You don’t need to bring a wolf into your house to know they’re a bit different from dogs. Sure, the two species share a common ancestor, and yeah, okay, they share a genetic connection, too. Heck, many dogs even look strikingly similar to modern-day wolves! Still, no one’s checking out the Westminster wolf show.
But experts recently conducted a study in which they observed the behaviors of wolves raised by humans — you know, the norm for their dog counterparts. While the results confirmed wolves and dogs are indeed very different, other evidence suggested their similarities might be even more important than we realize.
One study, conducted from DNA found in Siberia, suggests that there are at least 27,000 years between the modern dog and wolf. Despite similarities in their appearance, it’s clear that, at some point, the evolutionary paths of both animals diverged.
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While dogs still have wolf-like instincts, it wasn’t known until recently how dog-like wolves really are. Wolves actively fear humans, so they avoid territory occupied by them. They’re also far more independent than domestic dogs despite their pack-like mentality.
For example, when wolf packs go hunting, the pups are often left alone to learn to take care of themselves. Of course, meat is brought back for the pups to eat which helps strengthen the bond and trust of the pack dynamic.
Dorottya Ujfalussy, from Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, was more interested in the similarities between the two animals, though. For example, both wolves and dogs like to greet each other by licking the other’s faces.
Similarly, both dogs and wolves can understand certain human gestures, like pointing fingers, for example. This kind of communication is something that the highly intelligent chimp actually struggles to understand!
Don Johnston / All Canada Photos / Corbis
Ujfalussy conduced a study that analyzed the characteristics exhibited in wolves that were raised by humans caregivers. Ten grey wolves pups participated, seven females and three males, all of which were raised by humans and lived in captive packs.
The pups started the program when they were only 4-6 days old and were assigned to a foster parent. They spent 22-24 hours a day in close contact with their caregiver and were socialized in a domestic way.
Dorottya Júlia Ujfalussy
For the first four-to-six weeks, the pups were carried in pouches. Later, they were leash trained so they could be exposed to domestic social situations, like encountering human strangers, novel objects, and urban settings. They were also socialized with their litter mates several times per week.
After about one year of care, the wolves were assimilated back into a wolf pack environment. All the while, scientists made some remarkable observations and concluded there was one common dog-like trait observed in all their wolves.
The common trait? Wolves who associated nurture with a human exhibited a unique attachment to their specific caregiver. There was an evident level of trust and companionship prominent between the pair.
Royal Society Open Science published this research in 2017, which concluded that not only did wolves express a connection to their human caregiver, but these feelings lasted through adulthood, even if they still retained an inherent sense of fear toward humans.
Such observations led researchers to believe the common ancestor of dogs and wolves may have actually been open to human companionship, leading to the evolution of the friendlier, cuddlier ancestor — the dog that we all know and love.
Upon further observation of the behavior between wolf and human, it was noted that when socializing, wolves approached a human similarly to the way they would approach a member of their pack. This would include contact seeking and submissive behavior.
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Wolves approached their human caregiver with lowered-body posture with lowered ears and low wagging tail. They would also display face-to-face oriented licking, jumping, and pawing, usually followed by a leaning or rubbing/nudging motion on the human.
Kathryn Lord of University of Massachusetts Medical School stated, “this result is exciting, not because wolves are more social than we thought, but because it is a step in uncovering the complexities of the differences between dogs and wolves in how they interact with humans.”
Learning the key differences between wolves and dogs can only help us further understand the ancestral lineage and evolutionary divergence that has lead to the wolf and dog species we know today.
Like any thorough scientific study, there were a number of other observations and conclusions made. Perhaps the most important one, though, was that as much as wolves have the capacity to connect with humans, they are not domesticated animals.
They are still wild by nature, and they still are an entirely different species than dogs, even if raised by humans. This means that people should not try and domesticate wild wolves or wolf pups!
“The problem starts when people disregard the advice of professionals and mistake wolves for dogs, keeping them as pets,” Ujfalussy said. “This is a serious welfare issue for wolves, as 99 percent of those animals will eventually be given up and usually euthanized.”
This is especially true when wolves are taken out of their natural habitats to live with humans. Moreover, studies prove that dogs are truly happier around us — humans reduce stress in dogs. Yet, that’s not the case with wild wolves.
Mike Baird / Flickr
“While dogs may be more attached to their human caretaker in the sense of dependence and,” Ujfalussy said about their study, “wolves are also able to form lasting affiliative relationships with their caretakers, though without a sense of dependence.”
Finally, Ujfalussy noted: “Wolves are wild animals, more independent, hard to control, hard to manage, [with] conditions [that] are impossible to provide in the human home, so tame wolves kept as pets are a real danger to their environment and to themselves.”
Tambako the Jaguar / Flickr