About wolves and dogs

Publicado el 19 de marzo de 2015

In the world of training there are some questions that reemerge from time to time giving rise to enthusiastic opinions on both sides. One of these topics is the reliance on comparisons between dogs and wild wolves.

The controversy is currently on fire in Biology and I intend to explain its state of affairs in the present article so that readers are able to ground their personal opinions on a more scientific basis. I will attempt to be brief, though I have to recognize that I am seldom successful in that regard.

Not so long ago wolves and dogs were deemed to be two different species from the taxonomic stand. Taxonomy groups animals into families, genus, species and so on depending on how close to one another they are thought to be. In order to assess this evolutionary proximity, morphological/anatomic similarities and differences (i.e., form and structure) were typically taken into consideration. Such classification method required some guess work and heavily depended on the analysts’ sagacity to interpret the observations made. By using these yardsticks, dogs (canis familiaris) were separated from wolves (canis lupus).

The classification methodology just described has changed due to developments in the study of the genome. DNA studies have caused reconsideration of many different species and substantial reorganization of their taxonomy. Conclusive data support the conclusion that dogs belong to the lupus species. Hence the most relevant organization in the world dealing with taxonomy (i.e., Integrated Taxonomic Information System –ITIS- and Mammals Species of the World) currently classify dogs as canis lupus familiaris, a subspecies of wolves.

Does this mean that dogs are tantamount to wolves and that we can draw a strict parallelism between them? The answer is no.

Ethology has proven that ecology determines behavior. Thus, for instance, Iberian wolves (canis lupus signatus) live in small packs composed of an adult couple and one or two offsprings. There are seven individuals at most in these packs, what leads to simple and relatively primitive social interactions compared to, for instance, arctic wolves (canis lupus arctos) whose packs can reach thirty individuals. The size of the pack determines crucial aspects like home range and prey size.

Ecology has an important influence on hunting techniques. Iberian wolves practice stalking and hunting raids, depending on the type of prey they are after, whereas other lupus subspecies do not make use of such techniques.

Let me quote from Signatus.org:

“Usually when they attack flocks of domestic animals wolves stalk in a coordinated manner. When confronted with the obstacle of shepherd dogs, one of the wolves will let himself or herself be seen in order to lure the dogs’ attention. When the prey consists of rabbits, one or several wolves will beat the area while the rest observe, usually close to the access of the hutch where the rabbits will flee when they are pursued.»

Also available at: faunaiberica.org and animalesenextincion.es

In sum, the behavior of wolves is far from uniform. Furthermore, in relation to dogs we ought to take account of the domestication process. After the experiments carried out by Belíayev, we know domestication has changed dogs’ way of learning as well as their relationship with the environment.

Belíayev worked with silver foxes, a species used in the fur industry. By selecting for tameness the Russians wanted to obtain specimens who would be easier to manipulate, in order to cut costs down. After a few generations they obtained foxes who could be easily manipulated and who were friendly with humans. It was also found that tamed animals had improved skills for learning through operant conditioning, higher social plasticity, lower instinctive rigidity and a decreased cognitive confrontation of problems (Beliáyev 1969, 1979, 1981, 1982). On a different note, the story had a happy end for the wolves since due to a change in the color and patterns of the fur they were considered useless for the industry.

These differences regarding tameness and living environments lead all scientists to agree that dogs and wolves are two different etho-species. In simpler words, they differ in their behavior. In fact, due to the existence of such outstanding behavioral differences more and more ethologists are arguing in favor of a different way of classifying species on the basis of whether they have followed a different course of evolution, as it is the case with wolves and dogs, as well as with Right whales in the North Atlantic and the Pacific regions.

Taking these criteria into consideration the ICZN and the ITIS currently admit the term canis familiaris as a valid synonim of canis lupus familiaris for the purpose of scientific works, articles and communications.

Summing up, today we know that dogs are a subspecies of the wolf, given their genetic proximity, but that they are a different etho-species because of their ecology (constantly lying on a sofa in our living room while our children cuddle them) and the process of domestication has had a dramatic impact on their conduct, setting their own course of evolution, one that differs from any of the other members of the lupus genus. Therefore, it is correct to make comparisons between dogs and wolves to obtain data, but a strict parallelism is not possible since it would neglect prominent differences.

As it is usually the case, it’s neither black nor white.


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