If dogs are NOT humans and NOT dolphins (as we saw in parts 2 and 3) then we must ask the question, “What is a dog?” 

The domestic dog is a social, predatory, canine species that descended from the wolf. Somewhere along the millennia wolves became dogs and dogs became “man’s best friend.” No one knows for sure when, where or how this domestication took place but the current scientific consensus is that the dog’s only direct ancestor is the gray wolf. 

The article in Smithsonian Magazine, “When and How Did Wolves Become Dogs?” (2018), states:

“Pugs and poodles may not look the part, but if you trace their lineages far enough back in time all dogs are descended from wolves. Gray wolves and dogs diverged from an extinct wolf species some 15,000 to 40,000 years ago.” – Smithsonian Magazine 

According to an article in The Guardian, “How Hunting With Wolves Helped Humans Outsmart The Neanderthals” (2015), anthropologists Pat Shipman theorizes that around 40,000 years ago becoming allies with wolves helped Homosapiens defeat the Neanderthals. 

There are many domestication theories based on archeological findings, DNA evidence, observations of tribal cultures and a fair amount of educated guesswork but none are certain, hence the term theories. Let’s face it, human history is largely unknown but we know one thing for sure; we have a very long, symbiotic history with dogs. Despite the discrepancies in details, there appears to be no question that dogs descended from wolves. However, that was a long time ago, so the current question is, how similar are the dogs and wolves of today? 

How Closely Related Are Dogs And Wolves? 

In their book, “Let Dogs Be Dogs” (2017), The Monks of New Skete & Marc Goldberg state:

“In 1993, both the Smithsonian Institution and the American Society of Mammalogists classified our beloved domestic dog, or Canis lupus familiaris, as a subspecies of Canis lupus, the gray wolf.” – Monks of New Skete and Marc Goldberg 

In his book, “Dog Sense” (2011), biologist John Bradshaw states: 

“Dogs are indeed wolves, at least as far as their DNA is concerned; the two animals share 99.96% of their genes….we must turn to the gray wolf as the only one of the canids to have been domesticated successfully, if by successfully we mean surviving into the modern world…If we set aside the artificial distinction of domestication for a moment, we could say that the wolf has evolved into the dog.” – John Bradshaw 

In his book, “Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training: Volume 1”, (2001) Steven R. Lindsay states:  

“Although contested in the past, the biological ancestry of the dog is now certain. On the basis of both genetic and behavioral studies the dog is a domestic wolf.” – Steven R. Lindsay 

So, the science is pretty conclusive that domestic dogs and their wild relatives remain very closely related to this day. 

The Effects of Domestication

At this point it might be tempting to believe that dog psychology is identical to wolf psychology but that would be a mistake. Dogs are descended from wolves, they have evolved from wolves, they are domesticated wolves but domestication is the key word there. Sometimes people confuse the term domesticated with the term tamed. A tamed wolf is just a wolf that has been raised with humans but is still 100% wolf. The domestication of wolves is something that happened over thousands of years and created dogs. 

Simply looking at the immense variety of dog breeds that exist today makes it obvious that domestication has created something significantly more than a tamed wolf. From teacup chihuahuas to Great Danes to bulldogs to greyhounds, it is obvious that even a subtle change in DNA can cause significant changes in appearance and behavior.  

In his book, “The Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training: Volume 1” (2001), Steven R. Lindsay gives several well stated points regarding the behavior of wolves and dogs: 

“Understanding dog behavior rightly begins with a study of wolf behavior. However, a long history of domestication behaviorally segregates dogs from wolves, and one must take care not to overly generalize between the two canids in terms of their respective motivations and behavior patterns…Selective breeding has altered developmental rates, behavioral thresholds for the display of dominant and submissive behavior, behavioral tendencies and temperament traits, social bonding, and trainability….Dogs never fully mature but remain in most respects at a developmental stage resembling that of a juvenile wolf…In the transformation from lupus to familiaris, wolves lose many of the well-defined agonistic rituals that ordinarily promote close and cooperative social interaction…the wolf’s highly predictable dominance ritual has disintegrated into an assortment of independent behavioral fragments…submission displays have also degenerated under the influence of domestication…In the place of clearly defined and unambiguous signals has arisen a collection of generalized signals that promote social promiscuity through exaggerated care-seeking behaviors, various active and passive submission fragments, and the perpetuation of a juvenile tolerance for varied and close social contact. In comparison with the wolf’s highly organized and integrated social structure, the dog appears disjointed, confused, unpredictable, and fragmented.” – Steven R. Lindsay 

