other dog. My data flies in the face Dr. Frank’s research. Now, the only dogs I’ve had that figured out to open it are golden retrievers. So does that mean that golden retrievers are far more intelligent than Norwegian elkhounds?

No. And I wouldn’t make such a stupid argument. I remember one elkhound could open an unlatched gate using his muzzle. He was the only dog in the group to do that.

Wolves are capable of forming coordinated attacks on prey species. It is generally said that dogs are incapable of doing this. However, I don’t think that researchers have ever paid much attention to what happens when you release 50 foxhounds, and one of them decideds to chase a deer instead. The dogs suddenly become wolves. It just takes one dog to turn the how pack of fox chasers into deer-killers. They head off the deer and coordinate ambush attacks on the deer, and yes, they do bring them down. Feral packs of dogs that live where garbage is relatively scarce do form packs and hunt; however, almost no research is done on these dogs, simply because they don’t live long. In rural areas, free roaming packs of dogs are killed. In fact, they are a real hazard to society. In one of the local papers, I read a story about a pack of dogs, breed not given, that actually killed a full-sized donkey that was protecting her foal from them. Because these packs don’t last long in rural areas, they aren’t widely studied.

The truth is dogs and wolves are different, but those differences are a blend rather than a sharp cut off. There are wolfish dogs, and there are doggish wolves.

However, the most important difference between the two animals is this.

Dogs might have smaller brains than wolves. If wolves were computers, they have bigger hard drives. However, dogs have a program for reading people. It’s just like with a computer. If you want to use a word processor on a machine with high storage hard drive and there isn’t one installed, it doesn’t matter how much you work with it, you won’t be able to type anything on that machine.

We have circus lions and tigers. They responde relatively well to associative learning. We don’t have circus wolves.

And that’s because wolves have a very hard time learning from us. It may have something to do with the centuries of persecution from our species. I don’t know.

Dogs, however, have a very easy time learning behaviors from us. They are not only neotenized. They are also humanized.

And that’s the important difference.

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