The REAL Difference Between Wolves and Dogs

Everyone knows the story: our pet dogs evolved from wild wolves a long, long time ago. One day they were hungry predators eyeing the meat at our primitive campfires, and before you know it, we had Pugs and Poodles snoring on the sofa.

But what really changed from long ago? How different are our dogs from their wild ancestors? Is every dog, from the Mastiff to the Maltese, a wolf at heart? Or have our trusty companions traveled so far from their origins over the years, they can no longer hear the call of the wild?

It’s time to take a closer look at what changed between dogs and wolves — and what didn’t!

Dogs: Our First Non-Human Friends

Did you know that dogs were the first species humans ever domesticated? In the words of expert science writer Ed Yong:

“We raised puppies well before we raised kittens or chickens; before we herded cows, goats, pigs, and sheep; before we planted rice, wheat, barley, and corn; before we remade the world.”

The exact date is hard to pin down, but scientists estimate that dogs first broke off from their gray wolf ancestors between 15 and 40 thousand years ago. Dogs were the faithful companions of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and their bond with us has only grown stronger over thousands of years!

Even today, dogs stil share over 99 percent of their DNA with the gray wolf Canis lupus — but that fraction of DNA where they differ is extremely important. Dogs and wolves are family, but they are definitely not the same!

Biological Differences Between Wolves and Dogs

One immediate and obvious difference between dogs and wolves is that wolves tend to be much bigger. The average female gray wolf weighs between 60 and 100 pounds, while male gray wolves can be up to 145 pounds! While some dog breeds (such as Mastiffs) can be even bigger than that, most of the dogs in the world are 50 pounds or less.

Wolves are also built differently than most dogs. Wolves generally have a narrower chest and hips, longer legs, and bigger paws than dogs do. The differences are most noticeable when looking at their face — wolves’ heads tend to be bigger proportionally, compared to their body size.

Wolves also have a longer muzzle and much bigger teeth than dogs do, and wolves’ jaws are bigger and stronger in order to crush the strong bones of large prey like elk and caribou. Also, many dogs have naturally floppy ears, while wolves never do except as puppies.

Unlike the huge variety of combinations we see in dogs, wolves have less variation in eye and coat color. Wolves’ eyes are yellow while dogs’ eyes are usually brown or blue. Also, wolves are typically one solid color such as gray, brown, black, white or tan, whereas dogs can have any variation of colors, patterns and coat types.

Finally, there are a few small quirks that separate the physical build of dogs and wolves. Wolves have much larger middle toes on their front feet, making their pawprints easy to distinguish. Wolves also have a pre-caudal gland at the base of their tail used to release pheromones that mark other wolves as members of their pack; dogs generally don’t.

Interestingly enough, scientists believe dogs have evolved extra muscles in their face that give them the ability to move their “eyebrows,” purely so they can make facial expressions that we humans can more easily understand!

Another major way wolves and dogs differ biologically is with regards to their reproduction cycle

Female gray wolves only have one heat cycle a year, at a very specific time and for a very good reason: they must give birth in spring in order for their pups to have enough time to mature and grow before winter. By contrast, female dogs that haven’t been spayed go into heat twice a year, during any season.

Dogs also reach sexual maturity much faster than wolves do; a female dog is capable of getting pregnant as early as 6 - 9 months of age (though it’s not recommended), while a female wolf is not sexually mature until she is 2 years old (and actually, she probably won’t reproduce for another couple of years).

It’s obvious why our ancestors would breed dogs to be different from wolves in this way. Since we are able to keep our dogs warm and well-fed even in winter, there’s no reason to only give birth in the spring. We also wanted our dogs to be able to breed quicker and more often, so we can continually create new puppies to be our companions, hunting buddies, guardians and friends!

Behavioral Differences Between Wolves and Dogs

Even if dogs and wolves looked pretty much the same, the biggest difference between the two would still be their behavior. Dogs will do many things that wolves simply can’t or won’t — and vice versa.

Sociability with humans

One of the most incredible aspects of domestication is that dogs naturally see humans as friends. Puppies will be excited to see us; even adult dogs with little interaction with humans tend to be drawn to us, soaking up every bit of our attention they can get. Dogs truly view us, a completely different species, as their beloved family members. They learn how to communicate with us; they can read our signals and expressions; they instinctively look to us for guidance or assistance. 

What’s really incredible is that dogs even understand uniquely human gestures, like pointing at something. After all, why would they understand that? Wolves don’t use hand signals to communicate. Dogs can even understand facial expressions; if you feel like your pal can read you and know when you’re happy, angry or scared, you’re absolutely right.

