Posts Tagged ‘wolf as a hunting dog’

In all the different accounts of people using wolves to do the tasks that are normally reserved for dogs, I had not come across anyone using a wolf as a gun dog. Audubon met a hunter in Kentucky who used a wolf to trail deer, and a French hunting hound pack included a wolf as a member.

There is also the story of Big Jim, one of the wolves raised to be released upon Isle Royale that happened to bond very strongly with a retrieving water spaniel. He learned to retrieve ducks from her, but I don’t know if he was ever of any use as a hunting dog.

But there actually was a wolf that proved to be an excellent retriever and gun dog.  He was actually a multipurpose gun dog, for in addition to being a great retriever of grouse and ducks, he also would bring down deer that had been wounded by the hunter’s bullets. He would sometimes kill  the deer, and then he would allow the hunter to collect his venison.

The story of this wolf comes from Blackfeet and Buffalo: Memories of Life Among the Indians by James Willard Schultz, also known as  Apikuni. Schultz grew up in the Adirondacks, where he learned woodcraft and hunting methods from the local mountain men, but as a young man in the  late 1870’s and early 1880’s, he moved into the Montana Territory, where he worked as a trader with various Indian tribes– most notably the Pikuni or Piegan. The Pikuni are nation within the Blackfoot Nation, and they are the only members of the Blackfeet to live in the United States. Schultz would chronicle much of their culture and daily life, selling accounts of his experiences to Forest and Stream. He would also become associated with the region that eventually became Glacier National Park, where he became well-known as an outfitter.

The story of his hunting wolf is rather simple. It begins with Schultz taking a wolf pup from a den, and he then trains it just like anyone would train a gun dog.

This wolf clearly was not a Native American dog, for the author makes it very clear that most Native American dogs, which probably were never encouraged to do much playing, didn’t want to play with him. The author makes a clear distinction between the two.

Further, it suggests that the wolves that became dogs could have participated in hunts with hunter-gatherers. If one reads the part where Schultz’s wolf was of great utility in bringing down wounded carefully, one could see how such a wolf could have been used even by people using more primitive weapons.

There is a general tendency in the popular conception of dog domestication generally tends to deny this possibility.

It’s stories of wolves like this one and the one that Audubon saw accompanying the Kentucky deer hunter that lead me to consider this possibility.

It’s also of note that this particular wolf fits almost exactly what  Raymond Coppinger derisively calls the “Pinocchio Hypothesis.”  Coppinger contends that no one ever tamed a wolf pup that has reached the weaning stage, so it must be impossible that hunter-gatherer man ever collected wolf pups and tamed them in this fashion. Hunter-gatherers just didn’t have puppy milk replacer, and they simply wouldn’t have been able to raise tamed wolves at all. Thus, dogs had to have come from wolves that self-domesticated through evolving to fit the niche as scavengers in human settlements.

Schultz was able to take an already weaned wolf pup– and not only was he able to tame it, he was able to use it as a hunting dog. This pup was eating bison meat, not suckling from bottles filled with Esbilac.

One should note that nowhere in Coppinger’s book is their any consideration for good historical records of wolves that were very useful as working dogs. These records are ignored or are not considered at all. It is almost as if they don’t exist.

Not only was this wolf working very nicely as a hunting dog. It was retrieving. Retrieving in the Coppinger model is an inherited predatory motor pattern. This inherited motor pattern is a truncation of normal predatory behavior, and dogs that inherit it are unable to engage the full predatory sequence. A dog that retrieves can’t  kill, dissect, or consume. It can only grab something and carry it back– and it exists within specialized breeds. One certainly wouldn’t find a wolf that did it, and if one did, that wolf would be unable to kill anything. Of course, this wolf not only retrieved shot birds, he actually killed wounded deer.

Modern wolves may no longer possess this aptitude. Decades of persecution have certainly changed wolf behavior. They are now much more emotionally reactive than the ones that lived on the Great Plains during the nineteenth century.  Most Native Americans were not wolf persecutors in the same way that Europeans were, and accounts of wolves in that region generally discussed how docile and curious they were.  Meriwether Lewis described the wolves he encountered during the Corps of Discovery Expedition (1804-1806) as being “extreemly gentle” and that Captain Clark had managed to walk up to a wolf and kill it with his espontoon.

