Are Dogs Descended From Wolves? Read to Find out.

The short answer is yes; dogs are descended from wolves. The how, why, or when is still debated, but DNA from ancient dogs found in Europe has shed light on some of these questions. The involvement of humans in the process may have been much less than we think it was. Read on to find out more…

Fossil Evidence – Dogs from Wolves

Experts still can’t agree on how exactly dogs came from wolves; they only know⸺based on DNA evidence⸺that they did. Researchers think dogs likely evolved from wolves at a single location somewhere between 20,000-40,000 years ago. Yes, that’s a pretty wide range. It was previously believed that there might have been 2 separate wolf populations that evolved separately into dogs. Still, that theory seems less likely as more DNA from ancient specimens has been found and analyzed.

Scientists examined the DNA from three dog specimens found in Germany and Ireland that were 4700-7000 years old. Researchers have established a shared ancestry between these dogs and modern European dogs. They also determined the rate of change that the DNA underwent to go from the 7000-year-old to a modern dog. Based on this rate of change, scientists were able to place the timing of the domestication of dogs between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago. It is believed that the split between eastern and western dog populations probably happened 17,000-24,000 years ago.

How Did Domestication Occur – Our Best Friends

It is thought that dogs may have been domesticated by accident. Wolves may have followed nomadic hunter/gatherers to feed on the food scraps left behind. Submissive wolves lingering nearby may have been rewarded with extra food scraps by these humans, thus favoring this trait, making them more likely to survive and pass along these genes. Submissive, friendly wolves evolved into dogs over generations as their relationship with humans became mutually beneficial.

The theory is that dogs essentially domesticated themselves, and humans played a small role. Dogs have a higher motivation for interaction with humans. Researchers found that most social dogs have a disruption in their genome that remains intact in wolves that are aloof. Interestingly genetic variation in this part of the DNA molecule in humans leads to William-Beuren syndome⸺a condition characterized by exceptionally friendly and outgoing behavior. This genetic variation in some ancient wolves would have made these animals uncharacteristically friendly. If humans began caring for these friendly wolves and they started breeding, it could have been the catalyst that brought about today’s dogs.

The alternate theory that humans somehow captured a Gray Wolf⸺Apex, predator, carnivore, and competitor⸺and it turned into Fido doesn’t seem as likely. I don’t think that is something we would have figured out 20,000-40,000 years ago.

What are the Differences Between Dogs and Wolves?

Problem Solving

Wolves are better problem solvers than dogs.

In one study, dogs and wolves had to work together to solve a puzzle in order to get a treat. “They had to pull a rope at the same exact time in order for the tray to slide in and give them food. The wolves figured it out quickly. The dogs never really figured out the problem until they had a human teach them that they need to pull the rope. Even more fascinating was that when the testers made the puzzle more challenging, the wolves still succeeded. The wolf would wait until the other wolf was let into the experiment, so they could get the treat together.”

PetMD
Physically

Wolves and dogs have the same number of teeth, but wolves have a larger, stronger skull and jaw. A dog has a rounder face and eyes and floppier ears with curly or short tails. A wolf can travel greater distances and spring in the air further than a dog. This is due to their larger paws and longer front and middle toes.

Maturity

Wolves mature faster than dogs. A wolf makes a good companion for about the first 6 months, and then once they become sexually mature, they are much harder to handle. On the other hand, a dog will grow into a loyal companion, and it stays that way for its life.

Dependency on Humans

Dogs are dependent on humans for survival; wolves are not. A dog can become feral and live in the wild, but it usually doesn’t survive long due to the disadvantages of domestication. A dog will follow commands during training to please the human to get a food reward. A wolf could care less about pleasing humans and quickly gives up to find its own food. Researchers have experimented with training wolves and found they do not form the same attachments to humans or exhibit the same behaviors that dogs do. A wolf is not a dog.

Breeding

Dogs might breed several times a year, but a wolf only breeds once a year around February to March, with pups born in April to May. Only the mother is involved in caring for the young with dogs, whereas with wolves, both mom and dad are involved. A wolf generally has a smaller litter size of 4-5 pups.

The Purpose of Play

When Dogs play, it is to have fun. Wolves play to learn. They learn about hunting, who is the strongest wolf, the dominant one, the fastest, and where they fit into the pack. This fosters a pack that will function together successfully to survive, with each wolf playing a particular role.