So, basically, dogs have retained a lot of wolf-like behavior but, as Forest Gump might say, “It’s like a box of chocolates.” You never know what wolf behaviors you’re gonna get or how they might mutate into various behaviors that are similar to wolf behavior but slightly different. Hunting behavior that morphs into herding behavior is a classic example. With the stalking and chasing instincts intact but the grabbing and killing instincts repressed, a well-bred border collie will herd sheep without harming them quite naturally…a wolf, well, probably not so much. 

All that being said, dogs also remain behaviorally very similar to wolves in many ways. For the most part they share similar instincts, body language and social signals. In his article, “Dominance–Making Sense of the Nonsense” (2011), ethologist Roger Abrantes states:  

“Nobody questions that wolves and dogs have a very large, common repertoire of communication behaviors; and rightly so, for multiple observations have confirmed that they do communicate perfectly well. Their facial expressions and bodily postures are remarkably similar (except for a few dog breeds) with only a few small differences, these being smaller than cultural differences between humans from some geographically separated settlements.” – Roger Abrantes

Behavioral differences smaller than the cultural differences between some humans, that’s pretty similar, right?

Of course there are still those that argue for the exact opposite view. For example: In their official position statement, “Dominance and Dog Training” (2009), the world's largest Positive/Clicker organization, the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, states: 

"Dogs are not wolves. The idea that dog behavior can be explained through the application of wolf behavior models is no more relevant than suggesting that chimpanzee behavior can be used to explain human behavior." – APDT 

Echoes of that statement have spread like wildfire throughout the Positive/Clicker Training community. For example: Celebrity dog trainer Victoria Stilwell’s article, “Dogs vs Wolves” states: 

“Today’s domestic dog is approximately as genetically similar to the wolf as we humans are to chimpanzees.”  – Victoria Stilwell 

Opinions about the use of dominance in dog training are one thing but these chimpanzee statements are verifiably inaccurate. What started out as a sarcastic position statement appears to have blurred the line between an ethical opinion and a scientific fact. Let’s put some science behind this with another quote from ethologist Roger Abrantes' article, “Dominance—Making Sense of The Nonsense” (2011): 

“Humans and chimpanzees (Homo sapiens and Pan troglodytes) diverged from a common ancestor about 6 million years ago, so we can expect them to have fewer common attributes than wolves and dogs (Canis lupus lupus and Canis lupus familiaris) which only diverged from a common ancestor about 15 to 20 thousand years ago according to recent studies (and by no means, more than 100 thousand years ago). The DNA of humans and chimpanzees differs to a greater degree than that of wolves and dogs (which is almost identical except for a few mutations). Humans cannot interbreed with chimpanzees; wolves and dogs can interbreed with each other and produce fertile offspring. Humans and chimpanzees are two completely distinct species. Wolves and dogs are two subspecies of the same species.” – Roger Abrantes

At the end of the day, the facts show us that dogs are both similar to and different from wolves in a variety of ways. I’m pretty sure everyone knows this. However, primarily due to the topic of dominance, the controversy over the relevance of studying wolf behavior when it comes to dog behavior and training continues. 

Is Wolf Behavior Relevant To Dog Training and Behavior? 

In my opinion, the study of wolves is very relevant to dog training and behavior modification, particularly wolves in the wild. The relevance of studying wild wolves is to appreciate nature, to see how packs of wild canines function without the interference of humans, to understand the evolutionary significance of dog behavior and to learn about canine social etiquette from the masters themselves. 

As for the dominance controversy? The fact of the matter is that dominance is a behavior displayed by both wolves and domestic dogs. Take wolves out of the equation and domestic dogs still display dominant behavior toward each other, as well as toward human beings. Studying dominance in wolves could give us a better understanding of the roots of the behavior and how smoothly it works when unaffected by humans. However, it’s important to understand that dominance does not even have a universally accepted definition, so I’m using the term broadly here. Dominance is a massively debated topic (which is beyond the scope of this article) and certainly not the only reason to study wolves. Dominance is only one of many behaviors that dogs have inherited from wolves. 

