Dogs straddle two worlds. So, to understand how they roll, learn about the wolf within.
At least 20 000 years ago during the last Ice Age, humans and wolves began their slow dance towards domestication. Researchers generally agree that modern-day dogs evolved from grey wolves (Canis lupus). Some genetic analyses suggest modern pups came from either East Asia, Siberia, Western Europe and/or the Middle East.
With the same chromosomes (78 to be exact, arranged in 39 pairs) and with 99.96% of its mitochondrial DNA identical, even little Fluffy can lay claim to being a big, bad wolf. Domestic dogs come in more sizes than any other mammal species on earth. This wide size range is foundationally possible because of a genetic mutation which emerged in wolves before they were domesticated, plus selective breeding of course.
Perhaps the most useful inheritance dogs received from their wolf ancestors is their innate sense of social rank. Being a pack member has many pros: accessing group resources, cooperative hunting, guarding territory and day-care for pups. Dogs’ inborn grasp of social hierarchy is the sine qua non of their compatibility with humans. But lest you forget, this penchant for social hierarchy is also what may be a headache bar none to humans – if not handled correctly.
Leader of the pack
Wolves, and therefore dogs, are social climbers. They’re constantly on the look-out for any chink in their household’s leadership armour. In wolf packs, dominance challenges are frequent and often violent. Should one wolf move up in the ranks, other pack members have to sort out anew who falls where in the hierarchy. In a human setting, rank replacement might spell the trouble of insubordination. Just picture human family members scurrying around to cater to His Highness’s wishes all day long!
Luckily, over hundreds of years, canine interactions have moderated significantly to where they lack the urgency or insistence prevalent in wolf society. That’s because there’s less at stake.
Dogs have a powerful compliancy instinct towards their social superiors. Which is exactly why dog trainers always emphasise: only one household member should be the established pack leader.
Since dogs now depended on humans, it’s been a case of adapt or die. Thus (and fortunately) they developed more sophisticated social skills and genetic advantages.
The calculating social behaviour of dogs is also why they’re so super-trainable. Sitting, staying and lying down on command is precisely the sort of submissive postures or actions that subordinate wolves display towards dominant pack members.
And, as is the case in wolf society, dogs make contact with their owners by licking, greeting and lying close – pretty much like wolf pack members behave towards the alpha male. This behaviour simply seeks the reward of having a social superior’s continued non-aggressive behaviour.
Learn to read your dog’s body language: from tail position and eye shape to posture and vocalisation. None of these body language signals act alone. They’re part of a package.
There’s no doubt that dogs love our company. From our side, whether they’re con artists par excellence, masterful manipulators, goof balls or just plain obstinate, we love them to bits.
Man and dog have a common destiny fashioned by evolution. And it’s the differences between us which constitute the tie that binds us. Dogs are dogs. Man is man. And luckily the twain do meet.
Ref: scientificamerican.com; snopes.com; The Truth about Dogs, Steven Budiansky.