Small but big difference between wolves and dogs

There are, of course, many dif­fer­ences between wolves and dogs. Some are cog­nit­ive, such as a wolf’s will­ing­ness to be trained, while oth­ers in­clude phys­ic­al traits such as the predator’s ex­traordin­ar­ily long legs and huge paws.

A lot of phys­ic­al char­ac­ter­ist­ics have been spe­cific­ally cul­tiv­ated in dogs to en­hance their ap­peal to hu­mans. For in­stance, many people are at­trac­ted to dogs with floppy ears and short muzzles so breed­ers have se­lect­ively en­cour­aged these traits. Wolves have these en­dear­ing fea­tures as pups but, as they ma­ture, their ears be­come erect and their snouts lengthen.

A re­cent study found an­oth­er small but sig­ni­fic­ant dif­fer­ence between wolves and some dogs – their eye­brow muscles.

Whether they own a dog or not, many people are fa­mil­i­ar with that sad sack stare some dogs seem to be able to sum­mon at will. This is the look guar­an­teed to tug firmly on the hu­man heartstrings. And to of­ten foster for­give­ness for any trans­gres­sions that may have occurred.

This im­plor­ing gaze is gen­er­ated by a dog’s abil­ity to move a prom­in­ent muscle that runs along the out­er edge of the eye up and inwards.

Dr. Juliane Kaminski, a psy­cho­lo­gist at the University of Portsmouth in England, dis­covered this while try­ing to un­der­stand why some dogs are ad­op­ted from an­im­al shel­ters soon­er than oth­ers. Apparently, it’s all in the eyes. Those who used their lev­at­or an­guli oculi me­dial­is muscle were first out the door to a new home.

Researchers then stud­ied the fa­cial mus­cu­lature of ca­da­vers of sev­er­al breeds of dogs, as well as those of wild grey wolves. They found a pro­nounced eye­brow muscle in all of the dogs but not the wolves.

This arc­tic beauty has a typ­ic­al wolfish gaze and no sign of sad sack eyes.

Unlike short snouts and floppy ears, the eye­brow muscle was not in­ten­tion­ally in­tro­duced by hu­mans but evolved nat­ur­ally over 20,000 years or more of the hu­man and dog relationship.

Kaminski, who has con­duc­ted sev­er­al stud­ies on the ways hu­mans and dogs com­mu­nic­ate, notes that eye­brows play an im­port­ant role in hu­man body lan­guage. And though it’s not known if dogs move their eye­brow muscle on pur­pose, the res­ult def­in­itely ap­pears to at­tract humans.



Wolves share more than dogs

When it comes to gen­er­os­ity, wolves win tales down. A sci­entif­ic study led by Rachel Dale, an­im­al be­ha­viour spe­cial­ist at the Wolf Science Center in Vienna, Austria, de­term­ined that wolves are more apt to provide treats for oth­er wolves than dogs are to oth­er dogs.

The Center hand-raises wolves and dogs and then con­ducts tests in­volving coöper­a­tion and cog­ni­tion in an ef­fort to un­der­stand the dif­fer­ences and com­mon­al­it­ies of the two species.

A re­cent study test­ing coöper­a­tion placed a wolf or a dog in a room with a touch screen con­tain­ing a couple of im­ages. Another wolf or dog was placed in an ad­ja­cent room that was vis­ible to the an­im­al be­ing tested.

When the test an­im­al pressed the “giv­ing” sym­bol, their part­ner in the oth­er room re­ceived a treat. Wolves nudged the sym­bol with their nose far more of­ten than the dogs.

As a con­trol, some­times the part­ner was placed in a room where it wouldn’t re­ceive a re­ward even if the giv­ing sym­bol was pushed. Wolves pressed the sym­bol less un­der those circumstances.

But they pressed the sym­bol even more if they knew the wolf in the ad­ja­cent room and saw it get a treat. Dogs were less gen­er­ous on all counts.

The res­ults of the study in­dic­ate that do­mest­ic­a­tion may have al­lowed dogs to lose their coöper­at­ive nature as they de­pend on hu­mans for food, not oth­er dogs.

Although the wolves used in the study are fed by hu­mans, their ge­net­ic makeup is much closer to that of wild wolves and they ap­pear to have re­tained their close bonds with and re­li­ance on pack mates for survival.

Photograph by Rooobert Bayer, Wolf Science Center, Austria


Wolves and dogs in Tofino

Wolves and dogs have com­plex re­la­tion­ships. At times, they ig­nore each oth­er, play to­geth­er or even mate. But, more of­ten than not, wolves at­tack dogs, in­jur­ing and even killing them.

That’s what happened on middle Chesterman Beach over Labour Day week­end. Located a scant six kilo­metres from Tofino and ad­ja­cent to Pacific Rim National Park Reserve (PRNPR), the beach is rimmed with stately homes, va­ca­tion rent­als and anchored at the north­ern end by Wikaninnish Inn. It’s a pop­u­lar spot for loc­als and tour­ists vis­it­ing Vancouver Island’s rugged west coast.

