Monday, February 4, 2013

Another Reason Dogs and Wolves are Different

Dogs and wolves share a similar genetic profile.
So why are their behaviors so different?

You can teach a dog to come when called, 
or even come while riding a bike.

But a wolf is only interested in the scent trail you left 
while you were walking from wherever you were to where you are now.

What's behind the differences isn't clearly understood. In a recent paper in the journal Ethology, evolutionary biologist Kathryn Lord's doctoral research (University of Massachusetts Amherst) reveals that differences in later behaviors might be related to the pups' earliest sensory experiences during the critical period of socialization, the brief period when a puppy's exposure to novel things results in long-term familiarity.

Domestic dog pups
Red wolf pups

Lord's research demonstrated that dog and wolf pups acquire their senses at the same time:
  • Hearing:  Onset 19 days, reliable by 28 days
  • Seeing: Onset 26 days, reliable by 42 days
  • Smelling: Reliable by 14 days (onset likely earlier)

What's different?
  • Dog pups wait until 28 days to explore their environment when all senses are operational. 
  • Wolf pups begin exploring the world at 14 days, relying solely on scent, when they are still blind and deaf.
Although wolves are tolerant of humans and things they were introduced to during the critical period, they don't generalize that familiarity to other people or novel things when they mature. Dogs on the other hand, can generalize, and if properly socialized are not spooked by novel sounds and sights.
Wolves like to hang out with other wolves.
Dogs adapt to new experiences.

Why do dogs and wolves behave so differently as adults?  Lord's conclusion is that at the gene level, the difference may be when the gene is switched on, not the gene itself.

Are wolves rewired for smell?
What  could that mean?  Research has shown that the brain is capable or rewiring itself in dramatic ways. Early loss of a sense affects brain development.  For instance, even though the developing auditory cortex of  a profoundly deaf infant is not exposed to sound stimuli, it doesn't atrophy due to lack of use. Rather it adapts and takes on processing tasks of other senses including sight and touch. 

Perhaps wolves see the world in smell, and dogs see it a lot more like we do.

Click here to read the journal article, A Comparison of the Sensory Development of Wolves (Canis lupus lupus) and Dogs (Canis lupus familiaris), by Kathryn Lord, Ethology, February, 2013.

To read a good synopsis of the article, click here.

Or check out my blog post in Bark Magazine.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting comparison and my dog cannot smell something even if it is right in front of him. If I throw a ball or stick, he cannot find it unless he sees where it lands and if he is searching he does a grid search. Now he is older and deaf and I notice he is always sniffing, so I would say his sense of smell is being used more now that he has lost others.