Will knowing their origins help us to make care and training decisions today?

brown wolf on green grass

When it comes to the evolution and domestication of dogs, there’s not actually an awful lot that scientists can agree on.

Strap yourself in, we’re taking a trip back in time to where in all began. Let’s go back to the start and to the first thing most do actually agree on. Dogs descended from wolves; not the wolves we know of today though, it’s likely that dogs and wolves have a common ancestor in a now-extinct wolf species. Dogs and modern day wolves are actually genetically very similar, even more so than we are to our closest living relatives- chimpanzees.

How exactly dogs came to be the dogs we know today, everyone is a bit less sure. There’s a few theories thrown around- wolves began approaching humans at campfires asking for food, pretty unlikely given how successful wolves are as hunters in their own rights. A more likely story is that wolves started scavenging around the human settlements, and chasing them off just meant new wolves coming along, so they left them to get on with it.

closeup photography of wold lying on ground

The wolves that were scavenging around the settlements would have been bold enough to exist so close to the humans, with the more reserved wolves keeping to themselves to the wild. The reserved wolves likely evolved into the wild species’ of wolves we have today and the bolder types likely headed towards dogs. The humans probably realised that the wolves could be quite handy to have around, perhaps assisting with hunting, maybe they were just fantastic cleaners for the settlement. The wolves living alongside the human settlement continued to adapt to the changing conditions, the humans started caring for them and over many years, impact their breeding, starting to control it by breeding those with traits they found desirable.

Dogs vs wolves

Once domesticated it seems that we were loyal to our dogs even back then, these are relationships spanning hundreds of thousands of years. Geneticists found that when Middle Eastern families expanded into Europe over 10,000 years ago, they took their dogs with them. Domestication also brought about big changes from their wolf origins. Evolving in our human world meant that dogs that best suited the human lifestyle thrived and reproduced the most.

How dogs differ from wolves:

  • Tight-knit family structure was lost
  • Wild dogs will exist in loose and changeable groups of 2-4 dogs
  • Dogs show no hierarchical behaviours.

So what does that mean for living with our dogs?

Very basically, we’re not living with modern wolves, we can’t use wolf behaviour to analyse our dogs or influence our training choices. Dogs don’t have the hierarchical structure of wolves, they don’t do things to “become the leader of the pack”. Sure they may take advantage of a lack of boundaries but they aren’t aiming to become Top Dog. Look out for trainers who are using the “alpha theory” to design their training programme. The man who originally came up with the alpha theory, Rudolph Schenkel, actually debunked his own theory, realising that not only was the study of captive wolves completely misrepresentative of how wild wolf packs behave, but that it also had terrible consequences for dog training. Despite debunking his own dominance theories, some dog trainers still use these outdated methods which can cause big relationship issues for those seeking help.

“Attempting to apply information about the behavior of assemblages of unrelated captive wolves to the familial structure of natural packs has resulted in considerable confusion. Such an approach is analogous to trying to draw inferences about human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps. The concept of the alpha wolf as a ‘top dog’ ruling a group of similar-aged compatriots (Schenkel 1947; Rabb et al. 1967; Fox 1971a; Zimen 1975, 1982; Lockwood 1979; van Hooff et al. 1987) is particularly misleading.

David Mech

white wolf on brown dried leaves
Photo by Shelby Waltz on Pexels.com

The emergence of breeds

As humans continued selectively breeding over the years you would start to recognise our modern breeds, for better and for worse (think about pugs with breathing problems and dachshunds prone to intervertebral disc disease). We have been selecting for traits that benefit us, collies for herding, spaniels for retrieving, Dobermanns for guarding, terriers for pest control and toys like the Pekingese for companionship.

Thinking about the original purpose of the breeds we choose to live with can really help us to understand their behaviour and quirks. The traits that our dogs breed has been selected for can be really internally rewarding to them- sighthounds chasing, hounds tracking and barking, retrievers picking things up and carrying them around (Flash does this when he’s really excited, he’ll grab the closest thing to him, often a shoe, and parade it around the house), shepherds and bull breeds may mouth or nip and collies may stalk and herd.

When we understand what our dogs are just built to love we can use this reinforcement to our advantage. Allowing our dogs to partake in activities they were built for in ways that we find appropriate both satisfies their instincts and can act as a really powerful reinforcer for us. I’ve written about this concept before in Why positive reinforcement isn’t what you think it is…. If you have a spaniel who lives for water, how about asking for a recall, then reward by releasing them for a swim, ask your beagle for eye contact and then reward by letting them go sniff.

Inherent traits aren’t the only thing we have impacted through artificial selection. Where breeds were developed has also played a role in what we feed our dogs. Breeds developed in areas thriving with agriculture- like the Saluki, have actually genetically adapted to the diets of the humans in the area. We have a gene which helps with the breakdown of starch, these breeds developed in these high grain agriculture areas genetically carry more of these genes than dogs from colder regions like Nordic breeds, who were probably raised on a more fish and meat based diet and would have a similar number of these genes to wolves. So, knowing where our breeds originated from can even help us to make nutritional decisions.


  • Dogs and modern wolves descended from a common now-extinct wolf ancestor
  • No one really knows for sure how wolves evolved to dogs, but it was likely a very slow process over hundreds of thousands of years
  • Dogs do not have a hierarchical pack structure mentality
  • “Alpha theory” was debunked long ago
  • Breeds were all developed with a purpose in mind
  • Finding out what our dogs breeds’ were developed for can help us to reinforce their good behaviours with activities they find internally rewarding