It is no secret that our four-legged friends, domestic dogs, are closely related to wolves. In fact, the general public believe that wolves are ancestors of our domestic canines. It isn’t hard to see why most people believe this. Dog food commercials portrays dog as a predator. They even show flashy images of a dog leaping over a log in the woods. They often accompany it with a wolf superimposed over top.
Dog food brands may enjoy the aesthetically pleasing aspect of comparing our dogs to wolves. However, this mindset can potentially be disastrous when we expect them to behave in a similar fashion. This is alarming because there is solid evidence disproving the idea that wolves are ancestors of dogs!
Evolution & The Dueling Theories
We do know definitively that dogs and wolves share a common ancestor, genetic analysis has proven this. What we don’t know is exactly how our dogs came to be domesticated. For many years, the theory that humans domesticated wolf puppies was widely spread but in fact it was simply guesswork.
This “wolf-puppy” domestication theory was the source of much force-based training methodology during the past seventy-odd years of formal dog training. By the concept of it, it makes sense. The “alpha” asserts dominance over the rest of the “pack”. In other words, to make your dog respect you, you should do the same. Unfortunately, there are two main flaws to this thinking. First, this assumes that your domestic dog has an identical social structure to the highly cohesive wolf pack. Second, you are not a dog or a wolf for that matter, and your dog should not treat you as such.
The widely believed “wolf-puppy” theory is formally known as the Human-Selection theory. This theory states that dogs were domesticated through humans selecting particularly docile gray wolf puppies and inter-breeding them. This process resulted in the eventual creation of the domestic dog we know and love today, which happened exclusively through human selection.
This has been such a prevalent theory, that it is taken as true, but does the evidence actually support this belief?
As you have probably guessed, the answer is a big, fat, nope!
In fact, the support for this theory was based in a completely different species of canines being domesticated in South America, in a similar fashion. Because these South American canines were domesticated exclusively via human selection at the time, the same should be true for our domestic canines.
Since then alternative theories have cast doubt on this being the prime reason for dog evolution.
The alternate, self-domestication theory, suggest that humans were only partially responsible for the domestication of our modern dogs. Instead of humans selecting wolf puppies, the domestic dogs’ ancestors split apart from the wolves’ ancestors. This is to take advantage of a new food source – our leftovers!
Basically, they began the process of domestication themselves. This new food source also required the wolf/dog ancestor to be tolerant of a close relationship to people, something wolves simply can’t handle. As they split off from wolves and became more personable, we continued domesticated through human selection.
The support for this theory has genetic studies to back it up, showing that although our eventual domestic dogs continued to breed with gray wolves, one group consistently hunted large prey (like caribou and elk) and the other remained in human-concentric locations utilizing small food sources and scavenging.
The Scavenging Predator
So instead of the mighty wolf, working together to take down an elk and feed the whole family, we got Spot. Spot chases down rats and rabbits, eats leftover scraps of food from dinner, and will scavenge basically anything to survive.
This works for Spot, and he breeds and passes these genes on to his puppies. His puppies are now more likely to want to be near people, hunt small animals, and eat garbage. This is true for his grand-puppies, great-grand puppies, and so on.
Our dogs’ ancestors did not have to work together to acquire food like wolves did (and still do). In fact, working in groups larger than pairs can result in less food for the dog. This translates to an animal that does not need to work together cohesively, or more importantly, have the strict social structure that wolves posses.
When a group of wolves, and a group of dogs were given a task requiring both sets of animals to work together to acquire food, the wolves did fantastically, while the dogs failed miserably! But this should be no surprise.
In dog society, some are more dominant or submissive, but there is no specific social structure. There is no “alpha” dog that all the others bow before, and there is no need for you to behave as such because they have no reason to work as a team.
The Predatory Sequence & Shaping Our Dog Breeds
Even though dogs are not wolves, they still possess all the behaviors necessary to bring down prey. However this has been modified to smaller prey.
This means every dog-ancestor could find a scent, stalk, chase, grab, rip apart, and eat a prey item. This predatory behavior sequence is what we use to select certain traits in our dogs.
For example, we chose dogs that liked to stalk and chase but did not rip apart and eat, for herding. Those breeds still to this day retain the “need” to do these behaviors.
What This Means For Your Dog Today
So what does that mean for your dog now? First, your dog does not have a strict social structure, so behaving like an alpha will do nothing for you besides intimidating or scaring your dog. We want to have a strong bond with our dogs so refrain from hurting them. Any type of force used will be detrimental to our relationship with them.
Secondly, your dog’s ancestors survived by constantly searching for food, not doing one hunt for a large prey item. This means your pup still feels the need to always be on the search for food.
This is why they are always looking for food, even when they get full meals daily! To curb this constant need to be doing something, mental stimulation is extremely important for your dog.
What is the best kind of mental stimulation for your dog?
The most effective way to mentally stimulate your dog is by doing things that are part of their predatory sequence. The exact sequence will depend on the breed, and the behaviors that come naturally to them.
For example, a herding breed or retriever may enjoy a game of fetch, and a hunting breed should be doing some type of search and find style toys and games. Some dogs, like huskies, enjoy the entire predatory sequence.
Simply see what your dog finds the most satisfying, and provide them with a variety of enriching mental stimulation that taps into the behaviors used by their ancestors.