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Some Guard Dogs May Be "Consorting with the Enemy"

Sometimes guard dogs socialize with predators rather than defend against them.

Licensed from Vital Imagery
Source: Licensed from Vital Imagery

I had arranged to have lunch with a colleague of mine who is a behavior geneticist. I had told him in advance that I wanted to pick his brain about a problem which was bothering me, and it had to do with dogs and wolves. As we sat casually eating bowls of pasta I posed my question.

"My problem has to do with guard dogs, and it has to do specifically with how a guard dog knows who he is supposed to be guarding against. When it comes to humans I can understand that a dog can be trained to be wary and defensive around any people who are unfamiliar. But there are many guard dogs who are supposed to be defending livestock from other animals. Obviously if the flock or herd that he is guarding is approached by a bear, or a mountain lion, the dog will know that this is a different species and snap into defensive mode. However suppose that what is approaching is another canine? The vast majority of dogs are naturally biased toward reacting in a friendly manner when approached by other dogs, and the initial response that most dogs make two other canines is seldom an expression of spontaneous aggression. Now here is the part which bothers me, suppose that the canine which is approaching the herd or the flock is a wolf? You geneticists have done research which shows that there is less than a 1% difference in the DNA of dogs and wolves, and in fact the genetic difference between dogs and wolves is about the same as the difference between dogs of different breeds. Dogs certainly don't respond with hostility to other dogs which are not of their own breed simply because of the tiny bit of difference in their genetic codes. So why don't dogs that are designed to be herd guarders respond to the approach of a wolf with a wag of the tail and a friendly nose to nose sniff as well?"

His answer surprised me. "I know that you might be expecting me to say that there is some physical or chemical signal or some subtle behavioral clue that might cue a livestock dog to the fact that he is looking at a wolf, not another domestic dog, however things don't work that way. A few years ago Dr. Natia Kopaliani, Dr. David Tarkhnishvili, and a team of colleagues from the Institute of Ecology at Ilia State University in Georgia and from the Tbilisi Zoo in Georgia (I'm talking about the country Georgia which is located in the Caucasus region of Eurasia, sort of at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe), published an interesting article in the Journal of Heredity.

"In Georgia the keeping of flocks of sheep and herds of cattle are mainstays of the economy and wolves are an ever present danger to the livestock and even, occasionally, to the shepherds that are supposed to care for them. The most common way of protecting the animals and the people is through the use of guard dogs who are allowed to range freely around the herds. The dog's job is to fend off any predators, and most frequently this involves driving off wolves that may be approaching the groups of farm animals.

"This particular study was part of Dr. Kopaliani's work exploring human-wolf conflict in Georgia. She has explained that she was motivated by the fact that since the 2000s, the frequency of wolves killing cattle has increased in Georgia, and there were several reports of attacks on humans. Wolves have been observed even in densely populated areas which is unusual because the average wolf is spooked and uneasy when near humans. She suspected that there might be something different about these particular wolves. Her suggestion was that maybe these were not purely wild wolves but rather they might be hybrids. She reasoned that such wolf-dog hybrids might lack the fear of humans that causes wild wolves to avoid humans or anything associated with humans. So she and her team set out to examine the ancestry of wolves near human settlements to determine if they could be of hybrid origin — perhaps due to interbreeding between the wolves and the local dogs, such as those used by shepherds as livestock guards.

"The team studied mitochondrial DNA in 102 gray wolves and 57 livestock guarding dogs. Mitochondrial DNA is passed down through the mother and is frequently measured in studies which are looking at hybridization. The researchers expected to identify a few individuals with hybrid ancestry representing the mixing of genetic material between dogs and wolves but they were astonished to find that more than 13% of the studied wolves had detectable dog ancestry and more than 10% of the dogs had detectable wolf ancestry. In other words, about one out of every 10 wolves and one out of every 10 of the livestock guarding dogs had evidence that instead of feuding and fighting as predators and the guard dogs who are there to defend against them are supposed to be doing, some of these wild wolves and domestic canines have been sleeping with the enemy."

He reached for a glass of wine took a sip and then noted, "Much like the hippies during the 60s and 70s, a percentage of these guard dogs seem to have adopted the motto 'Make love not war', at least whenever possible."

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Natia Kopaliani, Maia Shakarashvili, Zurab Gurielidze, Tamar Qurkhuli, and David Tarkhnishvili (2014). Gene Flow between Wolf and Shepherd Dog Populations in Georgia (Caucasus). Journal of Heredity, 105(3):345–353, doi:10.1093/jhered/esu014