How Has Dog Behavior Evolved From Wolves?

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

What Do Wolves and Dogs Have in Common?

Wolves and dogs appear to share many similarities—so much that many dog breeds look like wolves. This should not come as a surprise since these animals share the exact same chromosomes (78 to be be exact, arranged in 39 pairs) and can interbreed freely without any particular problems. Years ago, the dog was classified as ''canis familiaris'' by Carolus Linnaeus in 1758, however better studies now reveal that dogs are actually a subspecies of the wolf ''Canis lupus''. As a result, the Smithsonian Institute and American Society of Mammologists reclassified the dog as ''Canis lupus familiaris'' in 1993.

So, why do dogs not look like wolves? Other than a few dog breeds that look like wolves, dogs and wolves generally appear quite different—to an extent that telling them apart is fairly easy. Very evident differences between dogs and wolves are that wolves have different coat colors, large heads, long legs, and narrow chests. Less evident differences include the wolf's more potent jaws and larger teeth. Also, female wolves only come into heat once a year (in the spring) which allows for higher chances of offspring survival. Compared to dogs, wolves also give life to smaller litters—generally ranging between two and six pups—while dogs are known to produce significantly larger litters.

The fact that wolves and dogs share the same number of chromosomes and have several physical similarities, has led to the assumption that wolves and dogs must necessarily also share some common behaviors. As much as this may make sense, there are several considerations to keep in mind.

How Have Dogs Evolved From Wolves?

In order to understand how dog behavior has evolved from wolves, one must take a leap back into history. It is estimated that dogs were domesticated and separated from wolves about 14,000 or 15,000 years ago. There are various assumptions about how this exactly happened, and scientists cannot seem come to an agreement. However, what stands out clearly is the fact that humans have played an integral role in the domestication of dogs. Following are some ''assumptions'':

1. The Orphaned Wolf Cub Theory

Some believe it all started when humans adopted orphaned wolf pups and tamed them to be part of the family. This theory may make sense if one takes a look at how foxes changed both behaviorally and physically in Dmitri's Belyaev Farm Fox experiment conducted in the late 1950s.

2. The Promise of Food Theory

Dr. Raymond Coppinger of Hampshire College, on the other hand, argues that wolves—as scavengers—may have been attracted to trash and food leftovers left at human campsites. The animals with less ''flight instinct'' were the ones more fit to become tame, and after reproducing generation after generation, they went from wolf-like to becoming the first ancestors of the dog (proto-dogs).

The Wolf Ancestor and the Evolution of Canine Behaviour

Living side by side with humans for such a long time has caused dog behavior to evolve from their ancestors. It would therefore be inaccurate to portray dog and wolf behavior as similar. Even when wolves are raised alongside humans, they grow up to be very different than dogs in various ways. It is very evident that domestication of dogs was accompanied by some significant genetic changes, both in behavior and physical appearance.

Since dogs depended on humans for many years, it was imperative for them to develop more sophisticated social skills and genetic advantages. Behavioral differences have therefore morphed as a result of living side by side with humans.

Do Wolves Bark?

Yes, though significantly less than dogs. While wolves generally bark as a "warning signal" for their pack, dogs bark much for often and for various reasons. This can be because some breeds were selectively bred for their barking abilities, but also because dogs have learned to use their barking to communicate a variety of emotions to humans. Dogs may bark to play, out of fear and aggression, or for simply getting attention.

There have been cases where humans have compared dog behavior with wolf behavior and have attempted to utilize behaviors seen among wolves in captivity with dogs. The use of such outdated training methods involving ''alpha rolls'' were based on studies of wolves in captivity. The main school of thought at that time was that wolf packs were led by an alpha wolf that forcefully asserted its dominance over the submissive rest of the pack.

Thankfully, more recent studies conducted on wolves in the wild revealed that wolf packs were actually led by benevolent leaders. These pack leaders were basically the male and female ''alpha pair' that had reproductive rights and raised offspring. The studies conducted by David Mech on Ellesmere island helped debunk the ''alpha dog'' myth once and for all. This link goes over some quite interesting findings by David Mech: David Mech's Theory on the Alpha Role

In the end, dogs are still not wolves, despite their many similarities. We ultimately cannot disregard the fact that even though the same chromosomes are shared, dogs and wolves at one point in history split from one another taking different paths. As Ian Dunbar explains it goes a long way ''Trying to train dogs by studying wolf behavior is like learning how to raise a child by watching chimps''. To put it simply, dogs are dogs and wolves are wolves! They may share similarities but also differ tremendously in many aspects.

