By Gaby Dufresne-Cyr, CBT
Many people like to compare dogs (Canis Familiaris) to wolves (Canis Lupus) when training or managing behaviours. Unfortunately, not too many people actually know what normal wolf behaviour is thereby creating more problems than solutions. One must remember, throughout this article, that behaviour is greatly influenced by temperament and environmental factors. Such variables can influence behaviours to extremes. Throughout this article, behaviours will only be referred to in terms of their normality.
First, we must look at evolution. Although most scientists believe dogs evolved from wolves, not everyone agrees with the theory of how that happened. New evidence strongly suggests less fearful wolves started to exploit a new ecological niche approximately 15, 000 years ago. This new niche, the human garbage dump, served as an exploitable source of food which could support individual subjects. Since hunting quickly became an outdated practice, large packs would constantly fight. As a result, packs started to disperse.
From that time on, man exploited these new fearless wolves, slowly transforming them into domesticated animals. Over a few generations, these hybrids changed both physically and behaviourally. Physically, they started to have two separate estrous periods, flopped ears, various coat colours, bigger bodies, and smaller brains. Behaviourally, the changes were remarkable: barking, scavenging, lower aggression, and human social bonding became standard behaviours for these docgas (1).
Everyone knows canines maintain social relationships through a dominance-submission hierarchy. Strangely enough, few people know it is influenced by environmental conditions and therefore changes accordingly. In wolves, dominance is somewhat flexible throughout most of the year but is strongly reinforced during the breeding season. Dogs exhibit approximately the same level of dominance throughout the year with no emphasis during breeding periods. This is due to the absence of a fixed estrous period in female dogs.
Available food resources influence behaviour. Although wolves will argue over food throughout the year, when periods of scarcity occur, they will actually fight for it. Resource guarding will reach a critical threshold; dominance might shift during this period, survival being the motivating factor. Dogs that exhibit resource guarding usually do so no matter what the situation. An abundant food source does not reduce the aggressive behaviour; having more to protect might actually increase it.
Eye contact is a major behavioural difference between wolves and dogs. In a study conducted by Kubinyi, Virnáyi and Miklósi (2007), researchers found that wolves do not establish prolonged eye contact with their caregivers (2) in order to obtain valuable problem-solving information. Most caregivers know dogs regularly, not to say constantly, solicit eye contact with humans in order to acquire valuable information. Those who work with wolves know they are accomplished escape artists, fleeing at any given moment. Dogs, on the other hand, respect imaginary boundaries set by their caregivers. The flight distance (3) is another good example of behavioural differences. Wolves will run away from humans at a distance of ¼ mile (0.6 kilometres), while dogs will run to them at any given distance.
Thanks to Wolf Park’s ethogram, we now know what constitutes normal wolf (Canis Lupus) behaviour. Unfortunately, no extended research has been conducted regarding normal dog behaviour. As a consequence, it is difficult to say which behaviours constitute the dog’s (Canis Familiaris) ethogram. One can only theorize that dogs, having evolved from wolves, share similar behaviours, all the while exhibiting emphasis in different areas. I like to compare them by saying wolves are highly evolved social predators constantly seeking vulnerabilities, while dogs are highly modified opportunistic predators constantly discovering vulnerabilities. Environmental factors, genetic and epigenetic traits control their abilities, thus influencing the consequences of their behaviours.
Many dog caregivers treat Fido as if he were a wolf. This misunderstanding usually leads to disastrous results such as aggression, anxiety, or fear. The seriousness of these behaviour problems often results in the death of the animal. One can see why prevention is of the utmost importance, especially for dogs. Through proper education we can not only reduce behavioural problems, we can prevent them.
(1) O.E. powerful breed of canine.
(2) Trainer, owner and/or healthcare professionals.
(3) The distance an animal reacts to a stimulus.