Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Dog is Not a Wolf

When did humans and dogs first hook up?

Does it matter?

Not to me, but it's a source of infinite debate among some.

For those that like "first movement" stories, scientists now say that monkeys and wolves have developed a symbiotic hunting relationship in parts of Ethiopia, where wolves have learned to leave troops of Gelada monkeys alone in order to concentrate on rats and other rodents the babboons stir up and flush.

Aha, some some will say; humans and wolves have been cooperative animals since the beginning.

But, of course, a baboon is not a human any more than a wolf is a dog.

A dog is not a wolf?  

No, it is not not.  

I have never been one to salute the notion that dogs are direct descendants of wolves. In American Working Terriers I write:

"It is always best to start at the beginning."

In theory, if you are talking about dogs, this means you are supposed to talk about how dogs evolved from wolves.

I won’t belabor the point except to say that, while true, the statement is a bit overstated. A dog is not a wolf. A dog is a dog.

This is not to say that wolves and dogs are not evolutionarily related — this is an absolute fact. Dogs descended from wolves, probably through some form of long-lasting proto-wolf phase.

That said, the differences between dogs and wolves are not small, but enormous, governing the most elemental issues of existence, from reproduction to communication.

A wolf, for example, goes into estrus only once a year, generally in February or March.

A dog normally goes into estrus twice a year, and this can occur in any season. A male dog lifts its leg to pee, while a female dog squats to pee.

In wolf packs, only the top male and top female raise their legs to pee — all subordinate animals squat to pee.

Dogs bark — it is their primary vocalization and maddeningly common, especially early in the morning when you are trying to sleep. Adult wolves bark so rarely it is almost never heard in the wild.

Wolves and coyotes howl, and do so very frequently — generally in the early evening just after waking up and before going off to hunt. Dogs almost never howl except under very special conditions and in response to sustained noises that rise and fall — like the wail of fire engines. You may have 15 dogs in your yard, but they will not howl every morning as a coyote or wolf will.

The fact that dogs, wolves and coyotes CAN interbreed does not mean they actually do except under the rarest of circumstances.

Dogs and wolves operate on completely different wavelengths, and only in the most extreme kinds of "prison romance" situations do these two animals leap the species barrier, generally only in captivity or in very rare instances when a vanguard of a species (a lone coyote or wolf in a very large area devoid of all other wolves and coyotes) finds it impossible to mate with its own kind.

In short, wolves and dogs have drifted so apart from each other that key signals related to sex, communication and hierarchy are no longer shared.

A dog is not a wolf.

Scientists are divided as to when the wolf split off from the proto-wolf, and when the proto-wolf became a dog.

What seems clear is that the lives of dogs and humans have been intertwined for many thousands of years. During most of this time humans exerted little or no control over breeding, and evolution appears to have worked its invisible hand to produce a fairly common, smallish, coyote-looking dog.

This "pie dog" or pariah dog can be seen prowling the edges of dumps the world over, looking not too different from the dingo or "Carolina Dog" favored by our Neolithic ancestors.

Genetic researchers tracking mitochondria DNA have shown that most of the dog breeds seen in Kennel Club show rings today are of very recent origin.

The supposedly "ancient" Ibiza hound and Pharaoh hound, for example, turn out to have been made up within the last 100 years or so — bred to look like the drawings and sculptures of sleek, slender-necked canines found on Pharaonic tombs at the time of Carter. The Norwegian elkhound, a breed supposedly dating back to Viking dogs, was created within the past few hundred years.

And so it is with nearly every breed of dog, with very rare exception.

The terrier, it should be said, is not one of those exceptions.

No terrier breed is more than a few hundred years old, and most were created within the last 150 years.

Of course, people want to argue.

In fact, some people demand that a dog be a wolf.  I am not sure why.  Perhaps it is because they have a complex theory about dogs and dog training, or perhaps because they want to trot out their ability to google, or demonstrate their mastery of their two-semester college course in biology or chemistry.


I know what I know from watching dogs. A dog is very wolf-like, but it is not a wolf.

The dogs know this. 

The wolves know this.

And guess what? Now the scientists know it too.\

Over at Scientific American, Virginia Morell notes that new sophisticated DNA work shows that modern wolves and dogs are NOT directly related and, instead, are both descendants from a common ancestor.

It seems the statement that "a dog is 99 percent wolf" is a bit like saying a human is 99% chimp -- it leaves our a lot.

Dog and wolf DNA do not line up quite as neatly as some would have you believe, and the fact that a dog and a wolf and coyote and a golden jackal can all interbreed and produce fertile young does not tell you very much.

For many years scientists concurred on the basis of small portions of the genome that this species (the animal from which dogs descend) was the modern gray wolf (Canis lupus) and that this canid alone gave rise to dogs.

But last January geneticists discovered that this long-held "fact" was wrong....

Analyzing whole genomes of living dogs and wolves, last January's study revealed that today's Fidos are not the descendants of modern gray wolves. Instead the two species are sister taxa, descended from an unknown ancestor that has since gone extinct.

"It was such a long-standing view that the gray wolf we know today was around for hundreds of thousands of years and that dogs derived from them," says Robert Wayne, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of California, Los Angeles. "We're very surprised that they're not." Wayne led the first genetic studies proposing the ancestor-descendant relationship between the two species and more recently was one of the 30 co-authors of the latest study, published in PLOS Genetics, that debunked that notion.

So the scientists were surprised.  But the dog men are not. We can see what can be seen, right before us, with our own eyes.  We do not need to sequence DNA or purchase a scanning electron microscopes, or rodeo together 30 co-authors to state the obvious.

