Science & History
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"Though in their deep heart’s core, there is a commonality of origin, spirit, emotional intelligence and empathetic sensibility, the wild wolf looks through us, while the dog looks to us. "
Of all the myriad members of the animal kingdom, the domesticated dog (Canis lupus familiaris) is closest to us. With individual exceptions in other species, this canine species is the most understanding, if not also the most observant, of human behavior—of our actions and intentions. This is why dogs are so responsive to us, even mirroring or mimicking our behavior. And it is why dogs are so trainable.
Fear in unsocialized and abused dogs interferes with their attentiveness to and interpretation of human behavior and intentions. This is one reason wild species like the coyote and wolf, even when born and raised in captivity, are difficult to train. The wolf “Tiny,” whom I bottle-raised and intensely socialized during her formative early days, never really lost her fear and distrust of strangers.
Tiny did not start mirroring human behavior until she was close to nine years old. At this point, she began to mimic the human-to-human greeting grin, revealing her front teeth as she curled her lips into a snarly smile. In my experience, dogs who can do this do so at a much earlier age, even as early as four to six months.
In comparing socialized (human-bonded) wolves and dogs in terms of how they have related to me as well as to my family members, friends and strangers, I would say that the main difference between the two species is the fear factor. Differences in trainability hinge on this; as I theorize in my new book (Dog Body, Dog Mind), domestication has altered the tuning of the dog’s adrenal and autonomic nervous systems. This tuning (which dampens adrenal fright, flight and fight reactions and possibly alters brain serotonin levels), is accomplished through selective breeding for docility, and by gentle handling during the critical period for socialization.
According to the earlier research of my mentors—Drs. John Paul Scott and John L. Fuller of the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine—pups with no human contact during this critical socialization period (which ends around 12 to 16 weeks of age) are wild and unapproachable.
When we peel off the wolf’s innate fearfulness and put it on the dog, we turn the dog into a feral facsimile of a wolf. But a human-socialized wolf without fear could be an extremely dangerous animal, even attacking a human perceived as a pack rival. This happened to me in the 1970s during the filming of the NBC documentary, “The Wolf Men.” An alpha male wolf, along with his female cagemate who was in heat, had been released into a large wooded compound belonging to my friend, the late wildlife illustrator and conservationist Dick Grossenheider. Earlier that memorable morning, the she-wolf had greeted and solicited me, a total stranger, when I had visited the two wolves in their enclosure. (I am not saying that a male dog would never react to me in a similar way under comparable circumstances; I was once urinated on by the alpha male lead sled dog of a well-known racing pack in a similar situation.)
Canine Evolution and Human Needs
We see many things in our dogs’ eyes, the windows of their souls. They are also mirrors of the human soul, since every pair of dog’s eyes reflects—for better and for worse—how well that dog has been treated by our own kind. Dogs read our eyes and are attentive ethologists of human behavior, action, emotion and intuition. A change in tone of voice can make a dog tremble in fear or dance and yap for joy. Such ability to read human behavior, intentions and emotions was naturally selected for as dogs domesticated themselves and adapted to life with Homo sapiens, the “killer ape.”
Civilizing the Killer Ape
These half-human killer apes were never to be fully trusted, however, since when they were very hungry, or warring between themselves, they would often engage in cannibalism, as today, people still kill and eat dogs for sustenance and “good medicine.” (See James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough.).
Just as not every dog is fully domesticated, in that some can still turn feral, and others turn on their masters, so the wolf has failed to fully domesticate and civilize the killer ape. We still wage war with our own kind, and ignore the biological wisdom and prescience of such injunctions as do no harm, resist evil and treat others as we would have them treat us. All good dogs know this, and show it in their eyes and behavior. (But they have not forgotten how and where to bite!)
The secure, well-loved and understood dog is more often an extrovert than an ambivert wary of strangers. Secure, well-loved and understood wolves, in contrast (with few exceptions, some of whom become more easy-going around new people and in new places as they grow older, as did Tiny in her early teens), are more often ambiverts or introverts. They are fearful when meeting unfamiliar people. Differences in individual, breed and species autonomic tuning (as mentioned earlier) also account for differences in disease resistance, temperament and learning ability.
The Canid Conscience
Good dogs can see and respond to our own deep heart’s core of love and devotion because it is from this center of our own being that we embrace and celebrate theirs. That is what Franz Kafka in his essay, Investigation of a Dog, meant, I believe, when he wrote: “All knowledge, the totality of all questions and all awareness, is contained in the dog.” And this is why the ancient Egyptians believed that dogs were our guide in the afterlife—they were such good guides and loyal companions in real life. Embodying finer qualities of feeling and sensibility than the relatively irresponsible and emotionally challenged average human, dogs are worthy of being looked up to with awe and gratitude. We should help others of our own kind feel and know that in the deep heart’s core of all good dogs and wild wolves lies the source of an abiding affection that we, in moments of grace and communion, may share.
Since this core is as evident in a wolf as it is in a Toy Poodle, it is clear that neither domestication nor wildness has altered their true natures. In the heart of every dog is the spirit of the wolf that embodies the finer qualities of human nature that we call love and devotion.
Photograph by Nathan Hobbs