Further Reading

  • Dog Behavior: How to Stop a Dog From Barking at Men ...
    Learn how to help your fearful dog cope with men coming into your home. Understand effective techniques to change your dog's emotional state and perception about men.
  • Dog Behavior: How to Tell if as Dog is Marking or Ur...
    Is my dog marking or urinating? Why is my dog urinating in my home? Learn to recognize potential differences between physiological urination and marking with a purpose.
  • Differences and Similarities Between Dogs and Wolves
    wolves and dog similarities, jak, Dog and wolf: two different species but yet, so much in common. Dogs were originally classified as ''Canis familiaris '' by Linnaeus in 1758. However, later in 1993, dogs were reclassified as a...

© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 19, 2015:

Haha, that dog is my Rottweiler walking at dusk. His eyes came that way with my camera's flash.

S4mmyW on December 08, 2015:

Not gonna lie that picture at the top of the page gave me a heart attack. But this is really useful information and just what I was looking for to help me with my assignment.

David Cook from Suburban Philadelphia on January 29, 2012:

I agree with alexadry, we have created some interesting, and some frightening breeds. We need to stop messing with nature.

Diana L Pierce from Potter County, Pa. on January 29, 2012:

Good information. Voted up.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 29, 2012:

Yes, and with all that selective breeding unfortunately came along problems such as those encountered in brachycephalic breeds, dogs with long back, skin folds etc...

Cardozo7 from Portugal on January 29, 2012:

Good hub indeed. The truth is that dogs developed as humans wanted. Humans crossed breeds in order to produce dogs with some specific characteristics like size, hunting skills, etc.. while wolves maintained their "natural" characteristics.

Larry Fields from Northern California on January 29, 2012:

Wow! Great hub. Voted up and more.

There's an interesting commonality between dogs that I've observed and wolves that I've seen in documentaries. It's a bit of body language. Two canids are facing each other, in a non-threatening way. One dog will suddenly jerk her head to one side. In Dogspeak, it means, "Chase me!"


The following is as stated above a brief outline of the evolution and domestication of the dog (canis familiaris) for it is without doubt a huge subject but I think a basic understanding can help the prospective owner appreciate a bit more about the ways of the dog.

There is now indisputable proof that the dog did indeed evolve from the wolf (canis lupus), the main proof being the study of mitochondrial DNA sequences of 140 dogs,162 wolves, coyotes and jackals (Wayne et al 1997 UCLA). This study traced the female gene path establishing the dog shares a common pool of genetic diversity with the wolf.

Debates still rage about when and where the domestication of the wolf actually took place. More recent studies by Robert Wayne et Al, carried out in 2004 at UCLA, looked at the mutation of genes in the domestic dog and came to the conclusion that for the amount of mutations that were showing a time span more like 100,000 yrs would be required for these mutations to manifest. Bones of wolves (not dogs) have been found in association with human remains as early as 400,000yrs Bp in Boxgrove, Kent, England (S.Parfitt) and 300,000yrs Bp in Zhoukoudian, North China (Olsen 1985).

Bones of dogs showing clear morphological (physical) differences between them and wolves have been found in the timespan of 10-14,000yrs ago suggesting that we didn't actually start to affect the morphology of the domesticated wolf until about the same time that we started to settle down in permanent settlements, abandoning the hunter gatherer existence. This new sedentary lifestyle would have enabled humans to impose more selective breeding on the wolfdog and given them a new ecological niche. This thinking is born out in the lack of dog skeletal artefacts (clearly morphologically different from wolves) before 14000yrs Bp (Vila et Al 1997).

Why would wolves come to man: Possibly the more docile of them found an easy source of food from our early dumps and habituated themselves to us to allow access to it, they learnt that tame and friendly was good for them, and a new ecological niche evolved. Possibly man had family, crops and animals to protect and thought a wolf could be trained for such and went and took a pup from the wild, domesticating it with this in mind. Possibly man and wolf competed at kills for food and they gradually accepted us. Like us wolves are highly social animals and as such this lends them to our way of life and domestication.

The scenarios for the above are many and most probably a mix of all happened in different places throughout the world at different times. After domestication started man would have selectively breed for things of importance to them at the time traits or behaviours like guarding and hunting, breeding from the dogs that showed the best attributes in these areas. This was the start of controlled breeding and this has been going on for at least 10000 yrs and is still going on today only now with much more genetic control.

Although the dog is indeed evolved from the wolf some are now at a huge morphological distance from the wolf. The last 150 years has seen the greatest change in the morphology of the dog due to the genetic control of breeders and this has given rise to dogs with a vast array of shapes, sizes and colours. There are some conflicting ideas out there about evolution and domestication of the dog but for sure they have been around for many thousands of years and are here to stay and I hope to make it a better experience for some.

