Taming a Wolf

posted: 05/15/12
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Many domestic dog behaviors hark back to a time of their wild wolf ancestors.

To most people, the fearsome wolf of some fact and much fable seems too far removed from today's domestic dog to suggest anything more than a distant kinship. After all, the vast majority of dogs are gentle and usually crave human companionship. Wolves, on the other hand, are notoriously shy and can be extraordinarily vicious when cornered or confronted. And yet the fact remains: The progenitor of man's best and oldest friend is none other than the legendary creature who still symbolizes all that is wild and unharnessed in the world. And as any dog owner will confirm the wolf within remains amazingly near the surface.

Domestic dogs have inherited some of the sensitivity to the pack mentality and hierarchy that help keep the peace in wolf packs. As with wolf pups, the communicative behaviors signifying dominance and submission are often incorporated into dogs' play behavior. Whether a dog on its back is just having fun or is trying to appease dominant dogs would depend on whether this scenario was preceded by play bows or by aggressive threats by standing dogs.


When it comes to urine marking, trees are a favorite target of both domestic and wild canids. Whereas foxes, coyotes and other wild dogs mark territory to claim the resources within, domestic dogs have no such practical plan. Although some dogs may, in fact, be marking their territory, most simply seek out messages from other dogs -- and leave their own in turn -- because they enjoy it. An impatient owner who yanks the dog away when he stops to stiff at messages left by other dogs deprives the dog of a major source of pleasure.

Wolves not only mark trees with their urine, but in some cases, they also leave their scent on a recent kill. A message to other wolves to stay clear of their food supply? A signpost to help them return later when they are hungry? Scientists aren't sure of the answer.

Besides the territories they may be marking outside, most dogs have a smaller personal space indoors to which they retreat for security, such as a basket bed. When comfortable in their home environment, well-trained dogs will usually confine their marking behavior to the outside. However, the presence of another dog or the hormonal changes brought on by adolescence may cause a dog to assert itself by urine marking indoors.

After companionship, security is the main reason people decide to get a dog.

Defending territory or property is the domestic dog's inheritance from its communal-living wolf ancestors even if there is a trade-off of forest acres and sprawling, open land for a modest family home or car in a parking lot. Depending on the breed and the dog, this protective tendency may range from very intense to completely absent.

When domestic dogs perceive danger and bark out a warning, they are echoing a wolf behavior. Members of a wolf pack sound the alarm together but subordinate wolves, like domestic dogs, typically step back to let the pack leaders handle the active defense. Of course, many dogs bred for their aggressive tendencies, such as the Rottweiler, will actively defend their turf.

Reading Your Dog

Learning to read a dog is much like studying a foreign language. It requires concentration and recognition that communications can have quite different meanings in different cultures and depend on the context within which they are sent. Dogs bark, whine and growl, but mostly they "speak" via a body language designed to be understood dog-to-dog. The meaning may not be intuitively obvious to humans; decoding requires some practice. To understand "dog" successfully, we must stretch beyond ourselves into canine culture. What are the rewards of making this effort? Clearly a better reading of unknown dogs can prevent the occasional nip. But far more importantly, we gain the chance to interact more fully with the dogs that share our lives. We can reach more of an "inter-species" understanding and deepen our bond by our ability to communicate. It seems only fair. Over the centuries, dogs have become very adept at interpreting human body language and even at learning spoken words and hand signals. Now it's our turn.

A dog's tail, ears, eyes and mouth speak volumes without making a sound. Everybody recognizes a rapidly wagging tail as a sign of canine excitement, but the tail also is a primary conveyor of social standing and mental state. Don't make the mistake of automatically interpreting tail wagging to mean friendliness. Generally, a tail held above and away from the body or curled over the back denotes dominance and, especially if accompanied by bristling of the hair, threatens aggression. However, some dogs, such as the Siberian husky, have tails that curl up naturally, and would appear perpetually dominant based solely on a tail reading. A relaxed dog, comfortable in its surroundings, generally holds its tail lower and away from its body. On the other hand, a frightened or submissive dog holds its tail close to its body, tucked between its legs. But be aware that some breeds - greyhounds and whippets, for instance - naturally carry their tails between their legs, whether submissive or not.

