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What Is the Dog to a Wolf?

A new theory says garbage turned the big bad wolf into a friendly dog.

Several times in the past month, I have heard or read reputable researchers into the nature and origin of the dog say that humans have been at war with wolves since they first encountered each other while hunting the same game.  No matter how they are sliced, diced, parsed, or dissected, such statements are patently false.  What might be true is that a large segment of any human population has a visceral, atavistic fear of other animals, especially other carnivores and frequently has set out to slaughter them.   I would include dogs and wolves in that.  In the U.S. alone more than 3-million dogs are put to death each year because for one reason or another no one wants them, and our society does not tolerate homeless dogs .   That is about 4.5 percent of the nation’s dogs.

Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods are the latest to publish a description of human and wolf relations as continuous war—an asymmetrical war at that.  It is indicative of how deep seated and unexamined this bias is among people who have it that National Geographic without the slightest editorial wink or nod published the Hare and Woods essay just weeks after releasing Jim and Jamie Dutcher’s beautifully wrought and informative The Hidden Life of Wolves, which should lay reports of undying enmity between humans and wolves to rest.

 We have dogs—and have wolves returning to much of their former ranges—because there are also more than a few people who love, admire, and respect them.  There are burials of humans with wolves going back thousands of years.  There are numerous accounts from the American frontier of hunters using wolves and wolf-dogs to great effect instead of hunting dogs.  There is other genomic, fossil, and historical evidence for a long running admixing of dogs and wolves.  It seems that the real problem involves the inability of some people to wrap their minds around the fact that a sizable number of humans live openly with large carnivores and enjoy doing so.

Hare and Woods repeat in their essay that humans and wolves competed for the same game and suggest that only humans could have emerged victorious.  They offer no support for that assertion because there is none.  It is the same argument put forth by wolf haters now, only applied to ancient humans.  The Plains Indians shared vast herds of bison with wolves for centuries.  Woodland Indians used fire to burn forest understory annually in order to clear areas for deer to feed and die—and they did so without slaughtering wolves.  Even where they hunted the same game, humans and wolves did not target the same animals unless they were working cooperatively. Wolves tend to take the old and the young, while humans take mature adults.  By placing humans and wolves in a war of competition, Hare and Woods overlook how animal husbandry might have evolved organically and naturally from acts like forest clearance for travel and ambush hunting.

I have given just a few of many possible examples where wolves and humans are not at war.  Many people in the past have worshipped, not killed wolves; more than a few have believed themselves descended from wolves.

 With livestock husbandry, a gap opened between herders whose mission was to protect their animals, and hunters, be they humans, wolves, free-ranging dogs, coyotes, lions, tigers, or bears. Even so, campaigns of extermination against wolves in Western Europe were usually launched by nobles seeking to protect their stag herds for their own hunting pleasure.  They also sought to keep people and dogs out of their game preserves.  The effect of such policies was to throw humans and wolves into open competition for a shrinking amount of land and prey.  Free-ranging dogs were periodically slaughtered as well during outbreaks of rabies—hydrophobia—or when their numbers were deemed too large to tolerate.

Whether puppies or adults, wolves manifest different degrees of sociability toward humans that can change over time. Wolves of all ages can and doubtless did establish relationships with humans who were receptive to relationships with them. It does not take a great leap of imagination to see sociable curious wolves of all ages interacting with sociable curious humans in many different circumstances.  A garbage dump is not even a necessary prop for such encounters.

I have never shied from criticizing the notion that dogs arose from a population of sniveling, dump-diving, self-taming wolves.  It is a theory based solely and singularly on the Siberian farm fox experiment wherein foxes bred only for tameness as manifest in a willingness to approach humans began after a number of generations to resemble ‘dogs’ with the coat coloration, curled tail, and other manifestations of “domestication.”  I discuss problems with the farm foxes in detail in How the Dog Became the Dog .   There I also argue that sociability, the ability to form social bonds with another species is likely the key to the emergence of the dog.  I also argue that boldness, would have been a far more desirable trait in early dogwolves than belly-crawling obsequiousness.

When Hare and Woods raised the specter of the garbage dump, I prepared for battle once more, since Hare has used the self-taming fox argument in the past.  But this time, “tame “ is absent, replaced by “bold” and “friendly” “protodogs” emerging from the dump.  The last time I checked “friendly” is a synonym for “sociable” and “protodog” resembles what I have called a “dogwolf” for “doglike wolf.” I hope these changes in terminology by Hare and Woods mean the sniveling, self-taming dump diver has been relegated to the dustbin of failed ideas.  But I have a feeling they have merely shifted terms to create a cartoon scenario that reads something like: Wolf discovers human garbage, chows down, undergoes evolutionary change from big bad enemy of the people to fawning friend of humans.

  Did scavenging play a role in domestication of the wolf?  Probably yes, but not necessarily at human dumps. Wolves would more easily have scavenged a human kill site than picked over dead bones tossed from camp.

Still the myth of endless enmity allows Hare and Woods to remove humans from any role in the transformation of the ravenous wolf into the attentive, obedient dog.  I should say that they exclude humans until they need them to kill “bold” and “aggressive” dump feeders.  Negative selection can be a potent force in evolution.  But It would have been only one riff in an extended improvisation involving wolf, “protodog,” and big-brained biped.

No one knows for certain how dogs became dogs, and it is doubtless the case that the truth will offer surprises for everyone, but even with that reality in mind, our goal should be to develop theories and hypotheses that recognize and accommodate what is known. If Hare and Woods can realize that the history of wolves and humans is not confined to the past two millennia in Western Europe and three centuries in Anglo North America—and even there the tale is not solely one of hatred, fear and loathing—they might develop a more nuanced, organic view of how some wolves cast their evolutionary fate with humans and became dogs.