The Evolution of Dogs from Wolves (+ why it matters!)

Today, I want to talk to you about the evolution of dogs from wolves, how this could impact how we look after them and the relationship that you have with your pet dog. 

 
 

How similar are dogs and wolves?

Is it just a simple step for them to revert back to their ancestral origins or are their differences actually more than skin deep?

A dog and wolf really are very similar. Only differing by about 1-1.2% of their DNA. They can potentially breed with each other as well, that’s how similar dogs and wolves are!

But they are not the same, and to understand why we have to look at the origins of the modern day dog.

First, I want to discuss the evolution of dogs from wolves, and talk about why this matters. Then, I want to move on to talk about the similarities and differences between dogs and wolves, and how this can impact how we actually look after our dogs so that they are as healthy and happy as possible.

The Evolution of Dogs from Wolves

To start with, we need to go back in time and consider when dogs evolved from wolves.

And actually, that is the first misconception. It is generally well understood, and wrongly understood that dogs evolved from the wolf.

But, that is not strictly true.

The Common Ancestor

Between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago, the dog and the wolf split from a common ancestor. At this point in time, they started to evolve separately.

This means that not only is the dog different from this ancient ancestor, so is the modern day wolf.

How Dogs Evolved

We also then need to think about how the dog evolved. This will help to explain some of the differences between dogs and wolves discussed later. These differences just make sense.

Dogs went from surviving on the edge of human camps, scavenging off scraps and rubbish discarded on the outskirts of these early human collectives. As this relationship developed, the theory goes that the quieter, more “friendly” individuals would have been slipped some extra food (afterall, we all have our favorites!) and so these individuals were more likely to survive and pass on their genes.

As the dogs became more domesticated, they moved from the edge of camps into the huts and sheters occupies by humans. And so the relationship was cemented, with the dog becoming man’s best friend!

Dogs have become hunting companions, been used to farm stock, guard their humans home and possesions. Even today the role dog’s play in our lives is evolving. From drug detection, and assistance roles all the way through to the early detection of cancer. Dogs play a crucial role in the lives of humans.

Selective Breeding

This development has all happened in a really short time. You are not wrong to think that a mere 20,000-40,000 years is a blink of an eye in the evolutionary sense of time.

It normally takes about a million years for a new species to emerge from the process of natural selection and evolution.

The dog though has not gone through a “normal” natural selection process. They were not subjected to the standard Darwinian survival of the fittest as we think about it applying to other species.

Instead, dogs have actually been bred selectively and intensively by humans. Think of this as like a “super” natural selection if you like. Humans have meticulously chosen and bred for the desired characteristics that they were looking for, regarding both form and function. This is crystal clear if you simply consider all of the different dog breeds there are. A Pomeranian and Great Dane could hardly look any different!

Human intervention initiated and supercharged the evolutionary process.

Studies into Domestication: the Russian Fox

The domestication of dogs has been replicated in recent times, at least in part.

Studies conducted in Russia into the domestication of wild red foxes started in 1959. The foxes chosen were silver-black foxes, a variety that had been bred for color (but not temperament) by the fur industry. They were very much wild animals to begin with.

Amazingly, it only took eight generations of red foxes until the animals were exhibiting a lot of dog-like behavior. The researchers were simply selecting the friendliest (or least scared) individuals, and using them to breed the next generation.

By the 20th generation, 35% of the fox population was classified as “elite”. These were wagging their tails, looking for affection and human interaction, whimpering to attract attention, sniffing and licking experimenters, and even starting to bark dogs.

Less than 50 years after the experiment started, the majority of the fox population were playful, friendly and behaving very much like domestic dogs.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the domesticated foxes also changed physically, despite the selection process not involving any physical criteria. The tame foxes developed droopy tails, curlier tails, coat changes, along with shortened legs, tail, upper jaw, and widened skull.

Simply put, domestic foxes look “cuter”.

This experiment is ongoing, and provides a fascinating insight into the process of domestication. As well as just how quickly the whole process can take.

With this in mind, 20,000 - 40,000 years does not sound like such a short period of time for dogs to become significantly different from both their ancestors and the modern Grey Wolf.

Differences in Dog and Wolf DNA

Let's talk about DNA. I've already said that dogs and wolves only differ by between about 0.8 and 1.2% of their DNA, although this figure does differ depending on the paper you read.

That certainly does not sound like a very big difference.

We do need to bear in mind however that the DNA of humans and chimps only differ by about 4% (again, this figure varies depending on your source). This goes to show that a relatively small difference in DNA can still make quite a big difference in the physiology and the appearance of the individual animal.

