How Wolves & Dogs Differ

Genetically speaking, dogs and wolves are almost the same: more than 99% of their DNA is identical. How big a difference can that one percent really make? Well, consider this: Humans share up to 98.9% (depending on which model of comparison is used) of genetic material with chimpanzees. Fabulous as chimps are, it’s safe to say they live very different lives from us. Add to this at least 15,000 years of domestication (recent studies suggest a far longer period) and genetic adaptation for living with humans, and the result is that canis lupus familiaris—both physiologically and behaviorally—is very different from its big, grey ancestor.

For a start, even the most wolf-like of dog breeds are smaller, weaker, and have less powerful jaws and necks than wolves. Why? They don’t need to be able to bring down moose by themselves; dogs are on Team Human and we have tools, big brains, and opposable thumbs. Behaviorally, we have bred dogs over millennia to retain a juvenile lack of aggression into adulthood. With that comes openness to new social relationships, allowing dogs to meet and bond with new people throughout their lives, an adaptability to changing circumstances that no wolf can match. Dogs take guidance from us in several ways, too. For example, they understand directional cues (pointing), something no other animal can do. They are sensitive to social cues and generally wait for humans to signal what is expected of them; wolves follow their own agenda, even if hand-raised in human homes. Dogs pay close attention to us and are adept at reading human emotions through facial expressions. Wolves don’t give a hoot about our moods.

The takeaway is to not project wolf-like assumptions onto dogs. When we do, we too easily mislabel behavior and see conflict where there is none. Yes, dogs are pack animals. But dogs are no more wolves than we are chimps. Feral dog groups provide a more accurate picture of dog social behavior: they are opportunists whose lives revolve around getting close to humans for food and safety. In other words, dogs rely on and care deeply about their relationship with us. Not only can we teach them to live with us peacefully and happily; they spend their lives hoping we will.

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