Monday, September 14, 2009
By Linda Cole
Through responsible breeding and centuries of domestication, dogs are certainly man's best friend. But how much of their ancestral instincts have dogs maintained even with continued breeding that has calmed ancient instincts? I sometimes wonder as my dogs lay sleeping if there is a quiet and secret wolf at my side. Are wolves and dogs close relatives?
Scientists have discovered that the DNA of wolves and dogs are identical. They share certain traits as well as a knowledge of pack hierarchy which provides each animal with a place in the pack along with protection and defense of the pack and their territory. Although scientists are uncertain whether man domesticated the dog or they tamed themselves, we do have evidence that dogs have been living with humans for centuries. What is known is that dogs have an instinctive knowledge of their wild counterpart, the wolf.
Wolves and dogs belong to the same family, Canidae, and come from the same species, Canis lupus. All dogs from the tiniest Chihuahua to the massive English Mastiff are related to wolves. Although most dogs look nothing like their wild ancestors, they do share a few qualities that have not been completely lost through responsible breeding.
Like wolves, dogs are loyal, protective of their pack and home, and they want to be near their pack leader. Both dogs and wolves are social animals who want to please the one in charge. But that is where similarities end. Shy and recluse, a wolf's instincts tell him to avoid humans. They would not make a good or safe pet, especially if children are involved. Wolf sightings are rare in the wild and if you are ever blessed with an encounter, you will be among a privileged group.
A pack of wild dogs, on the other hand, are more dangerous than a wolf pack as far as humans are concerned. Wolves prefer the secluded safety of the forests, but wild dogs have no fear of man and are more likely to invade our space as they search for food. Where a wolf pack is stable and more predictable, the wild dogs roaming in packs usually have no clear leader and can be erratic in temperament and reaction to situations they encounter -- including encounters with people.
I've always admired the resilience of wolves, their intensity and intellect to function together as one for the common good of the pack. However, a wolf is not a pet and belongs in the shadow of the mountains and forests. My dogs are pets and in reality, no longer share much of their ancient past. Breeding has removed most wolf tendencies and my sweet dogs have the ability to protect those who make up their pack and give us their loyalty and trust, but have very little in common with today's wolf.
Wolves also differ from dogs in that our pets would not be successful on a hunt. They have lost the concept of working together for the take down. Like wolves, dogs are scavengers if necessity dictates, but most dogs would have a difficult time trying to survive on their own. A dog is described by some animal behaviorists as being similar to an adolescent wolf because our dogs exhibit the same maturity as a young wolf by playing and licking our faces.
In the long run, it doesn't really matter. Even though wolves and dogs belong to the same family, the few traits dogs have retained from their early ancestor is what makes dogs unique in their own right. As I watch my dogs sleeping at my feet with one beside me resting her head on my leg, I know they share the DNA of a wolf, but if there is a wolf hiding inside, they aren't aware of it, and only their dreams hold secrets to an ancestor they no longer know.
Read more articles by Linda Cole