New Research Suggests What Separates Dogs and Wolves

A group of researchers from the University of Arizona have been doing behavioral studies with wolf pups in collaboration with the Wildlife Science Center in Anoka County at the facility in Stacy, Minnesota. Their goal is to figure out how these members of the canine family think. While most people take dog behaviors for granted, this team is highly interested in learning more about the intricacies of canine thought processes, and how this wild species differs in nature from their domesticated counterparts known as man’s best friend. For dog and wolf lovers, this study is of particular interest.

Why wolf pups are the subjects of the study

Wolves are canines that retain an inborn wariness when it comes to interacting with humans. It’s a matter of instinct for the natural predators to harbor this distrust deep within the psyche, and it’s a survival mechanism that is instilled within them at a primal level. It’s long been a common belief that most dog breeds are easily domesticated and have the capacity to form deep and trusting bonds with humans. On the other hand, most people will agree that when it comes to issues of trust, humans and wolves in general, maintain a distrust of one another regardless of friendly behaviors because of the nature of the wolf which is not easily domesticated. There remains an instinct within them that can kick in at any time and without warning. This is what has spurred the interest of the researchers in learning more about how wolves think to discover the precise point in wolf to human interaction when the friendliness of the pups is superseded by their natural fear of mankind.

Details of the study

The University of Arizona researchers teamed up with a like-minded members of a group from Duke. They set out to study the behaviors of six week old wolf puppies. The pups were placed in a small padded space where they were prompted to search for meat in a game-like setting. Researchers noted that their initial response to the humans who had nurtured them were friendly, but this didn’t last for long. Even when raised by hand and bottle fed by humans, the instinctual fear of man kicked in quickly during interactions with their caregivers.

A summer of discovery

The teams spent two months working with the pups as well as adult wolves at the center, playing a variety of problem solving games with food as the reward for completion. They interjected simple social cues as part of the training process. A person would point to the food or call the attention of the wolf to the food, then note how the wolves responded to the interaction. They were attempting to discover if cooperative communication between people and wolves was possible. During the study, the team collected biological samples of blood, urine, feces and saliva to look for hormonal changes that might give them a clue to why wolf behaviors would change so abruptly.

The connection between wolves and dogs

The researchers sought to answer an important question about the evolution of the domesticated dog. At what point were humans able to domesticate them and what were the key factors in the process? What biological factors played a role in canine domestication? Since dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years, we don’t fully understand how they evolved from predators to friendly and loyal family pets. There is a unique connection between dog and man that isn’t present between man and wolves and this is the dilemma that raises a plethora of research questions worthy of investigation.

Identifying the switch from trust to fear

Do wolves ever really trust their human nurturers? The studies suggest that there may be a desire within puppies to trust and interact for the rewards that are gained, but a point comes in the relationship when the fear factor kicks in without fail. The major challenges in the study are sample sizes. It’s difficult to procure large groups of wolves for research study, so teams work with the animals that are available to represent the species as a whole. The studies often yield conflicting findings which makes pinpointing the precise time in a wolf’s developmental stages when the survival and natural fear instinct takes over. The reasons for this are not yet fully understood. Careful attention is being paid to the transformation from puppyhood to adulthood in wolves. While dogs have a natural tendency to bond with humans as though a part of the same species, wolves do not.


This study found that dogs will seek human assistance when they encounter a problem that they cannot solve on their own. This is the opposite for wolves. Even when nurtured by humans in the same way a dog would be, they will attempt to solve the problem on their own but will not seek the assistance of humans.

Is bonding with wolves possible?

Peggy Callahan is a wolf expert who has hand raised several litters of wolf pups. She’s established two way communication with them as puppies, but she concurs that the friendliness and trust established appears to disappear in a short time window and when talking about the switch from friendly to fearful, she offered that, “It’s literally overnight.” It’s a phenomenon that occurs regularly, like clockwork. She goes further to say that “You can’t love the wolf out of them.”

Ongoing research continues

The teams from Arizona and Duke have amassed a database of research findings about dogs and wolves and the next step for them is to analyze and compare the findings. Although most of the research comes from small sample sizes with regard to wolves, they will continue too look for clues that may render more information about the evolution of dogs through their studies on wolf behaviors. There is no doubt that the studies will continue for years in looking for the mechanisms that may be related to the key to domestication of canines, if there actually is a connection that exists between the species. For now, what is known about the situation is that dogs have a tendency to crave human attention and companionship and wolves are just the opposite.



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