What makes your lovable pup so different from a wild wolf?
Most people know that dogs are a direct descendant of wolves. In fact, wolves and domesticated dogs have 99.8% identical DNA, so even though they look different, they’re actually the same species and can breed easily. So what makes dogs so people-friendly and wolves so wild?
1. Dogs communicate with humans. Wolves only bark or howl as a warning to their own pack, but all dog owners know that their pups have different ways of communicating with them. In fact, humans can differentiate between several different barks even when it’s not their own dog, including barks that indicate loneliness, a threat, a desire or happiness. Dogs have developed this ability during the domestication process to better communicate with their human owners.
2. Dogs can follow human gestures. No other animal, including chimps, understands human pointing. Researchers have conducted experiments with dogs and chimps alike, and only dogs can follow a human’s finger pointing—and even a human’s gaze—to retrieve a treat from under the correct bowl.
3. Dogs recognize human facial expressions. Other research indicates that dogs’ gazes track left when looking at a human face (but not at another dog’s face). This is the same thing humans do when looking at each other. For example, when you meet someone, you are more likely to look toward your left (or the right side of a person’s face) than your right. Dogs are the same way, indicating that they are attuned to human facial expressions. In fact, in experiments with wolf cubs, the wolves don’t even make eye contact with humans.
4. Dogs bond with humans. When a human mother breast-feeds her newborn baby, a hormone called oxytocin is released in both mother and child, forming a bond between the two. When a human pets a dog, the same thing happens—in both the person and the dog! This is also a big reason why people who own dogs live longer.
5. Dogs were bred to be tame. Scientists have experimented with breeding foxes, a cousin of wolves, for tameness. After just 50 years, the foxes were tame enough to pick up, cuddle, and live in a home—and not only that, the tame foxes started developing differences in appearance, including floppier ears, curlier tails, and lighter fur. It took a lot longer for humans to select the tamest wolves and breed them into domesticated dogs, but the same thing happened, which is why dogs are so cute and cuddly today (and why many don’t look like wolves at all). Not only that, but scientists have also raised wolf cubs from birth to see if they could get the same tame effect with nurture, but wolves were terrible and destructive pets. Nature it is!
6. Dogs are smart. It takes human babies until the age of two to be able to associate scale models and pictures with a certain object, and smarter dogs can do this too. If you train your dog to know a word and go fetch that object, he might also be able to fetch the object after seeing a small model or photo of it. They truly are impressively smart!