A Wilder View: The relationship between dogs and wolves

Posted at 11:17 AM, Jan 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-12 13:17:55-05

MISSOULA — Wolves and dogs are two powerful icons of the relationships that people form with animals and this edition of A Wilder View breaks down their complex interactions.

Dogs have become the most common carnivore in the world and their population is still increasing. Nowadays we see dogs in many different forms from small and large to cute and cuddly, and it may not always look like it, but our furry companions are descendants of wolves.

Although the exact location and timing of domestication is subject to constant debate, dogs first appeared between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago in areas around Asia and Europe.

Both wolves and dogs have been studied thousands of times, but the complex relationships between the two is rarely looked at.

These interactions stand as a unique example of a widespread relationship between a domestic animal and its wild ancestor. This is because most ancestors of other domestic species are extinct. As a consequence of wolves and dogs being closely related, they can interbreed and produce fertile offspring.

For centuries people have been deliberately crossbreeding wolves and dogs to get wolf–dog hybrids. The first written record of this practice comes from Aristotle who reported that dogs would be tied to trees near wolf packs so they would mate.

When hybridization happens under controlled conditions it’s not that big of a deal but hybridization happening with free-ranging dogs actually poses a threat to wolves. This actually pollutes their genes meaning they may lose what makes a wolf -- a wolf.

But dogs can have a positive impact on wolf conservation. Livestock guarding dogs reduce damages on livestock caused by both wolves and dogs which helps reduce conflicts with people.

Scientists say there is a dramatic need for more research on the issue of how dogs affect the relationship between people and wolves.

Given the thousands of years with which people have lived with dogs and wolves, it’s no surprise that there is a huge diversity of social, cultural and ecological contexts that will need to be taken into account.