Many breeds will have inherited traits and behaviours, born out of centuries of selective breeding, and this can help us have an idea of what to expect with some particular breeds. I must add that all dogs are born with some certain inherited genetic traits or behaviours but how these eventually manifest themselves in the adult dog are profoundly influenced by the environment and early learning that each individual dog goes through which in the first weeks is controlled by the breeder and for the rest of the dogs life by you, the owner.

Where you actually get your new dog from, and how they (the breeder/owner) and you yourself bring your dog up WILL have a major influence on the sort of four legged friend you finally end up with.

Imagine how much selective breeding and genetic control has taken place to get from a wolf to the modern Pekinese, in particular the huge difference in size and skull structure, the small head and large eyes a perfect child substitute and often small dogs are acquired (sometimes sub-consciously) for such reasons.

Western society is more and more looking for the perfect lap dog or the latest craze like super small breeds but sadly it is the dogs who suffer for many end up with unwanted side effects due to the continual selective breeding for specific things, like size. Problems like the skull not being big enough for the brain causing much pain (Cavalier king Charles spaniel for instance), breathing problems (British bulldog for instance), joint problems (German shepard for instance), temperament problems (Japanese akita for instance) and behaviour problems (the Staffordshire bull terrier for instance).

I would also like to add here that the above paragraph is a generalisation and that there are obviously many good dogs out there of the above breeds but would like to make perspective owners aware of some of the facts beforehand.

Temperament and behaviour problems caused by the dogs early learning in life can be hard to correct (often only improved not cured), or better still with a good start, not happen in the first place. Problems due to later learning in life have a better outlook, but temperament and behaviour problems that are genetically inherited and being expressed (I will cover this later) are the ones to be most guarded about.

A dog is a great gift to have in your life and I want to help people make the right choices. I know the bond that develops between man and dog and would like to throw all the light I can on this to help people and the dog have a great life together.

Has My Dog's Biology Evolved?

While it’s scientifically true that dogs have evolved from wolves, things have changed over the last 30,000 years or so. Like you, pets have evolved over time — and as science-based research into animal biology now shows us, so have their digestive biology.

In fact, it’s in part due to dogs’ relationship with humans that their biology have changed. During domestication, dogs’ genetic make-up changed from their wolf ancestors, allowing them to thrive on a variety of balanced foods including whole grains and other carb-rich ingredients.

It’s impossible to measure a dog’s instinctive desire for meat, but when given the choice, research shows pets choose higher fat foods, not higher protein.

While it can seem easy to digest the idea that your pet should eat like a wolf, this dietary approach can cause complications:

  • Dogs can have too much protein
  • Raw pet foods can put both your pets and you at risk for foodborne illness
  • Many meat ingredients contain excess of minerals and are unhealthy in high amounts

At Hill’s, we believe having a full understanding of nutrition is important. That’s why we aren’t fooled by dogs’ sharp teeth or family connection to wolves — our nutritionists and food scientists work hard to understand what dogs can digest, as well as what they should digest for optimal nutrition.

So, what can you do to make sure your dog is getting fed what they need for their optimal nutrition?

  • Look for balanced, reputable pet foods that consider their current needs
  • Look for high quality protein sources that are easy to digest

How Did Dogs Get to Be Dogs?

The origin of man's best friend has been a source of wonder and heated debate for centuries.

Even Charles Darwin was unsure whether the dog's true ancestry could be determined, because dog breeds vary so greatly. In fact, the domestic dog is far more variable in size, shape and behavior than any other living mammal, according to James Serpell, professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and editor of "The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behaviour, and Interactions With People" (Cambridge University Press, 1995).

There are many theories on how dogs evolved as a species, including the view that they are mixed descendants of two or more wild species, such as wolves, dingoes and jackals. But newer evidence hasn't supported that theory.

"Nowadays, based on a growing body of anatomical, genetic, and behavioral evidence, most experts believe that the dog originated exclusively from a single species: the gray wolf, Canis lupus," Serpell told Life's Little Mysteries.

The similarities between wolves and dogs are great. In the 1960s, ethologist John Paul Scott tried to untangle the behaviors of these two species, and created a catalog of 90 behaviors of dogs. All but 19 of them, however, were also observed in wolves, and the missing behaviors tended to be minor activities that probably had not been recorded at the time but do occur in wolves, Serpell said.

"Recent anatomical and molecular evidence has confirmed that wolves, dogs and dingoes are all more closely related to each other than they are to any other member of the family Canidae," Serpell said.

