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What Makes a Dog a “Dog”?

Updated: Jan 2

By: Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

The word “dog” evokes strong emotional imagery in people, largely depending on their experiences. If we ask 10 people we will get 10 different answers. Some might think of their own dog’s friendliness to new people and other dogs; dogs they have seen enjoying outdoor activities with their human family; mental images of fluffy fur and wagging tails. For others with less positive experiences, dogs may evoke fearful imagery like growling and bared teeth. While there are emotional answers to this question, there are science-based answers that become clearer once we explore the behavior, physiology, and genetics of their closest relatives and contrast that with pet dogs.

I had the chance to explore this question in more detail during a recent visit to the Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary and Education Centre in Alberta, Canada where they provide refuge to wolfdogs in need who possess varying degrees of wolf ancestry. My husband and I took an interactive tour and attended a few other presentations with the wolfdogs and staff. I had worked with a few wolfdogs over the years prior to this visit, but it was still nonetheless eye-opening seeing these wolfdogs in an environment that was designed around their needs. The variations in social behavior between the wolfdogs was remarkable. Some were highly social with people while others preferred to watch the comings/going of the groups. A few even approached and sniffed us curiously as we remained still to avoid startling them. Some preferred to hide amongst the dense trees and grass. None wanted petted, touched, reached toward, or to have eye contact with unknown people. The staff spent significant time building trust with these wolfdogs, which was a lengthier process for some individual wolfdogs. According to discussions with the staff, their preferred levels of social interaction with other wolfdogs are equally mixed, given their genetic backgrounds and socialization. Adult pet dogs may seek out other unknown dogs and enjoy playful, social encounters, but contact with an unfamiliar canid – especially a same-sex encounter -- would likely feel threatening to an adult wolf (Yamnuska). If a dog is mixed with both wolf and dog…well, there can be variation from one individual to the next! The staff does amazing work assessing the needs of each individual wolfdog and finding ways to meet those needs.

Domesticated dogs were recently taxonomically reclassified as the same species (canis lupus) as wolves (canis lupus lupus) and are now classified as a sub-species (canis lupus familiaris) since offspring are fertile, and thus, not a hybrid of two separate species. DNA evidence has further shown that modern wolves and dogs descended from a common ancestor. The realm of what is a “dog” is vast, even if we eliminate free-ranging dogs from the discussion. Free-ranging dogs who subsist through scavenging on the streets of human settlements comprise more of the global dog population than most people realize -- about 80% of domesticated dogs worldwide! In reality, dogs living under the control of humans are the minority of domesticated “dogs” (Bhattacharjee). There is much we can learn about our canine companions who live amongst us by exploring this question of what makes a dog a dog. This matters because how we define dogs shapes our perceptions, expectations, and ultimately our actions regarding:

· their intrinsic temperament and character

· their needs (social, biological, psychological) and their innate desires

· our behavioral expectations of them

· the early socialization and training we provide to help them meet those expectations

· environmental and other living situations

· the work we use them for, etc.


The canids at the sanctuary are biologically neither wolves nor domesticated dog. Thus, it is difficult to have much in the way of behavioral expectations since these wolfdogs do not fit neatly into the mold of either a wild nor domesticated animal. Individual wolfdogs’ early socialization differed since some of them came from home environments with extensive human contact and others came from hoarding situations where they likely experienced less frequent hands-on contact, according to the staff. Their physical, social, and psychological needs lie somewhere in the grey between the two. Some of the wolfdogs have high wolf content of up to 95% while other ones have little wolf content, as low as 20%. People breeding and purchasing wolfdogs typically are breeding for a physical appearance closer to that of a wolf (or a dire wolf, like in Games of Thrones). According to the staff, a dog with a larger percentage of wolf ancestry in their pedigree typically commands a higher price and is more desirable to purchasers. This is interesting since higher percentages of wolf ancestry typically result in behavior that is incompatible with living in a home environment, but that does not seem to be understood by the public at large. That is how many of the wolfdogs ended up here. People thought they would fit into their home environment and lifestyles with love and training, ignoring the genetic aspect of "what is a wolf" vs "what is a dog". Yamnuska does occasionally rehomed low-content wolfdogs who appear happier in a home amongst people versus to specialized homes prepared to meet their unique needs.