Dogs Share Friendliness And Many Other Traits With Wolves

There are many amazing traits that dogs have retained from wolves that have led to the amazing bond we share with them. In his book, Dog Psychology (1964), Leon Whitney puts it beautifully:

“Every trait of the dog’s ancestor has been found useful in some way. His propensity to dig has been the basis for the terrier breeds…the wolf’s sense of curiosity and the pause before attack has been the basis for the bird dog breeds. His barking on the trail has been the basis for the hound breeds; fetching home food, the basis for the retrieving breeds; his sticking with one quarry until it has been caught even though it runs through a whole herd of others of its species, the basis for the bloodhound’s and hound breeds’ stick-to-it-iveness. It’s natural friendliness and loyalty to others of its family has been the basis of the friendliness and loyalty of the dogs kept for companions and pets.” – Leon Whitney 

I love that passage so much! I especially like the part about “friendliness and loyalty”. Did you notice that he doesn’t even mention dominance? 

If we go back even further we find this quote from wildlife biologist Adolph Murie, who studied wild Alaskan wolves in the 1930-40s:  

“The strongest impression remaining with me after watching the wolves on numerous occasions was their friendliness. The adults were friendly toward each other and were amiable towards the pups, at least as late as October. This innate good feeling has been strongly marked in the three captive wolves which I have known.” – Adolph Murie 

Friendliness, not dominance, left the strongest impression. That’s a beautiful and powerful message that seems to have been overshadowed by all the drama over dominance. Let’s not forget it.  

How Many Wolf-Like Traits Are Shared With Domestic Dogs?  

There’s no cut and dried answer because it’s really a genetic mixed bag. On the one hand, if we look at dogs as a whole, we can say that almost all wolf-like traits show up in dogs. On the other hand, if we look at one individual dog, we may find many wolf-like traits nowhere to be found. Some of it may be random but much of it is due to selective breeding. Over the years some wolf traits have been bred out of certain breeds while being exaggerated in others. Today we have dogs of all shapes, sizes, colors, temperaments and specialized skill sets. 

Take the dog that “never met a stranger” as an example. He just loves everyone, has no sense of guarding his territory, is friendly towards every dog and takes no interest in chasing animals. You might say this dog is lacking a lot of wolf-like behavior. BUT, if you recall, friendliness towards family is part of the wolf. This dog has an exaggerated version of friendly behavior, which extends beyond family, while the territorial nature of the wolf has been suppressed. 

That same friendly dog, however, may guard his favorite bone and, although he doesn’t chase animals, may still shake and disembowel stuffed squeaky toys. He may scratch the carpet and spin in circles before lying down or howl at sirens. These are all instincts carried over from the wolf. 

Even typical problem behaviors like jumping up can be traced back to the dog’s wolf ancestry. Here’s a quote from Jean Donaldson’s book, Culture Clash (second edition 2013): 

“The origin of jumping up is in infancy. Wolf pups will jump up to lick the corners of adults’ mouths, triggering the latter to regurgitate food that the puppies can eat. This jumping up and licking is retained into adulthood as a greeting ritual. It’s extremely common in dogs though its root has faded.” – Jean Donaldson 

What I really appreciate is that, although Jean is a Positive/Clicker Trainer, she still recognizes the relevance of wolf behavior as the root of many dog behaviors. 

The Three Primary Drives In Dogs

As you can see, what wolf-i-ness shows up in domestic dogs can vary greatly. However, there are three primary drives (instinctive motivations or desires) that dogs have retained from their wild heritage which play an important role in dog psychology – Prey Drive, Defense Drive and Pack Drive. 

  1. Prey Drive – This drive comes from the dog’s predatory instincts to search and hunt for food which makes dogs want to scavenge, track, staulk, chase, grab, shake and kill things. Once they have something, they may also guard it. In most cases, the killing remains dormant but most dogs will have prey drive to some extent. This is problematic when dogs chase things such as cars, joggers or children, especially when the chasing leads to biting. Fetch, tug and scent games are healthy outlets for fulfilling this drive and motivating dogs for training.

