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Domesticating Wolves: History of Humans and Dogs

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Domesticating Wolves: History of Humans and Dogs

The fact that all of our family dogs originated from wolves can be hard to fathom, especially if you have a Chihuahua. But our loyal and loving pooches trace their ancestry back thousands of years to wolves.

The Where and When

The details of where and when dogs were domesticated remains a bit of a mystery. This is partly due to crossbreeding, which means DNA can't be traced back in a direct line. It also hasn't helped that breeds have been transported to different places around the world. All of this crossbreeding and movement have muddied their genetic lineage.

Researchers have been able to use DNA and fossil evidence to determine that domestication occurred around 15,000 to 40,000 years ago. The wide range is because this timeframe is estimated by looking at gene mutations, which don't happen very often. As far as where domestication happened, there is some dispute. Some research suggests they descended from wolves in Asia. Other research indicates they were domesticated twice in Asia and Europe or the Near East.

In any case, it appears that the wolves who gave rise to dogs are now extinct since there aren't any groups of living wolves more closely related to dogs than any others. And while one study shows that dogs including Shar-Pei, Shiba Inu, Chow Chow, Akita, Siberian Husky, Alaskan Malamute, Afghan Hound, and Saluki can be traced back further than other breeds, their lineage still stops well short of wolves.

woman walking dog on harness in the woods

The How and Why

Unlike the where and when, researchers generally agree on how and why wolves were domesticated. You may be surprised to hear that domestication happened because wolves came to humans and not the other way around. As sweet as it is to imagine a kindhearted hunter coming across an adorable pack of lonely wolf puppies and adopting them, this wasn't the case.

It's also not likely that humans took in adult wolves to serve as skilled hunting companions. Wolves are great hunters, but humans were successful hunters on their own, so they wouldn't have been looking for extra help. Plus, humans have a long history of trying to eradicate wolves rather than caring for them.

So, how did the domestication of wolves begin? It likely started when wolves learned that groups of hunter-gatherers were a fruitful food source. No, they didn't eat them, but they did enjoy the delicious scraps of food left around their encampments, especially when hunting was difficult.

From here, it's a story of the survival of the friendliest. Aggressive wolves would likely be chased off or killed by humans, while those who took a friendlier approach would be tolerated and maybe even welcomed. As time went on, the chummier wolves would be the ones to survive and carry on the lineage eventually evolving into domesticated dogs.

puppy sitting on a windowsill

Changed by Domestication

The domestication of wolves brought about both physical and psychological changes. Over time, the longish faces of wolves became rounder and friendlier in appearance. Their coats grew splotchy, their ears went floppy, and their straight tails curved and wagged. Our engagement with wolves helped them become more adorable to us, which in turn strengthened our relationship with them.

As wolves were domesticated, they also learned how to understand humans and our emotions. That's something that bonds us so strongly with our pooches today. Dogs can cue into how we're feeling by detecting small gestures or changes in facial expression. For instance, your dog might know you’re frustrated just by the squint of your eyes. Your pooch may even try to soften you up by flashing those irresistible puppy dog eyes. This is pretty incredible especially considering we still have trouble understanding what our dogs are trying to say.

A Mutually Beneficial Relationship

The relationship between wolves and humans wasn't a one-way street. Humans also benefited from their presence. For instance, wolves could help them flush out prey or alert them when dangerous animals or hostile tribes were approaching.

Wolves also served as an emergency food source when the going got tough. The thought of that turns our stomachs today. But think about how hard it must have been for our ancestors to survive before the days of refrigerators and grocery stores.

husky dog with one blue eye smiling outside

Differences Between Dogs and Wolves

Although dogs trace their ancestry back to wolves, they have evolved into very different animals. Some differences like their appearance are quite obvious, but there are also interesting variations in the way they breed and develop.

Physical Traits

When you look at a wolf, it's easy to see they're built to survive in the wild. They have a streamlined body with a narrow chest and hips. Their long legs enable them to run fast, and their large webbed paws (which have two more toes than dogs) help them swim and trudge through snow. They typically have yellow or amber eyes and coats that are gray, brown, white, or black to help them blend into their surroundings.

Over the years, dogs have been bred to be all sorts of shapes and sizes with many different coat and eye colors. Some breeds like Siberian Huskies and Northern Inuits greatly resemble their wolf ancestors. Others like Beagles and Dachshunds look nothing like them.

Both wolves and dogs have strong jaws, but wolves have them beat since they need them to crush the bones of their prey. Our domesticated dogs, on the other hand, have grown used to eating kibble and noshing on pet-safe toys. Interestingly, dogs and wolves have the same number of teeth—42 in all.


Wolves are primarily meat-eaters or carnivores that feed on animals including deer, moose, and buffalo. They prefer big game since they offer a larger meal, but they'll eat birds and small mammals too. Dogs also love meat, but they're considered omnivores since they eat both plants and meat. Their palate has broadened to include grains as well as fruits and veggies thanks to our help.

Breeding and Parenting

Wolves only breed once a year in the spring, which gives their pups time to get stronger and smarter before winter. They also form tight-knit family units with a mother, father, and their kiddos. Dogs differ in that they can breed several times a year (don’t forget to spay or neuter your dog!) and the mother is typically responsible for all of the child-rearing responsibilities.

Growing Up

To help them survive in the wild, wolf pups need to get to know their worlds at an early age. They typically start exploring at about 2 weeks old when they’re still blind and deaf. Dog puppies begin to venture out later than that around 4 weeks old when they have the benefit of sight, smell, and hearing.

Dog and wolf pups play to learn about their worlds and socialize with each other. However, play is a more serious business for wolves who learn to communicate with their pack and develop other essential survival skills through this activity. As wolves get older, they tend to stop playing whereas dogs typically enjoy playtime throughout their lives.


Research has shown that wolves are better problem-solvers than dogs. In one study, wolves were better at solving a puzzle-box than dogs. The wolves were more persistent and focused on the task at hand than the dogs who spent more time looking to the humans around them. This isn't to say our dogs aren't smart, but they’ve grown accustomed to leaning on their human companions to help them figure things out.


Wolves have a reputation for being aggressive, but they're actually usually shy around people and try to avoid them. They're also very independent and don't crave human attention like dogs. Of course, dogs have all sorts of personalities, but generally, they're our loyal and loving companions who we like to think couldn't live without us.

gray wolf outside in the snow

Wolves Don't Make Good Pets

Since wolves are the long-ago relative of dogs, some people might think they can be taken in as pets. While a small research study indicates that wolf pups raised by people can get attached to them, these wild animals don't turn into adorable human companions. They haven't been domesticated over thousands of years like dogs. Wolves don't need our help to survive, and they can cause grave injury to humans, especially as they mature.

Dogs, of course, do make great companions! And they rely on us for pretty much everything—to help keep them safe as well as shelter, food, water, and medical care when they're hurt or sick. Make sure you can give your dog the best medical care possible with a pet insurance plan. Get a free quote now.

The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.

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