Diet

The dietary requirements of a wolf are also different. A wolf can eat raw meat (without getting sick), up to 10-20 lbs, in one sitting since they may not get more food for a while. Wolves can but don’t usually eat things like berries and plants. They are true carnivores. Dogs’ digestive systems cannot adequately deal with pathogens that may be in raw meat. Dogs are omnivores and can eat much of what humans eat. If you fed a wolf-dog food over time (and if they would eat it), it would lead to nutritional deficiencies.

Demeanor

This last point counters most of the folklore and BS out there about wolves. Wolves are not vicious animals hunting humans (That was a stupid movie Liam Neeson)⸺they are incredibly shy and will avoid people. It’s extremely rare for a wolf to attack a person. Yellowstone researchers thought that when they approached wolves who had just made a fresh kill, they would become aggressive and protect their kill, but instead, they observed the wolves running away. Wolf hybrids are a different story altogether. A wolf hybrid can have all the superior traits of a wolf without the shyness or fear of humans. This can make them more unpredictable and dangerous.

What are Wolf Hybrids and Should You Get One?

Dogs and wolves can breed to produce fertile offspring. These are known as wolf hybrids. This would not normally happen on its own in nature due to issues discussed above, such as differing rates of maturity and breeding patterns. A wolf-hybrid can be 50:50 mix or much more diluted genetically. The result is an animal with the genes of a dog that has been domesticated for centuries and the genes of a wild wolf. The result is a bit of a gamble. Depending on what genes dominate, there can be a wide range of favorable and unfavorable traits and behaviors even within the same litter.

Wolf.org states

People who own hybrids often find that their pet’s behavior makes it a challenge to care for. The diversity of genetic composition even within one litter of hybrid pups leads to a wide range of appearances and behavior patterns among all hybrids, thus making their behavior inconsistent and more difficult to predict.

wolf.org

You can be successful with a wolf-hybrid as long as you can fill the void of pack socialization and you don’t expect the animal to be just like a dog. It is more of a commitment than owning a dog. Most people are not willing to follow through once they realize the scope of it, which is why so many of these animals are euthanized, abandoned, or handed off to sanctuaries that usually have limited resources.

If you want a dog that looks like a wolf but is all dog and therefore more predictable, check out a Siberian Husky or Alaskan Malamute.

Final Thoughts

Dogs come from wolves, but no one knows exactly what the catalyst was. There are many theories, but the one that seems most plausible is that domestication happened naturally⸺at least initially. Once humans realized the usefulness of having dogs (hunting, herding, working, or as a companion), breeding and further domestication really took off; natural selection no longer played a part. Not to pick on anyone’s breed, but there is no way a chihuahua (I like Chihuahuas, by the way) would exist without human intervention.

If you liked this article; leave a comments below and feel free to share on social media. My goal is to raise awareness of the plight of wolves and dispel the misinformation prevalent in folklore, literature, and on the big screen.

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26 thoughts on “Are Dogs Descended From Wolves? Read to Find out.”

  1. What an interesting article to read to learn more about dogs and wolves, I always wondered if dogs descended from wolves and your article helped to learn more about this topic, next time my children ask me this question I will be more informed to tell them some about this, as last time I had to say I knew little, so I decided to look for some information and I’m glad I found your blog! 

    Reply
  2. This has been quite an interesting article to read. I was previously aware that some dogs descended from Wolves, but i didn’t know that they all were. I always thought that Domestic Dogs were the result of many milleniums of breeding varios animals such as Wild Dogs and even Hyenas. But as itts been so long, some breeds would have died off.

    Thanks

    Kev

    Reply
  3. I have 2 huskies called wolfie and bear they are 3 years old we called him wolfie because he looks like a wolf the other called bear just looks like a big bear cause he is long haired wolfie is black and white and bear is red and white ive always liked wolfs so this is why i bought to husky brothers.

    Reply
  4. What a great read! I love wolves and have used their character traits in my descriptions many times. Your post is very interesting with regard to the fossils, and where our dog companions come from in history. This is a really good article. Sorry to repeat myself; I am a big animal advocate, and posts about animals always catch my attention. I am very glad to have had the opportunity to read this. Thank you

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  5. Hello Stone,

    I am a huge fan of dogs! I sometimes struggle with what people do with breeding different breeds to get a specific outcome. There have been some amazing creations though. 

