The Wolf Sharing my Fire

Lilah by firesideThere is something incongruous about the notion that the golden warming herself by our fire is still mostly wolf. It doesn’t fit her doggy nature. But how much shaggy wolf is still inside her remains a moot point.

They are members of the same species, share a common ancestor and have nearly identical DNA. However there have been ~20,000 years of domestication in the making of modern Max and Molly, which offered plenty of generations for molding their behavior and appearance. It really does matter how much wolf still hangs on in dogs because it affects attitudes and how we train them.

We all know what wolves are like, or thought we did, and will never forget the Grimm story of Little Red Riding Hood.

Little Red Riding Hood by Grimm

It is paradoxical that the closest relative of our best friend is one of the most reviled

Little Red Riding Hood

“All the better to see you with” Walter Crane (1845-1915)

creatures, an arch-enemy of farmers and shepherds, and the fount of so many myths and scary stories about blood-thirsty wolves and chimeric werewolves.

Even biologists held hard views about wolf society until recently. The pack was regarded as a hierarchy topped by an alpha male and an alpha female which claimed first rights to a carcass and kept discipline in the lower ranks. Peace was preserved by a mien expressing threats of aggression towards subordinates who responded with submissive gestures. This fierce portrait reminds me of feudal societies in which royals and nobles used to rule vassals by accepting homage in exchange for privilege. So inured are we to old assumptions about these animals that attitudes can resist the challenge of research throwing fresh light on their behavior.

The TV celebrity Cesar Millan evidently bases his dog training program on an outdated picture of wolves (The Dog Whisperer/ Leader of the Pack). If it seems unfair to use him as an example I’m sure he knows that being picked on is the price of winning public attention. He certainly deserves admiration for a talent in handling difficult animals and his endeavors to save and rehabilitate abandoned dogs. But he makes no apology for the conflict between his philosophy and science: “Once your dogs see you as their pack leader, the dog on dog aggression will stop as they stop fighting for dominance because you will be their calm-assertive pack leader.” He believes we must become accepted as leaders of our pets’ “pack.” Since dogs strive for dominance, we must firmly lay down rules and boundaries for them, otherwise we lose control. This disciplinary style has sometimes gotten him into hot water with humane societies, despite so obviously being an animal lover. Nevertheless there is surely a risk that this thinking can be used to justify the harsh and cruel treatment that dogs have suffered down the ages. The victims may not even understand why they are being punished.

Another TV presenter Victoria Stillwell (It’s Me or the Dog) trains dogs in almost the opposite way, as her website name implies, Positively. Her policy is to shower them with love and treats to reward good behavior, which we might call positive reinforcement. According to Victoria most trouble with dogs is their owners’ (our) fault, so we need at least as much education as they do. Sometimes a cameraman on her show catches the expression of a dog looking on “sympathetically” at its owner being grilled by the bossy Englishwoman.

Of the two views, Millan’s is harder to reconcile with the new understanding of wolf society. Extrapolation wolf→dog is becoming blurry.

Gray wolf

Gray wolf. Courtesy US Fish & Wildlife Service

Until recently wildlife researchers had to fall back on zoos for studying these animals. But in captivity packs are loose associations of individuals that seldom share a family history and live in confined spaces. It is not surprising in an artificial environment that animals are anxious and find ways to adapt behavior to avoid injury from those famous fangs. But we have probably misread some of their gestures, like the lowered head which was interpreted as submission to a supposedly superior wolf. This posture is actually an excellent position for grabbing the “boss” by its throat, but perhaps it had a friendly meaning and was cementing a social bond. We can’t be sure.

The new picture of wolf society has emerged from studies under natural conditions by tracking wolves wearing radio-collars and with GPS technology. Blood samples revealed genetic relationships within packs (L. David Mech & Luigi Boitani, Wolves: Behavior, Ecology and Conservation, Univ. Chicago Press). Contrary to impressions of a band of bushwhackers banded together under feudal leaders, a pack turns out to be just a family party. Its members are usually close relatives, and often former cubs that never split away from their parents. Sometimes an animal adopts the solo life, but they benefit from sticking together when there is big game to be had, like moose and bison.

We expect more cooperation than competition within families. Members are more loyal and less aggressive to each other, and the greater harmony boosts success in hunting and breeding and avoids danger and injury. Consequently more genes are contributed to the next generation to shape evolution of the species, as predicted by kin selection theory. Besides, no dominance hierarchies have been found in wolf packs apart from the relationship between Dad, Mom, and their offspring. Nor should we expect to find them in dogs. When they go wild, they never become wolf-like in behavior or jostle to create a hierarchy, although they can form a fractious group. There appears therefore to be no teeth to Cesar Millan’s belief that successful dog training requires us to fill in for the tough alpha wolf depicted in old stories.

If we think we know dogs I suspect that familiarity often blinds us to the marvel and mystery of our furry companions. While their wolf cousins are afraid of us and terrified of fire, dogs are comfortable with both. Sociobiology theory rules out altruism in animals and caring for the welfare of others unless they are genetically related, but there are remarkable examples of untrained dogs that have saved lives at their own risk (see Hero dog drags another dog to safety).

John Bradshaw, a British biologist, explains Dog World by taking us back to the origin of the canine family about five million years ago (Dog Sense, Basic Books). The Swiss Army knife is his metaphor for the genome of “proto-dogs.” Flexibility enabled their descendants to spread across six continents and evolve into many species of jackals, foxes, coyotes, and wolves. Perhaps it was this adaptability, he argues, that made domestication from wolves possible, and the emergence of an animal with greater loyalty and willingness to please us than any other.

I was musing about dogs while Lilah was dozing at my feet and sharing heat from logs on the fire. She opened an eye to check I was still there. It wasn’t an anxious look waiting for instructions from her alpha male: she was only looking at her “dad.”

Next Post: Our Mutual Friend

About Roger Gosden

British-born scientist specializing in human and animal reproduction & embryology. Academic career spanned from Cambridge and Edinburgh to McGill and Cornell's Weill Medical College in Manhattan where he was Professor & Research Director. Married to Lucinda Veeck Gosden, embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America, he retired early to Williamsburg, Virginia, to write and to recover from 'nature deficit disorder'
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