Who is “Better” – Wolves or Dogs?

With the “dogs-disguised-as-wolves” model of understanding dog behavior still unfortunately a popular one, we thought it would be interesting to take a quick look at domestication and how dogs and wolves are different.

It is commonly agreed that dogs were domesticated from wolves and this process was well under way over 14,000 years ago.  That is a VERY long time for differences in both physical and behavioral characteristics to develop between wolves and dogs.  Dog breeds have been created that look nothing like their wolf ancestors –  St. Bernards and Chihuahuas easily come to mind.

Significant behavioral changes have occurred as the result of domestication.  Some have to do with reproductive behavior.  Dogs can whelp multiple litters in one year, neither male nor female dogs are monogamous, and males typically don’t help rear the young – all of which are just the opposite in wolves. 

Dogs are also more vocal than wolves, or at least the quality and frequency of their vocalizations are different.  Wolves rarely bark; most dogs do a lot of it.  While some dogs do howl, species-wide, it’s not nearly as consistent a behavior as in wolves.

When compared to wolves, dogs are much less neophobic, meaning they aren’t nearly as afraid of “new” or unfamiliar things (and people) they encounter.  Dogs are predisposed to form social attachments to people, but wolves are not.  In addition, the sensitive period for socialization in wolf cubs is of shorter duration than the 4-12 weeks of age identified in dogs.  Wolf cubs apparently require more contact time with individuals before social attachment forms.  

Dogs are sometimes labeled as less intelligent than wolves and physical “wimps” compared to wolves.  There’s no doubt that the “lap dog” breeds – Pekinese, Pomeranians, toy poodles, and other small breeds, can’t hold a candle to the endurance and stamina of wolves. 

But other breeds and individuals are very active and industrious, such as the huskies we use as sled pulling dogs or dogs used to herd sheep and cattle.  In fact, some working dogs likely spend a greater part of their days, on average, more active than most wolves.  Wolves, like most wild predators, aren’t constantly hunting for food.  They spend much of their time just “hanging out” and being sociable with others in their group. Wolves are capable however of traveling long distances when needed.  But so are competitive sled racing dogs. 

What about the comparable “intelligence” or cognitive capacities of dogs and wolves? Dogs and wolves live very different lifestyles that require very different abilities and skills.  What a wild wolf needs to be able to do to find food, breed and survive is different than the skills and behaviors that contribute to a pet dog living successfully in a home. We ask very different things from our dogs than nature demands of wolves. 

Studies of feral dogs show that they aren’t as good as wolves at hunting and killing large prey like deer and elk.  This inability to bring in large amounts of food to feed themselves and their pups is probably one of the reasons why feral populations of dogs aren’t very successful at surviving and breeding in most situations. 

Wolves are better than dogs at solving some problems on their own, such as getting into a puzzle box to get food, but dogs are much better than wolves at using subtle cues from people to solve problems.  Through domestication we’ve selected dogs to be very attuned to our behavior and to work with us to do things.

For every thing that wolves do better than dogs, there are other things that dogs do better than wolves. These differences don’t make dogs and wolves more or less intelligent than the other, but just reflect the fact they are adapted to different lifestyles.  

Delve into more depth about what science has to say about the cognitive abilities of dogs, their social relationships with each other and with people, and discover how the techniques behavior scientists used to study behavior can improve your ability to understand and modify dog behavior.  Take a look at our on demand, online webinar course “Shining the Light of Science on Canine Behavior”. at PetProWebinars.com.


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