    I have to say, I am glad mine are domesticated. I don’t think most people understand the differences between a dog and a wolf. the wolves are still very much wild animals. I think the difference is just not noticed because of their similarity in size and appearance. If house cats were the size of a cheetah or lion, there would probably be the same confusion. 

    I do not want to be approached by a wolf, especially if it is hungry. Not to mention, the rest of the pack is probably right behind you!

    I will stick with the three I have that let me sleep in their bed at night!

    Thanks for clearing some of this up!

    Chad

    Reply
  6. Since my grandma told me stories when I was a kid about people in Alaska having wolves to run their sleds, I have always asked if dogs are linked to wolves. I was even curious if they could breed together. So your post has been very informative. And it’s impresive how they have become domesticated!

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  7. Hey Stone, this was a very educational article to read! I’ve always enjoyed the extroverted and cuddly nature of dogs (most of them anyway) and it’s good to remember their origins like you discuss in this article. I wouldn’t want to take the gamble of adopting a wolf hybrid because of the unpredictability and I would feel concerned that the wolf hybrid wouldn’t be happy without other animals in their life like them. Thanks for this awesome read and I hope you have a wonderful day!

    Reply
  8. Such a well-researched an informative article. Even for someone without a passion for dogs. I would never have thought that wolves were domesticated by accident. Other than companionship or maybe to protect territory, was there no other survival benefit for man to domesticate dogs? I also assume that the wolves who depended on human scraps were not alphas. 

    I am also surprised and somehow relieved to find that wolves are naturally shy and only aggressive when protecting food and offspring. Such gracious and beautiful creatures.

    Thanks for the great post!
     

    Reply
    • Yeah, alpha wolves could not be bothered with humans-it’s not going to be anyone’s pet. Eventually, we did realize how what has become dogs could help us as a species from pulling dog sleds, to herding sheep, etc.

      Reply
  9. This was an interesting read on how Wolfs became dogs. It is true the dogs have domesticated themselves. What easeir way to stay alive then eat up the wasted food us humans tend to leave behind. Overall, this was a good read. I couldn’t agree more with how you described the the domestication of dogs. 

    And, about the hybrid wolfs, I’m surprised anyone would even think about trying to keep one as a house pet. Even an Alaskan Malamute is a hard dog to keep. They have to basically be kept outside. I couldn’t imagine a hybrid wolf even being considered.

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    • Depending on how much wolf is in the hybrid (you never know how the dice will land), you pretty much have to get a 9-foot fence that goes about another 3 feet into the ground in order to keep them in. Unfortunately, there is a real need for those  with the means to look after them to rescue these animals as people get them as pets, realize they are in over their heads and then give them away, abandon them. or neglect them. The ones that don’t find homes are put down. Wolves are shy and naturally fear humans so the wolf hybrid may or may warm up to its owner, they may or may not be good around children or other pets. It’s a commitment.

      Reply
  10. I have seen people that actually managed to domesticate a wolf. It was not an easy task and he almost lost a finger. Just the fact that you can breed a wolf with a dog should tell you that they are related in some way. It is also astonishing to know how much we can accomplish with breeding just by looking at the different types of dog breeds that we have available today.

    Reply
  11. Wow!

    Great article!

    I did know that wolves don’t attack humans and they shy away when they see one, but I didn’t know all the stuff about wolf hybrids! 

    The topic of domestication of dogs has always been a huge debate among pet owners. I would go with the natural domestication concept though, as it makes more sense to me.

    Thanks for this information.

    Fascinating insights! 

    Reply
  12. A very interesting topic, many of those who keep dogs or their lovers are very interested in knowing additional things about the dogs in their possession, the information you provided is a real addition to understanding the nature of dogs and their origins.

    A very good topic, a lot of information, and a more than wonderful presentation

    Reply
  13. Hi Stone. Thank you for your incredible article on wolves and dogs. I’ve always been fascinated by Wolves. We don’t have them in my home country if Australia, but what we do have is a wild dog called a Dingo. Dingos came to this continent at least 40,000 years ago when the first Indigenous people were thought to have crossed over from the Asian continent. Wild dogs seem to throw a spanner into the works. Were they here before or after the arrival of Wolves? How did they develop their looks and instincts? The Dingo is a fascinating animal, it is also difficult to tame and has similiar instincts to Wolves. 

    Your article has fascinated me. Jim

    Reply

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