Wolves and dogs are closely related: they have very few genetic differences; they are even able to interbreed, generating fertile offspring, suggesting they are one and the same species. The most relevant distinctions between the pair therefore are mostly from a behavioural point of view. In fact, the two mammals have opposing approaches to their own kind and to man – the pack on one side and domestication on the other.
Xenophobia of wolves and sociability of dogs
As Dr Maria Grazia Calore, veterinary surgeon and expert in pet behaviour explains, the wolf shows high reactivity, this means it reacts to stimuli such as a noise, and other animals in a volatile way; this flighty response along with a very short period of socialisation (the time in which the animal bonds with its ‘pack’ and learns the ‘rules of the social group’) – which in the wolf’s case only lasts from birth to about 15 days old – makes cooperation with humans difficult. The predator is xenophobic (intolerant) towards other species and adapts itself to the rigid hierarchy of the pack, easily learning behaviours aimed at survival and experiencing sexual (physical) maturity simultaneously with social maturity.
Dogs, however, have a low reactivity associated with a longer period of socialisation of approximately three months. For this reason they are able to easily integrate into a new ‘family’ group and, thanks to a weaker attachment to the pack, they do not pose problems when introducing new family members. In addition, thanks to their prolonged preservation of neoteny characteristics (childhood traits and behaviours) dogs easily learn behaviours that are not strictly related to survival. This continuance of child-like behaviour can be clearly seen in our pets: sexual maturity isn’t followed by social maturity and dogs always behave like puppies.
Wolves and dogs: which is more loyal to their own kind?
Wary of man but incredibly cooperative with its own kind, the wolf beats the dog in terms of species loyalty. This was the verdict of a study conducted at the Wolf Science Centre of the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Vienna. To reach this conclusion, a group of wolves and a group of dogs were subjected to the same conditions in order to analyse their interactions with each other. The researchers found wolves were more democratic than dogs at mealtimes, especially with reference to the pack leader. The wolf pack leader willingly allowed pack members access to food on request, while the canine ‘pack leader’ (the dominant dog) – not linked to the others by blood – hardly demonstrated any willingness to share. How then can we explain the perfect realisation of the promise that led from wolf to man’s best friend, the dog? The move from canine pack leader to human pack leader, the master and new irreplaceable point of reference for the family dog.