"Should I Really Be Feeding 'The Wolf' in My Dog?"

A discussion of meal plans, psychic dogs, ecological relevance, and more.

Posted Nov 26, 2018

I receive a large number of emails containing different and fascinating questions about various aspects of the behavior and the cognitive and emotional lives of domestic dogs. Some questions have fairly straightforward and reliable answers, whereas others can only be answered by saying something like, "It depends on the individual dog and the circumstances," "Maybe it's true, but we really don't know," or "That's just not so, and there are solid data that show this."  (See "Dog Behavior and Etiquette: Yes, No, Maybe, Do's and Don't's.") The main point is that there aren't many definite answers to numerous questions about dog behavior, dog etiquette, and dog-human interactions. A good example centers on the topic "Why dogs growl." When we pay careful attention to what we know about this vocalization, it turns out that growling isn't as simple as it seems.

"Should I really be feeding 'the wolf' in my dog?"

Last week I received an email with the question, "Should I really be feeding 'the wolf' in my dog?" The woman who sent it was confused because of all of the "glitzy advertisements and hype" about what the "best" meal plan for dogs. I fully understood her dilemma, so I began my answer simply by noting that dogs are not wolves and I was not a fan of feeding "the wolf in a dog." While it's true that a domesticated wolf (but not a socialized wolf) is a dog, there are many differences between wolves and dogs including their meal plans and dietary needs. While advertisements for dog food may tout something along the lines of “Feed the wolf in your dog” or “Dogs evolved, but their instincts remain,” these sorts of comparisons can be fraught with error when it comes to actual feeding advice. 

Clearly, very few modern dogs exercise or engage in wolf-like behavior patterns and activities which require a high-calorie intake. Many veterinarians are concerned that there are too many obese individuals among our canine companions and feeding dogs as if they're wolves could be part of the problem. For example, in an essay by C. Claiborne Ray called "Do Wild Dogs Sleep as Much as Your Pets?" we read, "When wolves are active, they are really active. On a daily basis, wolves burn about 70 percent more calories compared to typical animals of similar size. The researchers note that while hunting, wolves may burn calories at 10 to 20 times the rate they do while resting." Concerning how many calories a day a dog needs, the general consensus is "Most dogs need about 25 to 30 calories per pound per day to maintain their weight. You need to figure in, if your dog is a spud or an athlete, whether you need to add or subtract that to that amount. That means, on average, a 30 lb dog needs around 800 calories daily." Veterinarians typically use a measure of "maintenance energy requirement" to figure out what a specific dog needs in terms of calories, and the also factor in what they call "multipliers" that take into account whether a dog is neutered or intact, if they need to gain or lose weight, their age, and how hard they work and how much exercise they get. So, when taking into account individual differences among dogs of the same weight, their actual needs may vary. (See also "Calculating a Dog’s Daily Calorie Needs.") Quick rules of thumb for a dog's daily caloric needs can be found here

In addition to having radically different activity levels and concerns about obesity, dogs and wolves may no longer have identical nutritional needs. For example, researchers recently uncovered an interesting genetic difference between dogs and wolves, namely, that dogs appear to have a greater ability to digest starches. The wolf genome has only two copies of the gene alpha-amylase 2B (AMY2B), which helps with the processing of starch in the pancreas, while dogs have somewhere between four and thirty copies of this geneWhen it comes to diet, treating dogs like wolves doesn’t make biological or nutritional sense. 

There's still much we don’t know about the ideal canine diet, despite the many claims we hear from dog food manufacturers, veterinarians, and self-proclaimed dog experts. Very few of these claims are backed by scientific research and actual evidence, so it’s best to treat this advice as mostly opinion and anecdote, some of which is clearly intended to sell this or that brand of dog food. Dogs' mouths aren't trash cans. And, what’s most essential, is to pay close attention to what your dog likes and dislikes and feed their fancy. Individuals' tastes matter. (See Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible for more discussion of dog meal plans.) 

Are dogs psychic?

I get asked questions like this from animal communicators and others who really feel that their dog has some sort of extrasensory perception (ESP). Psychology Today writer and author Dr. Jessica Pierce nicely covers this topic in a recent essay titled "Is Your Dog Psychic?" She writes, "We tend to take human experience as the baseline or normal; if we do, then dogs do have 'extrasensory' perception. Massaging the definition of ESP a bit to mean “information hidden from the normal human senses,” dogs actually possess this skill in spades. The sensory world of dogs overlaps with ours, but also extends well beyond ours in some areas." They smell things we can't, hear sounds we can't and their visual perception differs from ours. Dr. Pierce concludes, "So, no, dogs are not psychic, but they might as well be. They have incredible skills when it comes to reading, predicting, and intuiting the feelings and intentions of their human companions."

Dr. Pierce's essay reminded me of an interview I did with Dr. Rupert Sheldrake who is well-known for being a first-class researcher, recognized as a Global Thought Leader in 2013, and widely questioned about for his work on morphic fields and dogs who know when their owners are coming home. (See "Why Dogs Hump and Rupert Sheldrake's Morphogenic Fields.") Many people remain totally unconvinced his research essay, published in a peer-reviewed journal called "A Dog That Seems To Know When His Owner is Coming Home: Videotaped Experiments and Observations." I concluded my interview with Dr. Sheldrake as follows: I would like to see Dr. Sheldrake's ideas and theories revisited because while they are considered to be "radical," we must remember that many causal explanations of why nonhuman and human animals do what they do are constantly being revised and some observations resist traditional explanations. Let me stress that I fully realize that "correlation does not necessarily imply causation" and that my desire to see more discussions about morphic fields is not opening the door to "anything goes" explanations. I'm also not arguing that dogs have ESP, but rather, we still don't know how they know when their owners are coming home in situations when they're not privy to any obvious cues that may provide this information. 

