Before we can talk about what a dog is, we have to clear up some misunderstandings. The first, most important one is:
A DOG IS NOT A TAME WOLF. IT IS NOT EVEN THE DESCENDANT OF THE WOLF.
Until about a hundred years ago, dogs were dogs, and other animals were other animals because that’s how God made them. Then came Darwin. People began to speculate that animals that looked like each other must be related to or descended from each other. Dogs and wolves were thought to be relatives, but even so, people who wanted to know about dogs still looked at dogs. It wasn’t until after the second world war that the idea of the dog as a barely tamed wolf in our living rooms became popular. This was mostly the doing of Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian biologist who emigrated to the United States after the war.
Lorenz had been a fervent member of the Nazi Party before and during the war, and was thusly raised with the Nazi Cult of the Wolf. This cult painted a picture of the wolf as a noble animal that was very like the Nazi. It was merciless and wild, a member of a natural hunting elite. The wolf lived in tight, closed groups that were — surprise, surprise — organized just like the Nazi Party. There was the mighty male Alpha leader to whom all gave unquestioning loyalty, and who ruled the group with an iron hand. There was a strict hierarchy, which could never be ignored. The lower-downs didn’t mind this. They loved their Alpha leader, in fact, the more he bullied them, the more they adored him. Lorenz was specialized in the study of birds, but once in the US he didn’t hesitate to publish popular books about dogs. He presented the dog to us as a kind of tame wolf that still lived in a Nazi-like mental world, ever struggling with us to climb up a little higher on the hierarchy. He warns us not to get sentimental. When you get down on the floor to play with your dog, the dog is pretending to be friendly, but meanwhile it is using the game to look for chinks in your power. It will grasp every opportunity to shift the power relations to its own advantage.
No one dared to call Lorenz on the fact that he was projecting, probably partly because he had meantime won the Nobel Prize, and probably partly just simply because the idea of living with a wolf is so romantic and appeals to so many of us. His vision on dogs became widely popular, and now many of us are unknowingly applying a human dictatorship model to our relationships with dogs.
Later, with the field of genetics on the rise, it seemed to many that Lorenz might be right about the dog being a kind of wolf. There is still much dispute about how close the dog and the wolf are. Some believe the dog split off 130,000 years ago, others think it was as recent as 12,000 years ago. Some think we tamed the dog’s ancestor, some think (and we are inclined to agree) that the animal made the jump into a new ecological niche all by itself. In any case, the dog is not the descendant of any living wolf. Its ancestor, whatever that ancestor may have been, is, by definition extinct.
Besides the time span, there also is much dispute about what genetic similarities mean. To give some examples, we differ by about 2% genetically from chimpanzees — but human males and females also differ genetically by about 2% (men have 2% less DNA). Can we learn about humans by studying chimpanzees? Can we learn about men by studying women? In other words, is 2% a little or a lot? Before you try to answer that, think about this: humans differ by only about 15% from rabbits genetically. We think it’s reasonable to say that a rabbit is more than seven times as different from a human female than a human male is, but on the other hand, is it (or is it not) seven times more different from us as a chimpanzee is?
In the end, we still don’t really know and this doesn’t matter. Apparently, very small genetic differences can lead to vastly differing behavior. Each species will behave in its own particular way, regardless of its genetic similarity to some other species. For a longer or shorter time, the species “dog” has been living in its own ecological niche and has become adapted to that niche. No matter what it started out as, and no matter when it stopped being a whatever else it was, the dog is now a dog. Treating him like a wolf will make him just as unhappy as you would be if everyone treated you like a chimpanzee, or worse yet, the way human men feel when people treat them like a woman. Meanwhile, let’s not forget that even wolves do not live in “dominance hierarchies.”
Forget about the wolf. When you look at your dog, try to see a dog and be ready to learn about him as he is standing there before you.
- Coppinger, R, Coppinger, L, Dogs: a startling new understanding of canine origin, behavior, and evolution, Scribner, New York, 2001.
- Koler-Matznick, J, The origin of the dog revisited, Anthrozoos 15(2):98 – 118, 2002.
- Deichmann, U, Biologists under Hitler, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MASS, 1996.
- Mech, LD, Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs. Canadian Journal of Zoology 77:1196-1203.
- Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Home Page. http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/mammals/alstat/intro.htm
- Sax, B, What is a “Jewish dog?” Konrad Lorenz and the cult of wildness, Society & Animals, Volume 5, Number 1, 1997. http://www.psyeta.org/sa/sa5.1/sax.html