Wolves vs. Dogs

Humans have always been drawn to wolves. They are undoubtedly one of the most polarizing species in the world; people tend to admire or fear them, or sometimes both. Much of our fascination with wolves comes from our closeness to the domestic dog. All dogs are descended from wolves — from tiny Pomeranians to massive Great Danes — so the two species have some things in common, but their similarities are fewer than you might think.

One reason there are so many wolves living in captivity is that people assume wolves will behave like dogs and can therefore be good pets, since dogs and wolves are both in the canine family. But wolves are wild animals; they can be socialized, like some of the residents of Mission: Wolf, but they are not domesticated like dogs.

Evolution of the Wolf

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The Miacis. Artwork by Austin Hoffman

After the mass extinction event that brought the era of dinosaurs to an end, new predators emerged to take their place. One of them was a small, tree-dwelling creature called Miacis, the common ancestor not only of wild canines, but of foxes, raccoons, and bears. From Miacis evolved Hesperocyon. It had a long tail, walked on its toes, and had similar dental structure to modern wolves. Eventually came Tomarctus, which looked more distinctly like a canine and paved the way for the wolf.

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The Hesperocyon. Artwork by Austin Hoffman

While felines retained their retractible claws and developed a stalking-ambush style of hunting, canines that moved out onto the plains adapted to chasing prey, and began using cooperative, pack-oriented hunting techniques. The first gray wolves likely originated in Eurasia about a million years ago, then migrated to North America. For a time, they coexisted with dire wolves, a larger species that had evolved slightly earlier. When the dire wolf went extinct, the gray wolf became the dominant canine on the continent. Currently, the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and red wolf (Canis rufus) are the only distinct wolf species consistently recognized by scientists. There are numerous subspecies under them, though the exact number is debated.

Evolution of the Dog (Canis lupus familiaris)

Some anthropologists believe that humans were feeding wolves as far back as 50,000 years ago.

However, most evidence suggests domestication began between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago, prior to the advent of agriculture. This makes dogs the first domesticated animals, before chickens, horses, and cows. There are two prevailing theories on dog domestication.

  1. Humans adopted wolf pups and bred together those who were more docile
  2. Less fearful wolves scavenged the refuse of human settlements, gravitating toward people

Domestication may also have been a combination of these factors. Regardless of their origins, humans have made dogs markedly different from wolves over the millennia.

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Evolutionary tree. Artwork by Austin Hoffman

Because dogs no longer need to hunt for their food and endure the harshness of life in the wild, they have lost many of the physical traits of their ancestors. Most dogs now have floppy ears, thin or curly tails, wider frames, and shorter snouts and legs. Wolves have coat colors that often function as camouflage, but the coat of a domestic dog can be many different colors. And of course, dogs generally don’t howl to communicate with one another anymore, and instead tend to bark at other canines and humans.

No species in the world has as much diversity, or has been subject to as much artificial selection, as domestic dogs. Since the mid 1800s, the practice of dog breeding has exploded, with over 340 breeds now recognized worldwide. While humans originally began selectively breeding dogs for hunting and guarding, most breeds established since 1900 have been bred solely for aesthetics, fashion, and temperament.

The Differences

Many people ask us the question, “What is the difference between wolves and dogs?” There are truly too many to list here, but these are some of the basics.

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Gray wolf. Artwork by Austin Hoffman

Wolves usually have a narrower frame, longer legs, bigger paws, larger heads, and a greater brain-to-body mass ratio than dogs. While agile, wolves are built more for endurance than speed. Their lean bodies are perfectly balanced over their feet; they can trot at a steady pace for hours with no wasted energy, and have been known to travel well over 50 miles in a single day. If you were to watch a wolf run, you would notice that its back remains almost perfectly flat and smooth due to this streamlined body structure. If you were to look at a wolf’s face, the first thing you are sure to notice are its piercing yellow or golden eyes, which are rarely found in domestic canines.

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Retriever. Artwork by Austin Hoffman

 

Dogs, on the other hand, have been bred for many different purposes and vary in appearance and ability. Many working breeds, such as shepherds, hounds, and schnauzers, have served various practical functions for society. Nowadays, however, dogs are largely seen as beloved members of human families. Being domesticated, dogs have retained many of their juvenile traits such as floppy ears and short snouts; these are characteristics only found in wolf puppies (exceptions are northern breeds like huskies and malamutes). A dog’s eye color is starkly different than wolves; most tend to be shades of brown or sometimes blue. Although it widely varies, most dogs have very wide hips and chests, and short legs in proportion to their body. This is the reason that dogs’ backs tend to bob up and down as they run.

Dogs are naturally drawn to humans, see us as part of their social group, and simply want to make us happy. They have been shaped by humans and rely on us for food, shelter, and companionship. Wolves, on the other hand, are wild animals and generally avoid human contact. They have evolved to hunt and live in packs; they feel no obligation to please people, obey commands, or socialize with humans. That is the main difference between domestic and wild: one depends on us for survival whereas the other does not.

Wolves reach maturity anywhere from one to three years of age. Up until this point, their minds and habits are somewhat similar to that of a dog. But when wolves do finally reach maturity, they become very independent, and possessive of anything that happens to find its way into their mouth. It is usually at this point that people who own a wolf or a wolf-dog find that they have an animal they can no longer control. There’s a good reason that dogs, not wolves, are referred to as “man’s best friend.” For those who want the wolfy look without the wild instincts and uncontrollable behavior, we recommend getting a husky, malamute, or German shepherd. If you’re in need of a canine friend, let the wolves remain wild, and go to your local shelter instead; there are plenty of dogs who need homes!