  2. Defense Drive – This is commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” instinct but milder defense mechanisms also exist such as moving slowly, freezing, avoiding eye contact and various forms of submissive or appeasement behaviors (sometimes called Calming Signals). As a general rule, we want to avoid pushing a dog into the state of fight or flight. However, play fighting, wrestling or tug games can be acceptable outlets…as long as it’s just sparring. A healthy level of submission from a dog can be a good thing but there’s a fine line between submission and fear. Fear implies a lack of trust or a lack of understanding. Trust is more important than dominance and, in my opinion, you can’t have dominance and submission without trust. In other words, submitting to someone intent on harming you would be a horrible strategy because it would only make you more vulnerable to injury. Therefore, submission is only effective when there is trust that it will turn off, or avoid, an aggressive response. Humans often erode this trust by continuing to reprimand or punish the dog well beyond the point of submission. 

  3. Pack Drive – Sometimes referred to as Social Drive, this is the dog’s drive to interact with others, to be part of a group or pack. Some dogs are more independent than others but, for the most part, dogs are not designed to live a solitary life. Dogs can form very strong bonds with other dogs as well as with humans and other animals. Dogs can be perfectly happy in a multi-species pack, with or without other dogs, but I believe it is important that dogs spend some time with other dogs. Tapping into your dog’s pack drive is the best way to get true cooperation, develop intrinsic motivation and to have a dog that wants to be with you and work with you. Developing a strong pack drive between you and your dog reduces the need for treats, toys, leashes or other forms of extrinsic motivation. Being a benevolent, fun, fair, clear, competent, consistent, loving leader that is firm when necessary but only when necessary and only as firm as necessary is how this is done. The rule of the wolf is, “Never bite when a growl will do.” 

“Never bite when a growl will do.” – The Wolf 

How Do We know Which Drive Is Active?

Sometimes it’s not clear which drive the dog is in or there may be overlapping drives. For example: Playing tug with a dog could be tapping into Prey Drive, simulating the grabbing and shaking of a hunted animal, but it can also be attributed to the grabbing and shaking involved with fighting, which would be Defense Drive. Or, since it’s also a social activity, it could be Pack Drive. So which drive is it? I’d say, assuming the game is being played correctly, it’s probably all three. 

You may also hear the term “drive” used to describe other or more specific motivations such as “food drive”, “play drive” or “ball drive” but you will most likely find that they can be traced back to some combination of the three primary drives. 


What is a dog? The simple message is that a dog is an amazing canine species, evolved from wolves yet also uniquely evolved for living with and around humans. 

Can we treat dogs like family? Yes, of course, we just need to remember that we have a multi-species family so we can communicate and manage things in ways that register in the psychology of a dog. 

Can we use reward-based tactics like dolphin trainers do? Absolutely, we just need to know the limits of reward-based training and learn when and how to find balance. 

Do we need to study wolves in order to train dogs? No, absolutely not. You only need to study dogs to train dogs but hopefully you agree that it’s interesting and helpful to understand the roots of dog psychology. If nothing else, understanding that your dog’s behaviors have an evolutionary significance may give you some compassion for the challenges that dogs face simply by living in a human habitat. 

Being held captive behind walls and fences, only getting out for an occasion walk…on leash…at a human pace…for a mile or two, maybe only around the block…maybe daily, maybe only a few times a week…could this lead to behavior problems? Is this healthy for an animal that is so genetically close to the wolf?  

Wolves roam free, hunting wild game on a territory consisting of thousands of square miles, traversing 30-40 miles of unpaved terrain per day. Understanding the wolf in your dog’s genes may give you pause and maybe you’ll reconsider what you think a fulfilling life for a dog should be. 

So now ask yourself, does Fluffy need more exercise? How often does she get to run and explore off-leash in an open, natural environment? Are her drives being fulfilled? Does her pack need a human leader? Would she benefit from more adventure? Are you trying to compensate for a lack of true fulfillment with cuddles and cookies? An accurate understanding of wolves is not an excuse for violent domination, it’s a call for leadership, structure and fulfillment. 

“A good pack leader is not a tyrant or an oppressor; a good pack leader is an inspiration, a loyal friend, a guide, a protector and a provider.” – Chad Culp

-Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Consultant

© Thriving Canine 2019

Related Articles:

Dog Psychology part 1: What Is Dog Psychology?

Dog Psychology part 2: Dogs Are Not Furry Humans

Dog Psychology part 3: Dogs Are Not Dolphins

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