The wolf, Canis Lupus, has exactly the same number of chromosomes as the sub species Canis Lupus Familiaris or domesticated dog. These amount to 78 and, after studies comparing the DNA of dogs and wolves, it has been found that dogs possess 98.8% of wolf genes. The closest relative is the Grey Wolf (can be spelt Gray) with DNA differing by only 0.2% (Temple Grandin, 2009). The colour grey is something of a misnomer as there are various shades of black and white also with the potential to include red and blue. The point is the Grey Wolf is neutral, able to blend into the background! There are 37 sub-species of canis lupus, all potentially able to cross breed. It is conceivable that the more wolf like the dog’s appearance, the more wolf like its behaviour, for example the German Shepherd Dog and Malamute. However, we know that dogs are not wolves – would you let a wolf sleep on your bed?
Food is the most important resource for both wolves and dogs. Unless our pet dog is trained from an early age, he/she may become aggressive when guarding this most valuable resource, in spite of it being readily available; it is a hard-wired reaction. Wolves, in the wild, hunt in packs bringing down large ungulates and smaller prey. They have no alternative. Conversely, feral dogs appear to live in packs of unrelated animals but will scavenge as loners, very often from humans. This is unsurprising as, almost certainly, this is how dogs became domesticated in the first place.
Wolves love to play and this is undoubtedly also true of dogs. Wolves will eventually mature whereas our companion dog will retain puppy like qualities well into adulthood and appear to never grow up! Perhaps, subconsciously (even consciously) we have bred for neoteny. Our pet loves human contact and at the same time is territorial, defending his/her property along with the family. This is a known trait in wolves which, like the dog, will alert vocally rather than risk injury or death by conflict. Body language and communication of the two species is almost identical and, as luck would have it, is easily interpreted by humans as some facial expressions are alarmingly similar to ours. We all know the appeasing gesture and ‘cow’ like eyes (or is this our imagination?), play bow and tail wagging, assuming a tail is present. It is possible that dogs, if not properly socialised at the optimum age – from birth up to approximately 14 – 16 weeks – will not develop these communication skills and will struggle for the rest of their lives.
Like wolves, dogs have a strong prey drive and this, if not satisfied, may cause problems when out walking by chasing other dogs, cars, joggers, cyclists, squirrels or cats. It should not be our intention to placate this but to redirect it in other ways; for example canine sports involving balls, herding, scent work and many others. If this need is not met then the dog will, almost certainly, become psychologically frustrated, potentially leading to behavioural issues such as aggression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), repetition syndrome, hypertension, depression, separation anxiety and others.
In conclusion, a study of wolf behaviour will inevitably help us understand dogs, but only up to a point. Comparative zoology helps scientists understand a particular behaviour by comparing it with another, but similar, species. This method has helped disentangle the plethora of evolutionary questions but has science unwittingly over complicated matters and done a disservice to the domesticated dog? Only a few decades ago wolves were portrayed as vicious animals intent on dominating the pack at all costs. Studies were done on captive animals rather than animals in the wild, thus showing false results. As a result it is possible that the average owner, to this day, misunderstands their pet. Whilst the domesticated dog prefers to live as a group member (indeed it would not survive outside a group) and is without doubt descended from the wolf, this does not mean it thinks or behaves like a wolf, nor is it intent on dominating its owner. To understand dogs we must surely study dogs rather than wolves!