"Why do the results of different studies asking the same question differ?"

Another question that comes my way centers on why different researchers asking the same questions about dogs' cognitive skills come up with different results. Some people focus on studies of dogs' ability to follow human gazing and pointing. (For a comprehensive discussion see "Do dogs get the point? A review of dog-human communication ability.") I discuss this in some detail in Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do and the easiest and most correct answer is that different dogs with different personalities are being studied by different researchers in different places so differences are not all that surprising. There also are differences in methodology, which variables are controlled, and how well they can be controlled. In Canine Confidential I wrote, "One dog expert wrote to me in October 2016 and asked, 'Who are these dogs in all of these tests?' He was referring to the fact that studies frequently treat all dogs as equivalent, but they are not. It’s just not possible to say all or even most or many dogs do this, or that all or even most or many dogs do that, or even that dogs and wolves are similar in this way and different in that way. If many of the people I meet at dog parks know this already, that’s because their dogs already act like they’re one of a kind!"

Research on free-running dogs also shows there are differences in studies conducted at the same dog park. Melissa Howse’s master’s thesis on the behavior of dogs at the Quidi Vidi Dog Park in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, shows this clearly when she compares her data with those of the few other studies of dogs at dog parks, including a later study in the same dog park. (See "Social Behavior of Dogs at an Off-Leash Park in Newfoundland.") This isn't all that surprising, of course, because different dogs have been studied in different social conditions, but it does caution us to pay careful attention to drawing general conclusions about different aspects of dog behavior. 

The bottom line is that there is no "the dog" because of large amounts of within-species (infraspecific) variation even among littermates. (See "The Minds and Hearts of Dogs: Facts, Myths, and In-Betweens.") Because of these individual differences among dogs, who the dogs are (gender, age, breed, or mutts) and sample size are important to consider to determine if the dogs who are being studied are representative of as broad a group of dogs as possible. The interesting challenges are to understand each and every individual for who they are, to come to understand why there are differences in cognitive skills, emotional capacities, and personality, and to understand how these differences influence the sorts of social bonds a dog can form with other dogs and with humans. Of course, it's also important to learn about cognitive skills or emotional capacities that don't seem to be influenced by individual differences among dogs. 

Ecological relevance. I'm also asked questions about the value of highly controlled studies on dogs. My simple answer is that these studies are important for learning details about how dogs process different sorts of information and solve various problems to which they're exposed. I also mention that it's very important to pay attention to how ecologically relevant the studies are. This simply means how do the questions being asked reflect what dogs typically do in their "real world" when they're tethered to a human or unconstrained and allowed to run as freely as possible. I also explain that observing free-running dogs can help us become fluent in dog to dog communication -- and that dog parks are great places to watch dogs on the run. (See "Why It's Important (and Fun) to Study Free-Running Dogs.") 

Will dogs miss us when we're gone?

I've written about how dogs might fare in a world without us, noting that this thought experiment is a very interesting one for reflecting on the relationships we now have with dogs and for hypothesizing how dogs would do immediately after we disappeared and in subsequent generations. (See "How Will Dogs Reshape Nature Without Humans to Control Them?" and "As Dogs Go Wild in a World Without Us, How Might They Cope?") Some people have asked me -- often jokingly -- "Will dogs miss us when we're gone?" My answer is that some likely will and some likely won't, informing them that an estimated 80% of dogs in the world are somewhat or totally on their own. It's not hard to imagine that second generation dogs in a world without us would miss us very much if at all. I also stress that dogs are not our best friends, although popular media and some researchers often mischaracterize them as "man's best friend."

When I discuss the possibility of humans disappearing, many people make light of it and poo-poo it as science fiction. Regardless, many serious scientists think this isn't as far-fetched a scenario as some suppose and it really could happen. Many talk about what are called global catastrophic risks, "a hypothetical future event which could damage human well-being on a global scale, even crippling or destroying modern civilization." Others study catastrophic trajectories. In an essay called "Long-Term Trajectories of Human Civilization" written by an international team of 13 scholars we read, "Among catastrophe trajectories, the simplest to analyze are those involving human extinction. Following extinction, basic attributes including population, economic production, and quality of life all fall to zero. More complex are catastrophes that some people survive, but in a form that is qualitatively different from the status quo civilization. Analysis of these sub-extinction catastrophes requires attention to the prospects for humans in what could be a radically altered world, and to how readily survivors could rebuild some form of civilization." (Pages 8-9) 

Thinking about how dogs (and other nonhumans) would do in a world absent humans leads to fascinating and wide-ranging discussions, and I hope that more people will consider this possibility in order to gain a better understanding of our current relationships with our canine companions -- how we interact with them and how dependent they really are on us -- keeping in mind the large percentage of dogs who are pretty much on their own. Perhaps we're misleading ourselves and too full of ourselves concerning how important we truly are to the vast majority of dogs living on Earth.

Stand by for further discussions of these and other topics. Canine science is a rapidly growing scientific field and I'm sure that future research will shed more light on these and many other topics. The more we learn the better it will be for dogs and humans alike. 

I thank Jessica Pierce for discussing these and many other topics with me on numerous occasions.