Why dogs are nice but wolves are mean

Why dogs are nice but wolves are mean January 23, 2013

Dogs and wolves are pretty much identical genetically.  And yet dogs make loveable pets, whereas wolves can almost never be domesticated.   Why is that?  Scientists may have figured that out.  From the London Daily Mail:

The mystery of why dogs are man’s best friend, while their wolf cousins are seen as feral beasts may have been solved.

Research from the University of Massachusetts has found that wolves develop faster than dogs.

And although the animals are almost identical on a genetic level, these early experiences and developmental differences define their personalities, the researchers say.

Evolutionary biologist Dr Kathryn Lord studied how seven wolf pups and 43 dogs reacted to smells, sounds and visual stimuli.

She discovered both animals develop their senses at the same time.

The sense of smell at two weeks; hearing at four weeks; and vision by six weeks, on average.

However, the two subspecies enter what’s called the ‘critical period of socialisation’ at different stages.

This period of socialisation is when animals begin exploring their world without fear.

As the period progresses, fear increases and once the window of socialisation has closed new sights, sounds and smells will be seen as unfamiliar and scary.

For wolf and dog pups this period of socialisation lasts for four weeks.

During this time, dogs are usually introduced to humans and other animals so will be comfortable with them forever.

Wolves traditionally are not, and this makes them consider humans as threats when and if they do eventually come into contact with them.

The study also found that wolves enter this period of socialisation when they are two weeks old, whereas dogs don’t enter it until they’re four weeks.

This means that when wolves begin exploring their world they are still blind and deaf.

By the time a wolf pup’s sight and hearing has fully developed, they are closer to the end of their socialisation window so their levels of fear are heightened.

This means that even if they come into contact with humans during this period, they may still be wary and fearful of them. . . .

The data may help to explain why, if you want to socialise a dog with a human, all you need is 90 minutes between the ages of four and eight weeks.

But with a wolf pup, achieving even close to the same fear reduction requires 24-hour contact before they reach three weeks old.

And even then you will not get the same attachment or lack of fear.’

via Wolves versus dogs: Why a wolf will never be man’s best friend. Scientists find out why dogs become domesticated | Mail Online.

UPDATE:  More dog/wolf research in the news:  Dogs can eat starches (like dog biscuits), whereas wolves just eat meat (like a piece of your arm). Speculation is that dogs acquired this power as human beings got into agriculture.  See this.



Wolves have a reputation for being feral beasts, but research has found that they first explore their world when they are still blind and deaf making it a scarier place than for dogs

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  • sg

    Domestication comes from breeding aka selection. An interesting example is the Russian fox:


  • sg

    More info and some hypotheses on wolf vs. dog. Great article, very interesting.


  • sg

    More on domestication with Russian foxes:

    The first physiological change detected was in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. This system is responsible for the control of adrenaline, which is a hormone that is produced in response to stress, and controls fear-related responses. The domesticated foxes had significantly lower adrenaline levels than their undomesticated cousins. The researchers hypothesized if the foxes were not afraid of humans, they would produce less adrenaline around them. This explains the foxes’ tameness, but it doesn’t account for their changed fur coloration patterns. The scientists initially theorized that adrenaline might share a biochemical pathway with melanin, which controls pigment production in fur. Further research has since supported this initial hypothesis.

    And so it was that selecting for a single behavioral characteristic— allowing only the tamest, least fearful individuals to breed—resulted in changes not only in behavior, but also in anatomical and physiological changes that were not directly manipulated.

  • Tom Hering

    Wolves normally try to avoid humans, and there are no fatal wolf attacks reported for 2012 in the U.S. Whereas 31 fatal dog attacks have been reported for 2012 – most involving the victims’ own pets or a neighbor’s dog.

  • Paul Reed

    The materialist evolutionist w0rldview certainly has an explanation here regardless of whether it’s right or wrong. The “niceness” of dogs is something that is determined genetically, and someone brought up the domesticated silver fox as another example. And it’s something you can either breed for. But this raises the question, does this same supposed phenomenon also happen in people? Are we more or less moral because of our genes? Does the woman who aborts her baby because its father is a rapist — is she doing future generations a favor?

