Some Reflections on Wolves and Dogs

I recently wrote two posts about researcher Kathryn Lord’s study of sensory development during the critical period of socialization in wolf- and dog pups. You can find my first post here, and the second post here. Here I offer some reflections inspired by her study. This post assumes familiarity with the previous posts.

Since this post is on the long side and likely to be of limited interest to all except the canine cognoscenti among you, let me give you my two main conclusions upfront. First, wolves may be viewed as socially retarded dogs that never grew up. (For reasons that will become clear, I say this in a spirit of playful seriousness.) Second, although for her study Lord stipulates that the duration of the critical period of socialization is the same in wolves and dogs, I don’t think we should abandon the standard definition, according to which the critical period in dogs is much longer, beginning at four weeks and ending at sixteen weeks. The greater duration of their critical period plays a part in why dogs are so different from wolves. And that, of course, is the deeper question driving Lord’s fascinating study, and my reflections here.  Let me be clear that none of these conclusions takes issue with the findings of Lord’s study.

To set the scene, recall that wolves and dogs are regarded as members of the same species (Canis lupus) because, in keeping with the biological species concept, they can mate and produce fertile offspring. Yet, although genetically dogs and wolves are closely related, behaviorally they are very different indeed. Their respective populations testify to this. Worldwide there are estimated to be 525 million dogs, but just 150,000 to 200,000 wolves. (As recently as 1600 CE, there were two million wolves in North America alone.)  In a world dominated by Homo sapiens, it’s been enormously adaptive to style yourself man’s best friend.

The causes of the differences between wolves and dogs are complex.  For instance, one recent study claims that learning how to love (i.e., metabolize) grains and potatoes figured importantly. Meanwhile, the Coppingers have argued that factors leading dogs to have a shorter flight distance than wolves played a crucial part, since this allowed dogs to take advantage of feeding at dumps, abbatoirs, and other places where humans leave edible waste. This shorter flight distance also literally allowed early dogs to get closer (and stay closer) to humans and their habitations than wolves ever do. As they got closer, they found other ways to benefit from and cooperate with human beings. And as they say, the rest is history—dogs have been a thoroughgoing part of human life for at least the last 20,000 to 30,000 years.

Lord’s findings suggest how early development in wolves ensures they have a closed society. Specifically, this owes partly to the fact that, unlike dogs, wolves have not developed all their sensory powers by the time the critical period of socialization begins. This fact helps explain why wolves are generally more fearful and less able to be socialized to humans. While they bond early and quickly with those in their own clan, that’s about the limit of their social horizons. In four weeks or less, the window of socialization slams shut. Lord points out that while the limits imposed by wolves’ uneven sensory development may appear to be a disadvantage, they actually serve them well in the wild by quickly determining the line between insiders and outsiders. Moreover, it’s hard to deny that if you’re a wolf, it’s adaptive to learn as soon as possible that human beings are not your friends.

Still, in another way of looking at it, the wolves’ limited sociability has not served them very well.  This brings me to what I called my first playfully serious conclusion, namely that wolves are socially retarded dogs that never grew up. In saying this I’ve simply inverted the conventional wisdom. For there’s an unfortunate and mistaken tendency on the part of some scientists and journalists to compare dogs unfavorably with wolves. For instance, the Coppingers and others have called dogs “dumbed down wolves”, and the article I cited above about dogs learning to love grains perpetuates the meme that dogs are “wolves that never grew up.” At best, such claims are true only in the very limited contexts in which they’re made. For example, the Coppingers suggest dogs are “dumbed down wolves” in the context of a hypothesis that the difference in flight distance between wolves and dogs owes in part to a diminishment of dogs’ powers of perception that in turn makes them less reactive. To generalize from this local observation to the grand conclusion that dogs are dumber than wolves is unwarranted. Justifying such a conclusion would require, for starters, a clear criterion of intelligence and its metrics; and no criterion that failed to measure the social prowess and breadth of behavioral capacities of dogs would be credible.