The oldest skeletal remains of probable domestic wolf-dogs were excavated from the Upper Paleolithic site of Eliseyevichi in western Russia, close to the Ukrainian border, and date as far back as 19,000 years. Two skulls resembled those of Siberian huskies in their general shape, according to Serpell.

Loyal companions

Bones of ancient domestic wolf-dogs also have been found in central Europe, the Near East and North America, where they appear to have been deliberately buried with their human companions or in separate graves.

The 14,000-year-old remains of a puppy and an elderly person were found buried together in Israel, Serpell said. The person's left hand was apparently positioned so that it rested on the dog's flank, which shows that the relationship between man and dog is one of the oldest and most durable of friendships, he said.

So what allows for dogs to get along with humans so well?

"Several biological and behavioral factors predisposed dogs to fit easily within human groups," said Leslie Irvine of the University of Colorado at Boulder. "They have a long primary socialization period during which they can become closely bonded with humans."

Dogs are active during the same hours as their owners, as opposed to nocturnal animals, said Irvine, author of "If You Tame Me: Understanding Our Connection With Animals" (Temple University Press, 2004). Their loyal and obedient behavior allows them to be house-trained and to be taught to behave in return for little more than a treat and a pat on the head.

In fact, a domestic dog considers its owner or owners to be its "pack," and the owners' home to be its territory, according to "Simon & Schuster's Guide to Dogs" (Fireside, 1980).

"If a reciprocal understanding and affection have grown up between man and dog, it is because the domestication of the dog took place through an agreement on work and the division of food and lodging," according to "Simon & Schuster's Guide to Dogs." "This resulted in an affectionate and intelligent cooperation and the integration of the dog into human society."

This article was provided by LifesLittleMysteries, a sister site to LiveScience.

Ancient wolves that played with humans likely evolved into today's friendly dogs

Tens of thousands of years ago, our ancestors sought out wild canines with a frisky streak that lives on in modern dogs—particularly herding and hunting breeds.

Most pups love to play, whether it’s chasing balls, engaging in a game of tug-of-war, or tearing that squeaky toy to smithereens. For humans, playing with a dog usually lifts our spirits in fact, science shows that dog owners laugh more often than cat owners.

So it’s no surprise that dogs’ willingness to play with us may have been a key factor in their domestication, and may have guided our subsequent efforts to breed canines for specific functions, according to a new study published today in the journal Biology Letters.

While researchers continue to debate when, where, and how dogs were first domesticated, most agree that a wolf ancestor likely initiated the first contact with humans.

This as-yet-unidentified species of wolf likely began to hang around human settlements in Germany or Siberia between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago, snagging garbage and leftovers. The less-fearful individuals in the pack likely lost their wolfish demeanors, such as skittishness and shyness, and evolved over time into the happy, friendly, and loyal domestic dogs that warm our hearts and hearths.

In the new study, the scientists investigated if more curious and fun-loving wolves carried these traits into the new species of domestic dog, and if people intentionally bred dogs with those characteristics. Previous research, for instance, has found that some wolf puppies know intrinsically how to play ball with people.

“A dog’s willingness to play with us likely has been important to us throughout dog domestication,” says study leader Niclas Kolm, an evolutionary biologist at Stockholm University in Sweden. (Read how dogs are even more like us than we thought.)

Indeed, after analyzing the evolutionary relationships between modern dog breeds, the team found their most common ancestor, an animal akin to a present-day basenji (a type of African herding dog), would have played with people—albeit it with some encouragement.

They also found that herding dogs, such as Hungarian vizslas and Australian shepherds, were, “by far, the most playful,” engaging quickly and actively in games, Kolm says.

“It makes practical sense: If a dog is interested in playing with you, it’s much easier to train as well,” he says, adding that herding dogs need to have strong bonds with their owners to be effective, and that frequent play can strengthen such relationships.

Dogs Still Evolving

For the new study, Von Holdt conducted additional genetic analysis of the part of the genome surrounding the altered WBSCR17 gene in a larger sample of dogs and wolves.

Besides confirming her initial findings that WBSCR17 varied in dogs and wolves, she found two nearby genes, GTF2I and GTF2IRD1, were also different.

The combination of the genetic and behavioral data told von Holdt that changes to this region of the genome helped turn wolves into human-loving dogs. (See "Ancient Dog Skull Shows Early Pet Domestication.")

The University of Pennsylvania's Overall cautions that the study size was small, which limits the strength of the findings. But she praised the strength of the genetic analysis.

We’re now selecting for dogs that are easy keepers, that can spend long periods of time in small apartments," Overall notes. (See dog-evolution pictures.)

“We’re actively changing dog behavior every single year."

Watch the video: Abandoned toddler rescued and raised by feral dogs. 60 Minutes Australia (September 2021).