How is a Dog Not Like a Wolf?

Wolf cubs are adorable (though not quite as adorable as Kerries, of course). They’re soft and cuddly, they growl and snap and play and lick and pee, just like puppies … and they grow up, like puppies. But as adults they are by no means just like dogs. Even humans who have cared intimately for wolf cubs from the time they were born have to be very careful. It’s not safe to run from a wolf nor to chase it, they are extremely jealous of their food, and one should never ever look them in the eye. And wolf cubs never reach the point, as dogs do, where they are friendly with most humans, not just the ones who cared for them when they were tiny.

As reported by James Gorman (“Call of the Wild,” New York Times, October 17, 2017, p. D1), researchers are trying to understand why wolves never grow up to be like dogs, no matter what fantasies some of today’s dog trainers and pet food manufacturers try to suggest. Kathryn Lord and Elinor Karlsson, heading a team of researchers that splits its time between the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the Broad Institute in Cambridge, want to know why.

One hypothesis they’re working on now is that each species has a critical time period when they learn who their friends are in the world. With wolves, this seems to happen starting at about two weeks, when the cubs are still blind and deaf; they investigate their environment through scent alone. By contrast, dog puppies enter this period at about four weeks, and by that time they can see, smell and hear. Drs. Lord and Karlsson believe that with more senses in action, dogs learn that it’s safe to be friendly with anyone who looks or smells or sounds right, not just particular individuals with particular scents.

After the critical period for developing a view of their social world, both dogs and wolves go on to develop “stranger anxiety” (something that happens with human babies, too), meaning that creatures outside their family are actually scary.

The other hypothesis that interests Lord and Karlsson is whether fear and sociability in dogs are neurologically similar to the same emotions in humans. If so, then research on dogs would help us better understand human dysfunctions in social interaction, such as autism or schizophrenia).

Findings of this research are not yet reported, since portions of the study are still ongoing and results could be contaminated if human observers knew the nature of early trials. Basically, the first part of the study tries to determine exactly when the critical period starts and ends in both wolves and dogs. This involves putting each pup (wolf or dog) in an enclosure containing something completely unfamiliar: in Gorman’s description “a jiggling buzzy contraption of bird-scare rods, a tripod and a baby’s mobile.” Cameras recorded the pup’s response, whether to walk right up and sniff the object or shy away from it. Before and after the experience, the pup would be tested for cortisol (“the stress hormone”) levels.

They also collect saliva for DNA testing, to see what specific genes are activated in each animal’s DNA. It’s hoped that it will be possible to determine whether the genes switched on are the same ones in wolves and dogs, and perhaps in humans too.

While this ongoing research may eventually suggest why wolves and dogs are different, and perhaps that they can never be the same, we already know that wolves are dangerous. As one wolf specialist once remarked, “If you want a wolf, get a dog.”

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