Decades of persecution removed the curious and docile wolves from the population, leaving behind only those that are too emotionally reactive to handle to produce the next generation. Making comparisons with dogs and trying to generalize how domestication could have happened using these wolves is a major methodological error.

It is likely that the wolves of the Old World were much like these wolves. They had to have been very easy for Paleolithic hunter-gatherers to interact with. A wolf like “Big Mouth” would have been almost impossible not to domesticate.

The other factor that drives much of the conversation on wolf versus dog behavior is that there has always been an assumption that wolves must be handled roughly to get them to behave.

Did you read in Schultz’s account any place where he used lots of domination and confrontation to train his wolf?

He didn’t.

But modern wolf experts will write out all of these domination exercises that people must use to keep them under control.  A few months ago, I saw an Animal Planet program in which a wolf expert claimed that the reason why a woman’s captive wolf and wolf hybrid pack killed her is because she didn’t bite them. With animals that are already really emotionally reactive, such methods might exacerbate some of the aggressive behaviors that wolves might be exhibiting in already stressful captive situations.

Making comparisons with modern wolves in these high stress captive situations and domestic dogs and then trying to promulgate a domestication theory from these comparisons is really methodologically stupid.

All we really have are these historical accounts, and from them, we might be able to glean some idea of how domestication might have happened.

We know from modern examples that scavenging is not domestication.

Wolves in the Middle East and Italy have been scavenging off people for a very long time, but no one has seen them develop floppy ears or a curled tail or start barking or herding or pointing.

The idea that scavenging alone was the main force behind dog domestication is really quite dubious. Lots of animals have scavenged off us– everything from spotted hyenas to raccoons to marabou storks.  Black-backed and side-striped jackals have been scavenging off people ever since people learned how to hunt successfully. And they haven’t become dogs either. They also have contributed nothing to the domestic dog gene pool,  simply because they are not chemically interfertile with dogs, wolves, coyotes, golden jackals, or Ethiopian wolves. Scavenging alone will not make an animal evolve into domestication.

I think in the end that the real reason why people have issues with these notions is quite simple. Deep down, people are uncomfortable with knowing that dogs are wolves. They are wolves that experienced different selection pressures, but the two animals have not speciated. There are dog-like wolves and wolf-like dogs, and the two populations have exchanged genes and have continued to exchange genes. Wolf people tend to think of dogs as debased wolves, while dog people like dogs to be different so we don’t have to have a discussion about dominance hierarchies. Never mind that the dominance model that has been used to understand both wolves and dogs has largely been falsified through new scholarship. When one says dogs are wolves, one is not also saying Cesar Millan is a genius. Of course I’m not. But I’m not going to deny what dogs are in terms of their phylogeny, just because of the failed dominance model.

I think that much of what we think about wolves and dogs has unfortunately become too reductionist. I’m not saying that the typical family should be keeping a pet wolf, and I do recognize that there are tendencies in which wolves– in general– do differ from domestic dogs. The unfortunate aspect of this reductionist line of thinking is that has created a dichotomy in which dogs are dogs and wolves are wolves– and it has always been so. The truth is that dogs are derived from wolves that were very easy to domesticate. The nervous and emotionally reactive wolves we have today are not that easy to domesticate at all, but assume that they have always been this way I think is very faulty.

This model makes sense only if we ignore many examples of wolves that succeeded as working dogs in the past. Such a model does create contours, which easily fill out into a meme.  But meme like this one can be as blinding as it might be helpful, and this one is no longer of any use. It makes excellent fodder for documentaries, but the simple reality is that dog domestication is much too complex a subject to be reduced to such broad contours and generalizations.

Schultz was able to do something that many experts today would say is impossible.

He took a weaned wolf from a den, and he trained it to be an excellent hunting dog.

None of those things can happen, if we are to believe the popular literature on dogs and wolves.

But they did.

Simple as that.


Many years later, Schultz would train a coyote to be a retriever and turkey flusher, but because dogs and wolves are the same species, I felt that it was more appropriate to discuss the dog and wolf dynamic in this post. I will have a separate post for Smokey, Schultz’s duck retrieving coyote.


Many of these issues are discussed in Mark Derr’s How the Dog Became the Dog, which will be out this month.

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