Dog's Best Friend

The dog-wolf next door

Without the Wolf There Is No Dog

Have humans changed because of dogs?

I watched a 1998 BBC documentary on YouTube  a few days ago called The Wolfman—The Diary of Paul Balenovic. It recounts the eighteen years that Balenovic, a Croatian stuntman and banjo picker, spent with a wolf named Lik, a wolf he obtained when it was just short of a month old. The program is fascinating for what it reveals about the relationship between wolf and man and what it suggests about the way wolves and humans could first have come together which, not surprisingly, is a lot like how they come together now. The relationship is dynamic and not without problems, including the time Lik attacked and severely injured Balenovic, but the endurance of the bond is a testament to its strength.  

Indeed, anyone who thinks that wolves and humans are implacable foes should watch this program. Anyone who thinks wolves make good pets should also watch this documentary to learn why they should be left in their own environment. Anyone who thinks wolves and humans cannot form powerful bonds of friendship should watch Balenovic and Lik, especially when Lik makes clear his desire to be brought home from the wild where Balenovic has sought to repatriate him.

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I have frequently argued against two popular notions. The first holds that wolves and humans were competitors, even enemies, from the time they met. The second posits that wolves were responsible for their own domestication, that by feeding on human garbage they grew over time to be not feared hunters but sniveling, obsequious dump divers out to ingratiate themselves with humans.

Judging from the interactions of wolves and hunting-and-gathering people at later times, they were more likely allies than competitors. People followed wolves on the hunt and then stole or attempted to steal their prey. This view is grounded in real world observations of tribal people following hunting packs of dingoes, dholes, and wolves to their prey. In fact, Austrian ethologists Wolfgang Schleidt and Michael Shalter proposed a decade ago that wolves taught humans to hunt. (“Co-Evolution of Humans and Canids,” Evolution and Cognition, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 3.) 

There is little question that wolves would benefit at the kill site from what humans left behind, for we are profligate killers as well as generous companions who would have quickly deduced that feeding the wolves who helped us was politics. Moving beyond that stage to develop a working relationship requires a special effort to understand the other. 

In Dog’s Best Friend, I argue that the people who get on best with their dogs are people who treat them with respect and try to get inside their heads in an effort to learn how they see the world and what they are thinking. The same attitude is crucial for dealing wild animals.

In How the Dog Became the Dog, I call people with that ability “adepts,” and Balenovic is clearly one of them. Adepts are people with an air or aura about them about them that makes animals feel safe in their presence. In turn, according to Balenovic, the person respects the animal’s physical integrity by not pushing into its comfort zone. The animal has a way to flee or escape if it wants to; otherwise, it may have no choice but to fight.

This point is so basic it should be axiomatic in dealing with animals, but it is not a way of acting in the presence of other beings that comes naturally to everyone. Even many people with animals will sometimes refuse to let them be themselves.

Jim and Jamie Dutcher, authors of The Hidden Life of Wolves, detailing the six years they spent living with and filming wolves in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, make the same point—you must let the animal come to you. You cannot force it to accept you. Jerome Woolpy and Benson Ginsburg  successfully socialized an adult wolf by letting it approach them in its own time, after its own fashion.(“Wolf Socialization: A Study of Temperament in a Wild Social Species,” American Zoologist, (1967) 7 (2).)

It takes time and patience to deal with animals in this way, but surprisingly, once socialized, the adult wolf is more broadly social than is the wolf who was socialized as a puppy.  

One day, Lik attacked and severely injured Balenovc, who rather than blaming the wolf says that he made the attack inevitable by putting Lik in a situation where he felt threatened but from which he had no safe exit because he was bound to Balenovic by a leash. Frightened, with no place to run, the wolf attacked what restrained him and crushed Balenovic’s arm and leg. As if seeing the full power of the adult wolf for the first time, Balenovic decided that he must repatriate Lik to the wild.

To that end he obtained a female wolf and when the time came mated her and Lik. After the pups were born, he turned the entire family loose in wilderness of the Velebit Mountains.

So bonded was Lik to Balenovic that he ultimately eschewed his own family to return to life with him. It is a sadly tender moment when Lik appears at a rendezvous carrying the jacket Balenovic had left as a sign he would return. Lik is a wolf but he clearly is deeply attached to Balenovic and Balenovic to him. The pups and their mother stay wild, although they continue to show themselves to Balenovic, who helps the mother recover after she has been shot.

That suggests to me that the initial divergence of wolf to dog probably happened quickly in multiple relatively small populations, that wolf pups were involved but curious and bold or unafraid, not timid or retiring. Based on other evidence, I would add adult wolves to the mix—curious, self-confident animals who hung around human encampments and especially sought the company of adepts, who sought to understand them and more than occasionally shared their food.

The relationship of wolf and human is the basis of dog and human. Thousands of years living together have brought changes to dogs and, perhaps, humans, especially, it appears, in those processes involved in communication and socialization, including acceptance of the other. These already exist in the wolf to varying degrees, but like barking, they have been enhanced or emphasized in the dog. The question is whether—and how—humans have also changed.

Mark Derr is the author of How the Dog Became the Dog, Dog's Best Friend, and A Dog's History of America.

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