Wolves and Dogs: Physiology

Despite popular myths, the behavior, physiological characteristics, and social structure of domesticated dogs are in stark contrast to those of wolves. Wolves are tall and slender with very large paws, with their bodies designed to endure traveling long distances of up to 100 miles per day in times of food scarcity, chasing prey at high speeds, and turning tight corners. Eyes are usually yellow – not brown and blue like domesticated dogs – and floppy ears are only seen in puppies. Muzzles are longer and narrower with large teeth and powerful jaws (Yamnuska). At first glance wolves may look similar to some breeds of pet dogs, but they really are not. There is a collection of characteristics known as “domestication syndrome” seen in domesticated dogs – including both pet dogs and free-ranging dogs – that include floppy ears, smaller teeth, and shorter muzzles that also coincide with docile behavior (Haloupek) (Pendleton). In addition to docile behavior with humans, domesticated dogs are built for the purposes for which humans designed – herding, retrieving, pulling, catching vermin, etc.

There are arrays of various eye and coat colors that appeared as part of that domestication syndrome as the dogs who were friendlier toward humans were passing on their genes and the domesticated dog was created. These have further been refined through selective breeding, at times purely to suit our aesthetic tastes. Many people are familiar with Dmitri Belyaev’s Russian silver fox experiment that spanned six decades. Foxes were selected for breeding future generations solely based on their friendliness toward humans who passed by their cages. After 8-10 generations they had multiple coat colors, curly tails, and floppy ears – much like modern domesticated dogs (Dugatkin)! There are connections between genes that influence behavior and those that control physical appearances. Domesticated dogs tend to be of stockier builds with smaller paws and prominent foreheads compared to wolves (Wolfcenter) (Yamnuska). These differences were noticeable in some of the wolfdogs that shared Malamute and German Shepherd ancestry with their stockier shoulders, wider heads, and deep chests.

Wolves and Dogs: Maturation and Social Behavior

Early socialization is crucial for domesticated dogs to develop close bonds with humans, with the critical period of socialization occurring from 3-12 weeks of age (some breeds up to 16 weeks). If puppies do not bond with people during this period they likely will be fearful of humans instead of socially gravitating to humans for attention and comfort (Horwitz). This can present issues sometimes when adopting feral dogs who did not socialize heavily at an early age with humans. For wolves to be accepting of humans, intense hand-rearing is essential at a much earlier time, starting during the neonatal period (prior to 2 weeks of age). Wolf puppies must spend 20+ hours per day with humans during this very early and sensitive time and continue socialization (Ujfalussy) in order to show comfort with humans later in life.

Dogs do not typically live with their biological family and even if they do, they do not follow the rigid roles of a matriarchal-led hierarchy of mom/dad (the breeding pair). Dogs that are not biologically related, including those of the same sex, usually live together in peace, which is not common in wolves. Wolves sexually mature older than dogs – around 2 years old – and may choose to leave their family to find a life partner, or they may choose to forgo finding a mate to stay and help raise their parents’ young (Yamnuska) (“Gray Wolf”). This could not be more contradictory to the behavior of intact domesticated dogs (dogs that are not spayed/neutered). They may sexually mature as young as six months old and will mate with any other intact dog who is nearby, including their mom, dad, siblings, etc. Male dogs do not typically have any role in helping to raise young puppies, and it is not uncommon for fathers to be aggressive toward their young offspring. Importantly, domesticated dogs do not work together toward goals or provide food/resources to share with their housemate dogs. One of the most common owner complaints I encounter regarding domesticated dogs is aggressive resource guarding of food, toys, beds, or of the owner from other dogs or people in the home.