These are all behaviors that wild wolves — or any wild animal — don’t do naturally. While there are many wild species that can be tamed, very few are truly domesticated to the point where it’s literally in their DNA to love us.

Of course, that doesn’t mean wolves are antisocial. Wolves form extremely tight bonds with their parents and siblings — but they don’t naturally look to humans for affection or guidance, like dogs do. Wild wolves are cautious of us and see us as potential threats, not potential friends.

In fact, in some ways, dogs behave more like wolf puppies than adult wolves! The enthusiastic way our dogs greet us when we come home is similar to the way wolf pups greet their parents when they return to the den: with wagging tails and lots of licks. Dogs also keep their desire to play throughout their whole lives, while wolves generally don’t play much as adults.

To be fair, there have been zoos, wildlife centers and even some private individuals who have taken in wolf pups and claim to have built a strong bond with these wolves. But as Rover warns: 

“A recent study does show that wolves raised by humans can become attached to those humans, but they never replicate the behavior of domesticated dogs. The lead author of the study cautions people that wolves should remain wild animals.”

Different types of intelligence

People often wonder which canine is smarter: dogs or wolves? Did wolves sacrifice some of their fierce intelligence when they became our spoiled companions? Or, did dogs have to become more clever than their ancestors in order to keep up with our giant human brains?

Actually, the answer is…both! Or, more accurately, it all depends on how you measure intelligence. 

If you only look at training ability, you may conclude that dogs are much smarter than wolves. Dogs can understand and remember what we want them to do, and can be taught entirely new behaviors in a single session.

Wolves can be taught behaviors too, but as their caretakers in zoos and sanctuaries have discovered, they are much more likely than dogs to get frustrated and give up on training.

A wolf may not understand what you want him to do, and he also may not care. It’s just not worth his time to decipher our mysterious human commands in exchange for a piece of meat when he’s perfectly capable of finding food on his own.

However, if you look at independent problem solving, wolves are the clear winners over dogs. For example, wolf puppies and dog puppies are both capable of figuring out a puzzle toy and releasing the yummy treat inside. Yet on average, wolf puppies can solve the puzzle at a much younger age than dogs can.

Adult wolves can also solve more complicated puzzles than adult dogs can. If a dog can’t figure a puzzle out on their own, they are likely to turn to a human for help. Essentially, dogs will ask us to figure it out for them — or at least give them some direction on what to do.

Wolves, on the other hand, aren’t used to asking for help — at least, not from us — so they will keep working at the puzzle until they figure out how to solve it themselves.

Wolves are also much better than dogs at cooperative problems, ones that require multiple wolves to work together in order to solve. That makes perfect sense when you think about it, considering that wolves must work together as a pack in order to hunt and survive, while dogs usually hunt or work alongside humans.

For example, in one study, behavioral scientists designed a puzzle where two separate ropes needed to be pulled at the same time in order to provide access to a food reward. The wolves figured it out quickly. The dogs? Not so much. The dogs in the study remained confused until a human directed them to pull the ropes.

Once they understood the puzzle, the wolves were even smart enough to realize that if they were let into the room with the puzzle on their own, it was pointless to try it without a partner. The lone wolf would wait patiently until another wolf arrived to assist.

In the end, it’s hard to say if wolves or dogs are smarter — but both are clearly clever canines!

Prey drive and hunting instinct

Another big difference in the behavior of dogs vs wolves is that dogs don’t know how to hunt — not really

Many dogs have retained a strong prey drive — that’s the fancy term for the reason your pup goes sprinting after squirrels — but very few dogs can hunt like wolves. In fact, what we humans have done with dogs is take the natural hunting behaviors of wild wolves and adapted them to our purposes.

The herding behavior of many dog breeds came from the way wild wolves move to control prey animals and separate their target from the herd. Sighthounds utilize the wolf’s ability to detect quick motions and their desire to pursue fleeing prey, while scent hounds rely on the wolf’s ability to track wounded prey.

So while your family pup may no longer have the ability or desire to take down a fully-grown deer, many of their most fun and playful behaviors originated from long-ago killer instincts!

In the end, wolves and dogs are each perfect in their own way. Wolves are the perfect predators — while dogs are our perfect friends!

People and dogs are soulmates by any definition. We created them, we raise them, and we train them to be our ideal companions. Most of all, we love our best pals — and they love us back!

(And if Fido sometimes howls like his wolfish ancestors —  well, that’s just an adorable bonus!)

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