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How “Wolf-Behavior” Has Slowly Disappeared Within Dogs

Studies of free-ranging dogs have documented the ways in which wolf behavior has been attenuated or extinguished over the course of evolution. In cities and villages, dogs that wander freely generally do not form packs, and while each dog has an identifiable home range that he sticks to, these ranges overlap almost completely with those of other dogs.

Free-ranging dogs do engage in wolf-like urine marking throughout their range, but they show almost no inclination to defend their territory against intruders. Even when feral dogs do form into packs, as they do sometimes in rural areas or in and around garbage dumps, these do not behave like wolf packs. Feral dog packs will sometimes more actively defend a territory and kill dogs that intrude, but they lack many of the more developed cooperative behaviors of wolves, such as care of the young by all adult members of the group. Reproductive behavior is also much looser, or at least certainly much more variable.

Ray Coppinger, a researcher, observed a huge range of sexual behavior among village and feral dogs around the world. At one extreme, male New Guinea singing dogs are fiercely competitive, but in a very non-wolf-like way; they behave more like the males of species that occupy and defend individual territories, and the mere sight of another male provokes attack. At the other extreme, and perhaps much more typical of dogs, were the village dogs he encountered in Venezuela who "were observed to line up and breed a female sequentially, with little aggression between them."

There is certainly no simple explanation for all of these behavioral differences between wolf and dog. Changes in neurotransmitter and hormonal levels, disruptions of the juvenile stages of development in which behaviors are molded, and the persistence of juvenile traits into adulthood are all factors in the transformation. The overall picture that emerges is that dogs are less confrontational and fearful, and while they retain a capacity for asserting dominance (as well as for acquiescing in subordination), their social interactions lack the urgency or insistence that one sees in wolf society. There is simply less at stake.

The social pressure cooker of the wolf pack has been replaced with a tepid cauldron. Dogs have no need and no inclination for the packed and charged social world of their ancestors. That essentially all male dogs mark their home range with raised-leg urinations (as do the relatively unsocial male coyotes), that no male or female dog is inhibited from breeding by other dogs, and that most free-ranging dogs do not form coherent packs suggests that dog society has fragmented from a group of fiefdoms to a rather more democratic polity.

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How “Wolf-Behavior” Has Slowly Disappeared Within Dogs

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