Domesticated dogs are not bred for living in the rigid social structure of a family unit/pack consisting of a monogamous mom/dad breeding pair and offspring, traveling long distances to work together on hunts and rearing of pups. Dogs have their own social hierarchies but are more fluid than those of dogs, in which one dog may get to be the first to greet visitors to the home, but a different dog in the home may have preferred access to certain toys over the other dogs. One dog is not always the leader in all regards. In a wolf pack/family, the parents are always the leaders and always get preferred access, but resources are ultimately shared. Wolves are focused on survival and work together as a pack toward that goal, following a strict matriarchal hierarchical family structure. They avoid conflict with this strict structure and also avoid conflict with the outside world (other dogs, humans) when possible. Conflict is a high-risk activity for an animal focused on survival since it brings real risks of physical injury and/or death (Yamnuska). While pet dogs may attempt to avoid conflict, I also have significant case load working with pet dogs who display aggression toward fellow housemate dogs, sometimes resulting in significant physical harm. Housemate dogs do not share the same strict family-oriented social structure as wolves. Selective breeding specifically to generate dogs who will display aggression in particular situations (e.g. guarding, protection) may also contribute to these behaviors.

Wolves typically treat humans, other dogs, and anything new or changed in their environment with suspicion and choose to avoid them, although dogs crossing into a wolf’s territory could invite an aggressive encounter. This sometimes happens to hunting dogs in the wilderness in both North American and Europe, and one of these encounters made the news in 2015 when a Swedish Elkhound hunting dog named Klara was attacked by wolves in Sweden. She survived, but the ten minute encounter was recorded by the GoPro camera she was wearing (“Hunting Dog”). Wolves subsist on meat they obtain from their hunts, which they regurgitate to feed their young puppies. Fewer than 14% of hunts are successful, so they may have to wait up to two weeks between opportunities to eat (Yamnuska) (“Gray Wolf Biology”). Domesticated dogs are omnivorous and have been naturally selected for the genes that afford them the ability to break down starches that are common in human diets. One of those genes – AMY2B – is 28 times more active in dogs than wolves (Pappas). Wolf dogs at the sanctuary may not have these genes to process starches so they are fed a raw meat diet like wolves. They would likely have issues digesting the dog food kibble we feed dogs in our homes, as their dietary needs and ability to process foods are dissimilar.

Being focused on survival, wolves do not typically display play behavior except as puppies, and not with dogs outside their family pack. Play can help wolf puppies to learn hunting skills that will be crucial to survival as adults. Contrast this with domesticated dogs who may display social play behavior with strange humans, dogs, and other animals throughout their entire lives. It is extremely important to note that wolves do not have that natural focus and attention on humans that dogs possess. In training classes, people frequently mention dogs’ natural focus on their humans, unconditional love, and innate eagerness to please. They enjoy learning and training, which is not something wolves enjoy. Wolves are independent and live making choices in the best interest of themselves and their family/pack…literally living each day for survival (Yamnuska).

The spectrums of domesticated dogs’ body morphology and dog behaviors are expansive, and this is also true of wolfdogs, who are neither wolf or domesticated dog. The physical, psychological, and social needs of these wolfdogs varies widely depending on the amount of wolf ancestry, the breeds with which they were bred, their early socialization, and themselves as individuals. The environments in which they are housed at the sanctuary and their interactions with other dogs and humans are crafted based on this.

What makes a dog a dog?

The modern dogs we know and love who approach humans as puppies with curiosity and bond with them like children are not a happy accident, nor are they purely a product of our loving homes. Domesticated dogs are unique human creations – through natural selection for canid scavengers sociable enough to scavenge habited areas for food left by humans – and continued later based on human selective pressures to develop dogs suitable to specific purposes (Lazzaroni).

The differences between wolves and dogs go far beyond socialization, unfolding throughout the genetic blueprints that are the basis of our dogs’ biology and behavior. A recent study examined the genetics of Czechoslovakian Vlcak wolfdogs, which were created in the 1950s by mixing small numbers of Carpathian wolves with German Shepherds. They were created through a military experiment with the aim of producing a superior dog with excellent senses and stamina. In modern times, people seek out this breed for their wolf-like appearance, but the majority of their ancestry is German Shepherds. In the study, researchers found that while the Czech wolfdogs retained some wolf-life appearances through careful selective breeding, they also possessed genes that are associated with dog-like behaviors. The Czech wolfdogs possessed the COMT gene that is related to sociability and the control of aggressive behavior. They also possessed the SEZ6L gene that is closely associated with the amount of time dogs choose to spend near humans. They also possessed other dog-like genes that affect cognition, nervous system, and digestive processes (Caniglia).

