Saturday, May 26, 2012


Are dogs like wolves?  Do they pack? Are there alphas and betas?  Left to their own devices would they hunt in groups, raise their young together and protect communal territory the way wolves do?  You won't find out by observing our indulged companion dogs.

The truth is, the study of pet dogs is 
more the study of human behavior.

To peel away human influence and get to 
the core of canine-ness, scientists must observe free-ranging dogs. 

In spite of their association with humans, these population have not been well studied. One exception is Luigi Boitani's 1984-1987 feral dog project. He studied 80,000 feral dogs that lived in a 150 square mile area in the mountains around Abruzzo, Italy. Feral dogs are defined as living in a completely wild state, independent of human interaction. I wrote an article about his study.  Click here to read it.  Otherwise here is summary: 

Do dogs maintain packs?
Yes and no.
Whereas wolves live in large packs of up to 20 members, with alpha pairs and subordinates, feral dogs live in groups  of two to six.  Overall, the group consisted of a core of two pairs.  One male usually took over the dominant role.  Feral dogs live a much more brutal life than wolves.  Their average life span is two years or less. During Boitani's three year study, the dogs produced 40 puppies in 11 litters.  Not a single pup survived long enough to produce offspring.  Hence, the groups are maintained by recruiting stray dogs from nearby towns while females are in heat.

Are dogs monogamous?
Yes, to the extent that wolves are.
Dogs maintained single partnerships until the death of one of the partners.  When a partner died or went missing, he or she was usually replaced by free ranging animals from local villages.  DNA sampling wasn't available in the mid 1980s, so there was no evidence as to whether or not the male partner sired the female's pups.

Are there alphas and betas in dog groups?
In wolf packs, alpha partners suppress reproduction cycles in beta members, so that the entire pack is available to to take part in raising the alpha pair's litter.  In feral dog groups, all females are capable of reproducing.  Boitana said he saw no indication of any attempts to control reproduction in other dogs.  Also,  during estrus cycles, aggressive behavior is much less pronounced in dog groups than what you would see in wolf packs.

Do dogs maintain territories?
Feral dog territories ranged from about seven to less than one and a half miles.  Like wolves, the food source anchors the territory. However, dogs are scavengers who eat primarily at garbage dumps, whereas wolves are predators.  Dogs don't show competition or aggression toward unknown dogs found around villages or food sources.  On the other hand, they showed strong aggression toward intruders trespassing in their core areas.  Although fighting wasn't unheard of, most clashes with interlopers were barking battles.

Are dogs carnivorous? Do they hunt and kill prey?
Whereas wolves primarily kill prey to sustain themselves, Boitani's dogs did not prey on livestock.  Rather they set up housekeeping at local landfills.  And unlike wolves that feed according to an elaborate hierarchy, dogs dine politely and independently of one another.

Do dogs raise their pups like wolves do?
And herein lies one of the biggest problem for dogs living in a feral state. Wolves (and coyotes) have one synchronized breeding season in the spring allowing pups a 12 month childhood in an extended family.  Dogs, on the other hand, can reproduce two times a year, in any random month with any random dog.  Consequently just as her vulnerable pups venture out of the den to explore a hazardous world, mother gets pregnant, and starts the process all over again. In wolf packs, not only the father, but the entire group, help raise and feed the young. Boitani found that in the dog families, though the female's male partner hung around the den, he did not participate in raising the pups.  Consequently, the mortality rate in puppies was extremely high.

Do dogs feed their pups like wolves do?
In the early stages of weaning, wolf parents eat their fill of a meal, then regurgitate their stomach contents in front of the pups.  Puppies initiate the behavior by licking the parents' muzzles (see photo left).  After a while the pups are presented with pieces of meat that they must chew themselves.  Wolf pups are raised and fed by the entire family. As pups require more food, the pack goes to great length to keep them fed. Dogs, on the other hand, won't sacrifice their own food to ensure the well being of their offspring, so pups rely strictly on nursing.  Although group members maintained very close contact with the mother, they didn't participate in puppy rearing.  Dad fed neither the mother of her pups. As a result, mother had to leave the den site to forage for herself.  The absence of the male parent contributes to the high mortality rate in feral dog populations.

Do dogs den like wolves?
Whereas wolves normally disturb the earth to dig dens, dogs den in natural cavities, from rock ledges to dilapidated staircases.

Do dogs communicate like wolves?
Probably not.
Although olfaction likely plays the biggest role in canine communication, body language is important, too.  The subtle lip curl, whisker quiver, glower of direct eye contact and rigid tail held high over the back speak volumes and tell others animals what to expect next.  Because wolves are relatively the same shape and size, they speak a common language.  In contrast, communication among feral dogs of extremely dissimilar shape, size, coat length, tail carriage, eye placement and ear position might be difficult. So how do feral dogs communicate?  Not very well.  Trivial conflicts often escalate to fighting.

Are dogs like wolves?
Not really.  Dogs are human inventions and they need people to survive.  They fill their own niche. And they're doing a pretty good job.  Whereas the worldwide population of wolves is around 40,000, the dog population is close to 500,000 million.  Less than a third are companion dogs.  The rest live on the fringe, relying on their wits, garbage, and if they're lucky, the kindness of strangers.

One of the Boitani study's feral dogs.


  1. It makes me wonder if the study would show different results if the feral dogs lived in the wild. In a city, the dogs still have human contact and scrap foods, so without that, I would think they may become more of a hunter. I guess we bred most of the instincts out of them, so it is more a role of survival than pack or family mentality.


  2. Debby - These dogs lived in a non-urban area, quite a distance from people. Regarding hunting, some dog kill animals, but it's unusual if they eat them. Also, I was surprised to see that they take partners and stay with them.

  3. Jane - The dogs are wolves because the first ever dog was a wolf domesticated by indians. So no matter what studies say i will always say that the wolf is a close relative to the common dog.

  4. Dogs don't really need us to survive, really, because they sometimes catch rabbits, mice and sheep. (It depends what's available and what's not, and also where they live) They may be domesticated but it doesn't mean they can't hunt for themselves. But they'd have trouble surviving without our help!

  5. I see some of the comments are a little misleading. Humans did not domesticate wolves and make them dogs - rather some brave wolves started to feed on the waste dumps just outside villages and domesticated themselves over generations. Only then, when there were half domestic, non-aggressive "wolves" did the humans find use for them. That makes dogs natural scavengers, that do occasionally hunt, but smaller game than wolves do. Dogs are also, due to their evolutionary history, able to eat fruits and plants.

    Even today there are feral dogs around the world that have none or very few ancestors that were kept and fed by humans. Pet dogs are the result of those feral dogs, not the other way around. Sure there are stray dogs people have abandoned, a lot of them, but the fittest of them survive just like the natural born feral dogs.