Minds of Animals

The cognitive abilities of non-human animals

Why do we treat dogs so much better than we treat wolves?

Coddle the dog, kill the wolf?

Let me be clear: Dogs are not wolves. A dog is not "a wolf in sheep's clothing"; dogs do not resort to wolves when they are wild; a wolf brought home cannot be made into a dog.

The species diverged at least tens of thousands of years ago, and maybe over a hundred thousand years, when a distant ancestor of the present-day wolf began to affiliate with humans. The current gray wolf, Canis lupus, and the domesticated dog, Canis familiaris, are certainly related, and can even interbreed, but are physically and behaviorally distinguishable in many ways.

On the other hand, as much as we shampoo and blow-dry our dogs, as often as we (tragically) dress them in Halloween costumes and raincoats, dogs are still animals. And allusion to dogs' wolfy heritage is commonly made. Many dog trainers refer to wolf behavior in explaining the social lives of dogs.* The sensory acuity of dogs was inherited from wolves; a number of quite fetching behavior patterns, such as heedlessly chasing a squeaky ball, are traceable to their time as predators.

On cognitive tasks, scientists are currently comparing the performance of wolves and dogs. Wolves seem to be more skilled on tasks of physical cognition -- realizing that pulling a string forward may yield a bit of meat -- while dogs seem to perform better at tasks of social cognition -- using cues, like points and gaze, from owners or other dogs to discover how to solve a problem. Clive Wynne and his students have even suggested that in the right context, wolves can be quite high-performing at social cognitive tasks too.

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So even though dogs are not wolves, we may consider them wolves when training; we relish some of their wolfy habits; and wolves are as cognitively interesting as dogs.

But this month two states, Idaho and Montana, are set to allow hunting of wolves -- the killing of up to a third of the current populations. For each family group, that means killing the progeny of a mother and father, or one of the parents.

The opposite sides of the debate about hunting wolves have made their predictable cases, with arguments that I have no interest in rehashing here. Instead, what interests me is the largely undiscussed paradox of embracing dogs and killing ("managing" or "thinning", we call it) wolves. I am again stunned at our society's ability to simultaneously consider one species valuable and another destructive or even garbage. Rats on the street are "vermin"; rats in a lab are useful cognitive and medical subjects; guinea pigs, also rodents, are cute pets. Snails are pets in elementary school science classrooms; snails outside are pests who ruin our plants. And doves are symbols of peace, hope, and purity; street pigeons, which are also doves, are considered dirty (ironically called "rats with tails" by some, presumably not guinea-pig owners).

We owe these animals more consideration than knee-jerk classification.

 

* As I observe in my book, though, according to wolf experts, the wolf pack is not the strife-filled dominance hierarchy that it is commonly believed. Thus, neither should we treat dogs as though they need dominating!

Photo: From Budapest Canine Science Forum, July 2008

Note: Marc Bekoff has also written about this topic, which he calls "speciesism"

Alexandra Horowitz, Ph.D., is a Term Assistant Professor of Psychology at Barnard College and the author of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know.

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