  • mikeb


    I remember watching something about the Russian fox on PBS a few years ago. Some of the foxes that had been tamed via selective breeding were selectively bred to reproduce aggressive, wild foxes. It did not take very many generations to get back to “normal”. Interesting on so many levels.

  • SteveD

    Interesting idea, but they don’t play out in the real world. Wolf pups bred in captivity and exposed to human contact are still quite aggressive and dangerous. Much more going on that just a four week socialization window. . .

  • I read years ago — I think it was in Smithsonian — that dogs are developmentally stunted wolves. This can be seen in their physical appearances, especially in those breeds that look least like wolves. Dogs remain “puppies” throughout their lives, and are thus less dangerous. Or so the theory went.

  • WebMonk

    Paul, I don’t know where you got that idea. I have a cousin who works at a wild animal rehabilitation center. She raised a litter of wolves from birth. (mother was poisoned/hit-by-car, but still able to give birth before dying a day later)

    She bottle-fed the pups along with her co-workers, and the wolves were as friendly as dogs. Where you get the idea that a wolf/dog’s friendliness is genetic, I have no idea. It’s not. Check your information source – they fed you junk.

    Wolves bred in captivity are wild too, as this study explains, but if they are raised from birth by humans then they’re as friendly as dogs.

  • sg

    “Wolves bred in captivity are wild too, as this study explains, but if they are raised from birth by humans then they’re as friendly as dogs.”

    This is an overstatement. They can be socialized somewhat, yes, as the article notes, but not to the extent dogs can be on average. Also, beta wolves are not the same as the alpha ones.

  • sg

    At least one gene is linked to aggression in humans:


    Again, socialization matters. Having a certain gene doesn’t necessarily determine behavior but incidence rates of behaviors correlate.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Of course, selective breeding will enhance the probability of an animal being friendly. But, as Webmonk indicates, a lot depends on nurture too, as this article seems to indicate.

    A long term study of 3 groups should do the trick, though:

    a). Captives wolves who are allowed to breed freely.
    c). Captive wolves who are bred selectively, optimizing for passiveness.
    d). Dogs, as a control group. Maybe more than one control group – a more wolf like dog (like an Alsatian), and a more friendly, passive animal (like a golden retriever).

  • fjsteve

    You know why Russian foxes are bred to be so aggressive? Because in Soviet Russia, rabbit hunts you! Ba-ding!

    Thank you, thank you very much. I’ll be here all week. Try the veal.

  • kerner

    Breeding has a great deal with how a dog relates to people and other animals. I have been around German Shepherds (Alsatians) most of my life, and they are bred to be highly protective, but rarely overtly agressive, yet they do retain enough of a predatory instinct to want to hunt. Therefore, training is very important. The key to making a German Shepherd a good dog for children is to train the dog to think of the children as sheep (slow, stupid crteatures the dog is supposed to protect, not harm) and not a rabbit (food, or a thing to hunt and kill for the fun of it).

    On the other hand, dogs (even “passive” breeds, like golden retrievers, with which I also have a lot of experience) can become people agressive due to poor owner behavior. Dogs are by nature “pack” oriented animals. Packs have orders of dominance, and most dogs have a pretty good idea where they rank in the pack. And the dog must, absolutely must, understand that a human is the alpha, and not the dog. This is much more a matter of psychological, rather than physical, dominance. Dogs can be taught this early, but they can forget it later in life. I have seen many a dog bite a child or even its adult owner because the owner failed to psychologically keep the dog in its place.

    These dog owners were very nice people, but they should never have ownerd dogs. Their dogs had to be destroyed for biting humans. Dogs are not fluffy toys, or human beings. You have to treat them like, well, dogs. If you don’t you will lose control over the animal and have to destroy it. This doesn’t mean you can’t love a dog. But if you really love the dog, a person has to do what is necessary for the dog to thrive in human society. And that means psychologically dominating the dog.

  • Paul Reed


    I agree with you.

    I was pointing out the view of materialistic evolution, which I DO NOT agree with. Here, genes create a conscience. And of course like many genes, certain things in the environment give them a larger or smaller affect. So, you’re basically just a product of your genetic makeup and environment, and nothing more.

  • Pete

    None of this does much in terms of explaining cats who are clearly minions of the Dark Force.

  • Pete

    Sorry, Tom.

