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Why Wolves Are Forever Wild, But Dogs Can Be Tamed

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Dogs and wolves are genetically so similar, it’s been difficult for biologists to understand why wolves remain fiercely wild, while dogs can gladly become “man’s best friend.” Now, doctoral research by evolutionary biologist Kathryn Lord at the University of Massachusetts Amherst suggests the different behaviors are related to the animals’ earliest sensory experiences and the critical period of socialization. Details appear in the current issue of Ethology.

Credit: University of Massachusetts Amherst

Until now, little was known about sensory development in wolf pups, and assumptions were usually extrapolated from what is known for dogs, Lord explains. This would be reasonable, except scientists already know there are significant differences in early development between wolf and dog pups, chief among them timing of the ability to walk, she adds.

To address this knowledge gap, she studied responses of seven wolf pups and 43 dogs to both familiar and new smells, sounds and visual stimuli, tested them weekly, and found they did develop their senses at the same time. But her study also revealed new information about how the two subspecies of Canis lupus experience their environment during a four-week developmental window called the critical period of socialization, and the new facts may significantly change understanding of wolf and dog development.

When the socialization window is open, wolf and dog pups begin walking and exploring without fear and will retain familiarity throughout their lives with those things they contact. Domestic dogs can be introduced to humans, horses and even cats at this stage and be comfortable with them forever. But as the period progresses, fear increases and after the window closes, new sights, sounds and smells will elicit a fear response.

Through observations, Lord confirmed that both wolf pups and dogs develop the sense of smell at age two weeks, hearing at four weeks and vision by age six weeks on average. However, these two subspecies enter the critical period of socialization at different ages. Dogs begin the period at four weeks, while wolves begin at two weeks. Therefore, how each subspecies experiences the world during that all-important month is extremely different, and likely leads to different developmental paths, she says.

Credit: University of Massachusetts Amherst
Lord reports for the first time that wolf pups are still blind and deaf when they begin to walk and explore their environment at age two weeks. “No one knew this about wolves, that when they begin exploring they’re blind and deaf and rely primarily on smell at this stage, so this is very exciting,” she notes.

She adds, “When wolf pups first start to hear, they are frightened of the new sounds initially, and when they first start to see they are also initially afraid of new visual stimuli. As each sense engages, wolf pups experience a new round of sensory shocks that dog puppies do not.”

Meanwhile, dog pups only begin to explore and walk after all three senses, smell, hearing and sight, are functioning. Overall, “It’s quite startling how different dogs and wolves are from each other at that early age, given how close they are genetically. A litter of dog puppies at two weeks are just basically little puddles, unable to get up or walk around. But wolf pups are exploring actively, walking strongly with good coordination and starting to be able to climb up little steps and hills.”

These significant, development-related differences in dog and wolf pups’ experiences put them on distinctly different trajectories in relation to the ability to form interspecies social attachments, notably with humans, Lord says. This new information has implications for managing wild and captive wolf populations, she says.

Her experiments analyzed the behavior of three groups of young animals: 11 wolves from three litters and 43 dogs total. Of the dogs, 33 border collies and German shepherds were raised by their mothers and a control group of 10 German shepherd pups were hand-raised, meaning a human was introduced soon after birth.

At the gene level, she adds, “the difference may not be in the gene itself, but in when the gene is turned on. The data help to explain why, if you want to socialize a dog with a human or a horse, all you need is 90 minutes to introduce them between the ages of four and eight weeks. After that, a dog will not be afraid of humans or whatever else you introduced. Of course, to build a real relationship takes more time. But with a wolf pup, achieving even close to the same fear reduction requires 24-hour contact starting before age three weeks, and even then you won’t get the same attachment or lack of fear.”

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    Total 4 comments
    • drd

      Sometimes I cannot believe that research is being performed by such idiots! First, your sample size is severely limited and much too small to draw such drastic conclusions. Secondly, the quote that “no one knew this about wolves” is absurd, as those of us who have raised hundreds of wolf cubs throughout a few decades have known that there are very distinct differences between them and pups! Thirdly, this “study” is simply an observation that we have known about for years that has, apparently, been funded by a group that wishes to sway opinion in the evolutionary realm. Clearly, this is a very weak study and should be summarily dismissed as anything but a partial research study…….thanks, I feel more ignorant after this “stellar” information………

    • Anonymoose

      “You don’t need a weather man to tell which way the wind blows”

      Having had a wolf as a “friend” for many years here in Idaho, I can relate a bit…”My” wolf actually adopted me; my nearest neighbor is 16 miles away, and I saw wolves frequently, but one in particular would walk by my front porch, every day or so, usually just stopping to watch me, if I was sitting on the porch. I never felt fear or threatened. Eventually he dared to befriend me. Why, I don’t know.

      The wolf was certainly trainable although more persuasion than when training a dog was needed and even then he sometimes got bored and copped an attitude as if to say, “later dude, enough for today,” and would just sit there staring at me defiantly. The key to training and his respect for me was for me to constantly demonstrate my dominance, as he would often test me; that meant not backing down. He was highly intelligent and very independent, yet loyal and loving. His “wildness” was his independence, his shyness with those he didn’t know, and the way he would run up and push his nose into my face to say hello..

      He loved to run and hike with me for miles, where we ran free. He always came back. He needed that room to roam, and would race ahead, then always race back to check in, usually playfully, sometimes deliberately running through my legs, or pretending to bite at my shoes. He had this thing for shoes. He must have thought they were funny, always mocking my shoes and tossing them around if I took them off, and then keeping them.

      They are not a pet to be kept in a apartment or home, or around children. They can seem rough, he treated me as another wolf and people tend to think he was being aggressive…I had to learn to interpret his behavior so as to not misunderstand it as aggression. Once I learned that, he was even more loving.
      If I didn’t live on the edge of the largest wilderness area in USA, second only to Alaska, I never would have met him, and I would never “keep” a wolf anywhere else-they need lots of room to run and play.
      There are many myths about wolves and many people fear wolves because of these myths. Too bad.

      man and wolf

      • Mayhem


        :oops: Sorry Anonymoose didn’t mean to spell your name wrong, twice. :smile:

    • Mayhem

      I’m anti animal testing like you wouldn’t believe but i think that in this study it’s okay to presume that all the animals were well cared for?

      Thank you Alton and my thanks to Anonymouse, what a fantastic story.

      Anonymouse did you ever get to meet Smoke Jensen? William W. Johnstone. :wink:

      … as for drd, mate do go right off :razz: no where does the studies author suggest that this study is meant to be anything more than an eye opener. Raising cute little pups in comfortable and convenient conditions was preferable to going and talking to Idaho Beaver Trappers. Not to mention the costs! No conclusions were dawn: interesting points were raised for consideration.
      Now i know a little bit more than i did before and it was fascinating thank you very much! :neutral:

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