A dog is not a wolf.

Does this mean that there is nothing to learn about dogs from studying wolves?

Not at all.

But how about studying dogs first, eh? They are right in front of us, in our homes, yards, and parks.

Watch the dogs. Really watch. You can learn a lot from a dog, I promise. There is no need to deny their existence or to make them more, or less, than they are.

If you wan to know more about dogs, study dogs.  They are the experts.


jeffrey thurston said...

You know you kind of had me half-assed convinced that dogs are not wolves over the last few months but this post has brought me back to my old personal belief that dogs are simply domesticated wolves. Critical thinking really leaves no other choice. First- the constant repetition of the mantra (a dog is not a wolf) over and over made me think that it does matter to you. So it's an emotional, not clinical stance you take. Let me argue a few points: unless you are arguing purely from a linguistic POV- a baboon is not a human but a wolf IS a dog much more so. Same DNA... Wolves and dogs do mate relatively commonly- it is not the freakish event you make it out to be. Recently I read an article about how the sheep guard dogs of Georgia (the country) are mating with wolves on the sly- no one knows why but it is concerning to the sheep farmers :) The characteristics that are ascribed purely to wolves are in fact quite commonly held by dogs also- some dogs have pre-caudal glands on their tails, some dogs (including a husky I had) do not bark at all but rather howl- dogs do form hunting packs and the very "pie dogs" you speak of are often untrainable, not-human socializable and basically are wild animals- like wolves! One of the most convincing depictions of this was a show on the dingos of the forested mountains west of Sydney Australia. There are wild dogs who live there who basically live exactly like wild dingos but they aren't considered "real" dingos because they have color differences and occasionally a floppy ear or some other obvious dog thing. They live within the Dingo Fence so they really aren't supposed to be there. These dingo/dogs and the wild dingos of Australia live and hunt like wolves- and the female has yearly estrus like a wolf. As far as the proto-wolf common ancestor of modern wolves and dogs- is that not a wolf? To me that is simply sciencey bullshit- a way to grab a headline by saying "What we all assumed to be true isn't exactly the way we thought!" "The ancestor wolf was a bit different so we're going to call it a proto-wolf!" So modern wolves and dogs have had mutations in their genes in the last 20,000 years or so- Mirabile Dictu! Wolves and dogs share the same DNA- the difference between them is the same as the DNA difference between humans. It is obvious that the domestication event was singular and revolutionary- since it has happened dogs and wolves have definitely changed each in its own way- but they are still the same species. A dog IS a domesticated wolf (or proto-wolf if you prefer). A human being is in no way an ape(or baboon) and in fact there are vast genetic differences between them. Vast differences in the time of a shared ancestor and in their mDNA and nuclear DNA (8% or so) . A dog is not a coyote or a jackal- there is a genetic and ethological difference which is obvious- but a dog is a wolf- domesticated. They are the same species IMO.

PBurns said...

Did you actually read this post to the end? Read the paper at the supplied link?

No and nope.

I care about dogs and write about them every day, and I try to get people to actually read supporting documents and watch dogs. Failing on counts, but I try!

Seriously, read the paper. The link is there for a reason.

PipedreamFarm said...

Is broccoli "wild mustard - domesticated"?

This is the same argument used to say dog is "wolf - domesticated"

Like wild mustard, wolf has been under natural selection; the genetic code of both species has been influenced by survival in nature. Appearance, behavior, health; everything controlled or influenced by genetics; has been shaped by its environment.

Like broccoli, dog has been under artificial selection. Man has chosen what genetic code to keep and what code to exclude. Appearance, behavior, health, etc. has all been selected by man.

The discussion about is dog a wolf comes down to where you choose to draw the line for a new species when it has been genetically modified by man's artificial selection. Most would agree broccoli is not the same species as wild mustard; however, broccoli got to be broccoli by a similar process that gave us dog.

PipedreamFarm said...

Another analogy for "dog is wolf domesticated" is "cow (i.e. Holstein) is yak domesticated".

jeffrey thurston said...

Yes... and Yep! I read the post at least twice and I read many other versions of the January 2014 article which trumpeted the astounding discovery that the wolf ancestor of the dog was not exactly 100% genetically the same as a modern gray wolf. This ancestor is still Canis Lupus (same species). There is a May 2015 article in "Nature" about this new discovery which is a bit more ambivalent- "“We know almost nothing,” seems to be the main theme. Another: " It is probable that the earliest domesticated canines looked quite different to those we know today, DalĂ©n says. “I think it’s quite possible that wolves were held captive, then they were domesticated — but kept looking like wolves for many, many thousands of years”. " I know you don't want to go down this road again probably having argued this with many a reader smarter than me- I appreciate the chance to opine and argue...

jeffrey thurston said...

Broccoli=Cabbage=Brussels sprouts. That works- they're all the same species. Cattle=Auroch- they too are the same species. Yaks are close- the coyote anolog in this case. Domestication doesn't mean speciation...

PipedreamFarm said...

No one said domestication means speciation; however, genetic selection (artificial or natural) can lead to speciation.

So I guess you're good with corn (maize) = grass (teosinte).

PipedreamFarm said...

Couldn't dogs and wolves fit sympatric speciation?

PipedreamFarm said...

The Evolution of Animal Domestication

jeffrey thurston said...

I don't know what sympatric speciation is. My whole point in my overly long repost was that comparing wolf/dog to human/chimp is not a correct analogy- since for all practical purposes wolves and dogs are the same species. Not the same- I get that- but the same species.

Mary Pang said...

I don't think any animal alive today is descended from any other animal alive today. I'm no expert though.