  • mikeb

    Pete @ 16


  • WebMonk

    Paul @15, your statement “The “niceness” of dogs is something that is determined genetically” is completely false. I’m not sure how you’re making that statement and also agreeing with me when I disagree with it. Color me confused.

    sg @10, I did overstate it a bit, or perhaps didn’t explain fully. The human-raised wolves were more aggressive than most dogs, but weren’t in the least “wild”. There’s a big difference between wolves “raised in captivity” and “wolves raised by only by people from day one”. (which addresses what SteveD @7 mentions)

    I would assume there were differences within the litter with some being more dominant/aggressive than others. I’ll have to ask what happened to them, because that was years ago.

  • I wonder if any one finds interesting (as I do) the apparent correlation between this article and Genesis 9:1-2

    ”And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. 2 The fear of you and the terror of you will be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea, into your hand they are given.”

    The apparent correlation that I am speaking of is the fear of man upon animals which in some way separates us socially. The scripture seems to indicate this is primarily due to a sovereign act of God upon creation rather than to a biological mechanism. Any thoughts?

  • Tom Hering

    JD (@ 20), Genesis 9:1-7 seems very odd. First, there’s a blessing. Then, a statement about man killing creatures for food. Then, a law concerning the killing of man. Finally, the blessing again. The point seems to be that even with God’s full blessing upon him, man will be a killer, and the world over which he has dominion will be a place of fear and death. Next comes the strongest possible contrast, 9:8-17. God promises to never again send a flood to destroy either man or beast (His covenant is with both!). God is merciful, while fallen man is anything but.

  • Joanne

    Animals that are consistently hunted by man, are more wary/fearful of humans and avoid them. I read many years ago that the Florida Aligator was a shy animal and would avoid humans if possible. I live in Louisiana, we once had a pet alligator (not ours) that had grown too big for it stupid boy to control. He brought it over to show it off, it got away and went straight under our house (back when all southern houses were built up off the ground on brick piers). It took us weeks to get the hissing monster out from under the house and had to keep the dog in the house (something unheard of then). Finally daddy had to get a troop of men with ropes and tape to crawl unter there and pull it out and carry it off to the swamps.

    Thing is, many dangerous animals will lose their fear of men if we don’t hunt them regularily. In Louisiana we have a nice long alligator hunting period, perhaps you seen some of the reality shows. That keeps alligators always avoiding and backing away from humans. In Florida, the fairly new population there thought that the alligator was naturally shy and fearful of humans even put it in print. And, the stopped hunting them (Florida has many fewer alligators than Louisana). Then the deaths started usually in the lakes where people swam. Children and dogs went first, then parts of adults. The gator clamps down on a limb and does a fabulous twisting spin and snaps the limb right off. They have begun to hunt alligators in Florida again, but by that time the Florida aligator had lost almost all it fear of humans and was quite agressive to choosing people for food. Now or course it Burmese Pythons, another stupid Florida animal problem (Louisiana’s most stupid animal problems are nutria and red ants, sigh). They have now opened a northeast square of the upper Everglades in Palm Beach County to a legal hunt for the pythons. They have no idea how many are in the main parts of the Everglades, but letting Bubba hunt them into extinction (in America) is a no brainer.

    Just like Europe, man in America has minutely managed the environment. The Indians would burn the Shenandoah Valley evey year, to keep it a prairie so that they could hunt the bison attracted to all the grass in the sunny, treeless valley. The bison originally were native to the whole continent, and some were forest dwellers. We even had swamp bison.

    We’ve got to develop hunting periods for wolves and grizzly bears to inculcate and maintain a fear of man in them. They should avoid us and not see us as food, but as probable and very possible killers. They are not naturally afraid of us as we have learned so well. Naturally, we are just another item on the menu.

    P.S. I have three cats. They call them domestic cats. Why do they do that? Is it just because they are small and can’t kill and eat us. They live with us, but only on their terms. Cats just ain’t dogs.

    P.S.S. For 15 years had the smartest Border Collie. He’d learn things you didn’t want him to learn when you only did it once. And, every single day of his life he went for the alpha position. We’d read the books, you can’t have a dog that smart and be unprepared. Everyday we had to push him back to gamma position, “me human, you dog.” I had to admire his pluck, but it was truely every day. He was born to be alpha and only constant pecking order maintenance kept us half-a-foot ahead of him. Loved that dog, still do.

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