Wolves can move through the land­scape sound­lessly and of­ten only re­veal their pres­ence to hu­mans when they want to be seen. Photo cour­tesy US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The tracks in the sand and marks on the me­di­um-size dog in­dic­ate it was prob­ably at­tacked by two wolves not far from home. While re­search­ing Return of the Wolf, I talked at length with Bob Hansen, cur­rently with WildSafe BC and Todd Windle, hu­man-wild­life co­ex­ist­ence spe­cial­ist at PRNPR. They told me that con­flicts with wolves were neg­li­gible pri­or to the late 1990s. But now wolves in the re­gion at­tack about a dozen pets – dogs and cats – per year.

In the last three years nu­mer­ous dogs have been at­tacked and two killed. In 2016, a man walk­ing two ap­prox­im­ately 36 kilo­gram (80 pound) dogs near the Kwisitis Visitor Centre was forced to seek sanc­tu­ary on the closed centre’s deck and call 911 due to one or more wolves stalk­ing his leashed dogs.

Two par­tic­u­larly bold wolves were killed in 2017. Although there were still wolves in the area — they were of­ten seen on trail cam­er­as – at­tacks on pets ceased.

Many people be­lieve that wolves at­tack dogs to pro­tect their ter­rit­ory. This is true, but wolves also see dogs and oth­er do­mest­ic an­im­als as prey and kill them for food. Hunting wild prey re­quires a great ex­pendit­ure of en­ergy and, in the case of hooved and horned or antlered an­im­als, is fraught with danger. Even so, a single wolf can take down an elk or moose. In com­par­is­on, do­mest­ic an­im­als are the equi­val­ent of a per­son pick­ing up a take-out dinner.

So, why would any­one let their dog lose in wolf coun­try? In PRNPR and ad­ja­cent areas, one reas­on is sand. Vast ex­panses of it are dog heav­en when it comes to run­ning and who doesn’t want to see their dog get a ton of ex­er­cise and have fun?

Bailey had the time of his life run­ning off leash in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve in 2012. I had no idea at the time how dan­ger­ous that was. Photo cour­tesy Doug Tracey.

I know, be­cause I’ve let my dog run free on those beaches in the past. Granted, I had pep­per spray and an air horn. But the real­ity is, most of the time, Bailey would have been too far away for me to in­ter­vene if a wolf went after him. Wolves can reach speeds of up to 60 kilo­metres (37 miles) an hour when tak­ing down prey. And no do­mest­ic dog, be it 100-pound Rottweiler or ten­a­cious pit bull, has a chance against a wild an­im­al that kills its food to survive.

Another reas­on dogs roam free is con­veni­ence. When we stayed in a beach­side cab­in near Tofino and Bailey needed out in the middle of the night, I simply opened the door and whistled him in a little while later. I would nev­er do that now. My heart goes out to the fam­ily who lost their dog last week­end. I know how dev­ast­ated I would have been if some­thing had happened to Bailey.

The safest place for a dog out­doors in wolf coun­try is on the end of a leash close to the per­son hold­ing it. Although not al­ways the case, there’s a good chance that thin piece of leath­er or fab­ric and prox­im­ity to a hu­man will cause a wolf to re­as­sess the situ­ation. And if it doesn’t, a per­son armed with bear spray or an­oth­er de­terrent has a chance to pre­vent an attack.

If you love your dog, leash it in wolf coun­try. That skinny strip of leath­er may save the life of a wolf, as well as your can­ine companion.

Catch a cougar by the tail

Dogs chase cats and dogs that chase cou­gars seem to be par­tic­u­larly en­thu­si­ast­ic.  

One of the most fam­ous cou­gar hunters, former US pres­id­ent, Theodore Roosevelt, wrote about “dogs that climbed trees.” He said a blood­hound named Turk scrambled al­most nine metres (30 feet) up a pinyon tree be­fore plum­met­ing to the ground. And a half-breed bull­dog reg­u­larly went as high as six metres (20 feet) or more after cou­gars. Apparently, the branches broke the dogs’ falls as, no mat­ter how far they fell, they con­tin­ued to “climb trees.”  

Winston Vickers, as­so­ci­ate veter­in­ari­an at the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center, told me about a cou­gar that jumped out of a tree, landed in the middle of a pack of re­search track­ing hounds, grabbed a dog by the head and took off. Of course, all the oth­er hounds gave chase. One got close enough to grab the cou­gar by the tail. That was enough to make it drop the dog it was car­ry­ing. The dog sur­vived but wasn’t keen on track­ing cou­gars after that.  

But un­til re­cently, I’d nev­er heard of a dog catch­ing a cou­gar by the tail and go­ing up a tree. The foot­age on this short video clip is in­cred­ible. And yes, both the dog and cou­gar survived. 

Cougar running in snow.
Isn’t that tail just beg­ging to be pulled?
Photo cour­tesy California Fish and Game.