A domestic mixed-breed mirrors the aggressive posture of his gray-wolf counterpart. Whether displayed by a small domestic dog or a wolf in the wild, this body language means business. Note the similarity in appearance: In each, the hackles are raised; the lips are pulled back in a snarl showing the large canine teeth; and the stare is intent on the subject of aggression. You can almost hear the growl. Few canines, or humans either, would misread the signals: "I am ready to bite!"

Knowing Your Dog

A dominant dog walks on its toes, often leaning forward, with a stiff gait. Ears and tail are up, the head is high, and the dog meets your gaze confidently. If it senses a challenge, its hackles rise and it stares more intensely. Your return stare, regardless of how sincerely and kindly meant, may be seen as a challenge and could elicit a bite. When meeting a more submissive dog, the dominant dog may attempt to place its muzzle or paws across the subordinate's shoulders or back. If a dog is highly dominant, it may respond to your touch on or at the back of its head with a growl or snap, reading into your hand position an attempt to express your dominance.

When they're feeling playful, dogs assume the easily recognized "play box" -- with tail up, front legs on the ground and an expectant, alert look. The dog may bark, but the context shows it is an excited, not a threatening, bark. An interested dog also exhibits this alert look, standing with mouth partially open, often with his head cocked to one side.

The fearful dog recoils, its ears flat and tail tucked, but it may also show signs of aggression with raised hackles and bared teeth. When confronted with mixed signals like these, always heed the ones from the "sharp end." This dog could bite, although out of fear, not to show dominance. The submissive dog crouches down with its ears back, eyes averted, tail low or between its legs. In a more extreme submissive display, the dog gradually rolls over onto its back, exposing the belly. The animal may even urinate a few drops, perhaps a throwback response to the first authority figure in its life, its mother, who stimulated her pups to urinate and then cleaned them up. Submissive urination is easily misunderstood, especially if produced in response to the owner's anger over some infraction. From a human perspective, the dog may seem defiant, even spiteful. But far from committing an act of defiance, this dog is trying to placate the angry owner by showing extreme submission.

While dogs' primary communication is via body posture and position, they also do some vocalizing. Many dogs seem to enjoy a good bark -- especially combined with howling -- often to their owners' frustration. A bark can express many things, from sheer joy at the thought of a game of ball to celebrating your arrival home or warning of an intruder. When a gentle bark accompanies a nosing of the leash or a tentative paw on your lap, it may even be a question or suggestion. Dogs will also growl when threatened, whimper and whine when seeking attention, and yelp in fear or pain. In each of these situations, a combination of the dog's body language and an understanding of context are vital to understanding your dog's message.

Body Language

With wolves, as with domestic dogs, body language can easily be misinterpreted.

In a display of dominance, a dog will stand over another dog, with raised ears and tail, staring intently. Another dog, lowered into submissive position, averts its eyes and holds its ears and tail down. While similar to the posturing of wild canids, this body language usually occurs in play with domestic dogs, and in most cases ends up with the two frolicking together.

The combination of selective breeding and cosmetic surgery molds dogs to suit human tastes, but such modifications can have an unexpected consequence: miscommunication among canines.

When dogs are bred for heavy, long coats, for example, other dogs have difficulty seeing their eyes, ears, mouth and raised hackles and the messages they normally convey. Surgically altering a dog's ears to remain erect and forward means that it will look perpetually alert and dominant, regardless of its true personality. And docking a dog's tail eliminates one way of conveying its feelings to fellow canines.

Most dog owners can easily differentiate between "I want to go out," and "Somebody's out there," as well as other barks conveying happiness, annoyance or even fear.

Small dogs, such as the toy fox terrier, are usually the most vocal of domestic canines, seeming to make up with volume and persistence what they lack in size.

The wolf emits a howling whistle to communicate with its brethren while they circle prey in the undergrowth, enabling the group to coordinate the attack.

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