What does this mean to you as a dog owner?

Genetics, early experiences, and whether individual needs are recognized and met will help determine what a pet dog will become, too. "Domesticated dog" is a broad term. After all, we are lumping Chihuahuas in with German Shepherds and Great Pyrenees. Some domesticated dogs are expected to approach new people/dogs/situations with curiosity and openness, but in other cases, dogs are specifically bred (and expected) to do the opposite: to confront situations with aggression instead of avoidance. This also happens to be the opposite of what wolves generally do, as they prefer avoidance when possible.

I have to be honest:

I am far less worried about an aggressive encounter with wild canids either on a hike or in the wolfdog enclosure than I am with the dogs I may come across while jogging if someone forgets to close their backyard gate. This is undoubtedly little surprise to those reading this who have been by attacked by loose dogs, or perhaps their dog was attacked. Dog attacks on livestock are also an issue in my area. Seriously damaging dog bites to people, other dogs/pets, and livestock are a public health crisis in the United States.

I think it is important to take several things from this article:

· Define what a dog is to you and examine which breed/mix and parentage encompass those qualities

· Early socialization is incredibly important but it not going to undo the genetic blueprint of what is your dog

· Look at your dog’s breed but also look at him/her as an individual to ensure early socialization, physical, environmental, human/dog social needs, and training needs are adequately met

· Approaching training by looking at how wolves live and interact is not a suitable approach because your dog is not a wolf. The genetics, biology, physiology, rules of social interaction, and motivations of each sub-species are significantly different.

· Do not assume that any dog a person brings home will fit into their emotional ideas of what is a “dog”. Domesticated dogs are incredibly diverse behaviorally and as individuals and should be chosen by us to come into our homes with thought and care.

What is a dog to you?


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Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, MSc (in Operations Management) is a fully certified dog behavior consultant with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). She believes the foundation of a good cross-species relationship is understanding the needs and normal behavior patterns of each dog as an individual, as he/she was bred to be. She enjoys helping humans and dogs communicate more effectively to create brilliant relationships with joy, purpose, and fulfillment for all species involved. She offers private consulting for serious dog behavior issues, obedience/manners, and agility training. Eileen developed a unique online course to help pet parents and trainers develop reliable snake avoidance behavior off-leash through positive reinforcement techniques. These techniques have been applied by trainers worldwide to teach dogs reliable avoidance of dangerous environmental hazards and off-leash property boundaries. She lives on a small ranch in Las Vegas, Nevada with her husband and their Nederlandse Kooikerhondjes.



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Caniglia, R., Fabbri, E., Hulva, P. et al. Wolf outside, dog inside? The genomic make-up of the Czechoslovakian Wolfdog. BMC Genomics 19, 533 (2018).

Cranage, A. “Wolf to dog: Digging into the genome of Canis lupus familiaris”. Darwin Tree of Life. 12 Jan 2022.

Dugatkin, L.A. The silver fox domesticatedation experiment. Evo Edu Outreach 11, 16 (2018).

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Pappas, Stephanie. “Starchy Diets May Have Given Ancient Dogs a Paw Up”. Live Science. 23 Jan 2013.

Pendleton, A.L., Shen, F., Taravella, A.M. et al. Comparison of village dog and wolf genomes highlights the role of the neural crest in dog domesticatedation. BMC Biol 16, 64 (2018).

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Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary and Education Centre. “Interactive Tour” and other on-site presentations with various speakers. 14 July 2022. Cochrane, Province of Alberta, Canada.

Wolfcenter. “What’s the difference between your dog and a wolf?” Wolf Education & Research Center. 23 Sep 2020.

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