As far as I can tell, then, the idea that dogs are dumbed down wolves that never grew up has about as much credibility as the claim that wolves are socially retarded dogs that never grew up—which is to say, not much.  That said, let’s consider what might be said on behalf of my playful inversion of the conventional wisdom.

Let me start by saying that my standard will be that of evolution and biology generally, that is, the success of a species in preserving and propagating its kind in the natural world. It’s worth observing that for this discussion human beings and the world we’ve made are part of nature. We have, after all, emerged by the same evolutionary processes that governed the emergence of wolves and dogs and all other forms of life. I need to say this because we tend to forget that we are animals and part of the tree of life. A park I frequent has a sign that says “No animals permitted.” Nevertheless, I reliably see large brainy upright primates wandering around there, or sitting and watching as their young swing and climb on the monkey bars.


My point is that  many animals, including most famously the dog, have adapted to take advantage of our presence in the natural world. Contrary to a common misconception, we did not domesticate the dog; they domesticated themselves. Animals like dogs that benefit from relating with us have not left nature; they’ve simply engaged with a very strange and radical animal generated by nature.

With this in mind, I return to Lord’s observation that wolves’ adaptation serves them well “in the wild.” It serves them well in the sadly restricted locale called the wild, but viewed in terms of nature as a whole (of which humans are a part), it’s been a decidedly mixed blessing.  Their power of early independence comes at the price of limited social potential and thus limited behavioral flexibility in comparison with the dog. If this seems unfair, stop for a moment to consider the variety of behaviors dogs are capable of in contrast to wolves. In fact, the dog’s critical period permits a far more empowering education in the ways of the world, and the human world in particular. Again, setting aside our prejudices for or against the dog, and looking at it purely from an evolutionary perspective, dogs are a brilliant success story because they evolved to be able to enter an astonishing variety of more or less cooperative arrangements with the most intelligent, socially sophisticated animal on the planet, Homo sapiens. Talk about hitching your wagon to a star. This is why I say that from the standpoint of the social and cooperative potential of the species Canis lupus, which we can see shiningly developed in the dog, wolves are socially retarded dogs that have never grown up.

This brings me to the second main reflection encouraged by Lord’s study, namely, how to define the critical period. For the purposes of her study, she stipulates that the duration of this period is the same in wolves and dogs. She allows that her definition is more “stringent” than others because it includes only the most sensitive part of the critical period, “the time period when the animal would actively encounter novelty without human intervention.” The advantage of her stipulation is that it judges wolves and dogs by the same criterion. Let’s call this the “criterion of the wild”—a domain free from the deliberate intervention of humans.

While I accept the value of her stipulated definition for research purposes, I see no reason why the long-accepted duration of the critical period—as lasting from four to sixteen weeks in dogs—should be abandoned in favor of this more restricted one.  The “criterion of the wild” is fitting for wolves, but not for dogs—whose genius includes taking advantage of the benefits offered by human intervention. Thus, although the period between eight and sixteen weeks lies on the other side of an inflection point (determined by when dogs stop exploring novelty without our intervention), nevertheless the window of socialization is still open, and the education that’s possible—with the intervention of another species no less!—in those additional eight weeks plays a part in making dogs the extraordinary success story they are.

Nor, again, is there anything unnatural about human intervention during the critical period of a dog’s socialization. On the contrary, recall that from a biological standpoint dogs stand in an obligatorily dependent relation to us. A vital part of what makes dogs dogs, and not wolves, is their ability to learn and benefit from their contact with us. In this respect dogs’ situation is similar to our own, for we too may be familiarized with matters we wouldn’t pursue of our own choice. We are educated or led out (educo in Latin means to lead out) into the larger world by parents, teachers and other compassionate purveyors of force.

All things considered, therefore, it appears most accurate to say that the duration of the critical period in wolves and dogs is not the same, and that the much longer duration of the dog’s critical period plays a vital part in what makes them so behaviorally different from wolves.  As for wolves being socially retarded dogs, I take it back. We can learn much from comparing wolves and dogs, but ultimately each way of life has its own integrity.

Hat tip: Thanks to Carl Page for pointing out Kathryn Lord’s study to me.

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