As well as the specific differences in DNA, this difference is also explained by the different ways that genes are expressed. Genes that are shared between species may be expressed to a greater extent in 1 species, and yet completely “turned off” in another species. And this is very much the case in the comparison between dogs and wolves.

As for the DNA differences between different dog breeds, they only differ by about 0.15%. All dogs are incredibly similar, with the slight difference meaning that those dogs breeds that are more “wolf-like” sharing more genetic material with the wolf.

Physical Differences

The bottom line is that this genetic difference does have an impact. Both seen and unseen.

From a physical point of view, wolves have larger skulls, brains, and jaws compared to the same-sized dog.

In fact, the bite of a wolf is able to generate over twice as much crushing pressure than a German Shepherd - a dog renown for their strong bite!

There are also the physical traits already mentioned when discussing the “cuter” characteristics of the domesticated Russian fox.

Behavioural Differences

Wolves are also better at problem solving.

They are better at working independently, but also better at working within a team of other pack members to problem solve and come up with a solution by themselves. 

Dogs, on the other hand, are much more human led, and they will soon give up if the problem is too hard. Either that or they will look to their human, in the majority of cases, to solve the problem for them.

Dogs are much more reliant on humans than wolves are. Wolves will still work with humans if they are in the right environment, and they are raised by humans to start with. However, they are much more independent and they don't naturally look for human help. Whereas this is hardwired into every single dog.

You’ll have heard or read about the need to be seen as the “alpha” in your relationship with your dog. This in fact a fallacy. Dogs are well aware of the fact that humans are not dogs, and there is no internal struggle with a desire for them to become the alpha dog in their relationship with you.

In fact the alpha relationship, the struggle within a pack for an individual to be ranked on top, is something that is now not even considered correct in a wolf pack. The wolf pack is a family group and the alpha male and female are simply the breeding pair. Wolf packs are families, not groups of strangers or peers all with a secret plan to reach the top spot.

Something to consider when you are deciding on the best way to train your dog!

Breeding

Another difference is the difference in breeding season.

 Wolves will only mate and breed once a year. Not only that, but there is also a very specific breeding season. This starts in early spring and lasts for about six weeks. The result of this is that the resulting pups will be born when the weather and food supply is best, optimizing survival.

Dogs, on the other hand, will generally come into season every six months or so. There is not a set breeding season as the ability of humans to provide all that is required means that resources change little throughout the year.

Nutrition

The final big difference between dogs and wolves that I want to talk about involves the differing dietary needs of each.

There are three key differences in the genome of dogs and wolves that make a massive impact in their ability to process food. Specifically, a dog’s ability to process and utilize grain and other carbohydrates.

Starch Digestion

The first difference is that dogs have three key genes all allow them to process starch. Genes that the wolf simply does not have.

If you really want to know their names, they are AMY2B, MGAM, and SGLT1!

Amylase

Next is that dogs contain between 4 and 30 copies of the gene for amylase in their DNA. Wolves, on the other hand, only have two copies of this gene. This means that amylase is about 25 times more active in the dog than in the wolf.

Amylase is a key enzyme used in the breakdown and digestion of starches.

Studies show that the results of this difference alone means that dogs should be about five times better at digesting starch than the wolf. And this is discounting the other 2 digestive differences.

Maltase

The final difference with regards to diet is that although dogs and wolves DNAs contain the same amount of information for maltase, another enzyme that is used in the processing and digestion of starch, dogs actually produce a longer version of this enzyme compared to wolves.

In fact, this longer maltase is the same version that is found in herbivores like cows and rabbits, as well as omnivores like the rat. All animals who clearly need to be able to process a lot of vegetable matter.

Prey-Related DIet

These 3 digestive differences have a significant impact when it comes to what the best diet to feed your dog is. If you’ve ever researched this, you’ll know that there is a lot of conflicting information out there.

There are a lot of people who swear blind that dogs should have a biologically appropriate diets. 

They call it prey-related diet where they are just fed raw, meaty bones, raw diet, and raw food. The same people will then claim that grains are terrible because wolves don't eat grains and dogs shouldn't be fed grains because they can't process them.

Clearly, that is not true. The ability to digest grains have in fact allowed the dog to thrive

It may well be that there are benefits to raw diets, but a lack of grains because of poor digestibility is not one. Raw diets also have some potential risks that you definitely need to be aware of if you are interested in pursuing this feeding method.

Want to learn more? Then download my free ebook guide to raw vs kibble that discusses the pros and cons, risks and benefits of each diet type.