Why Do People Keep Saying Dogs Are Like Wolves?

Some popular “trainers” insist that dogs are like wolves. And that we must use what we’ve learned about wolves when training our dogs.

Have they ever seen wolves and dogs side by side?

Because if they had, I don’t think they’d be saying dogs are like wolves.

Honey the golden retriever licks her lips.

Well, I’m hungry like a wolf.

A Wolf Called Romeo

Juneau, Alaska witnessed an amazing thing when a black wolf became attracted to dogs walking with their people. Nick Jans wrote about it in A Wolf Called Romeo, a book I loved. (affiliate)

And it got me thinking.

I’ve seen wolves. I’ve seen dogs. But I’ve never seen them interact with each other.

If Romeo the wolf hung around Juneau dogs for several years, surely someone posted video online. I went looking for it and found this.

It’s a long and shaky video (well, wouldn’t you be excited if you saw a wolf on your afternoon dog walk?).

Move forward to 1:30 to see the first dog pass by Romeo the wolf. Do you see the dramatic contrast?

Romeo is still and economical in his movements. The labrador retriever is wagging and expending energy like he has someone at home with a can opener just waiting to feed him.

As you continue to watch, the dogs look goofy beside the much larger wolf. It’s like watching puppies frolicking around an older dog.

Now check out 3:00. See the relaxed, swish Romeo gives his tail next to the lab wagging his otter tail like it’s generating electricity?

And see how different the two look at 3:45 when the black lab goes in for a butt sniff while Romeo can’t be bothered to respond.

Romeo is curious. He’s sociable. But he doesn’t remind me much of a dog. Not even my childhood dog who may have been 1/4 wolf.

Honey the golden retriever naps on the couch.

Do wolves get comfy couches to nap on?

The Problem With Comparing Wolves To Dogs

If you’re thinking about wolves when you’re training your dog, you’re in for trouble. Why?

I suspect my dog Honey has much more to teach me than any wolf.

Honey the golden retriever after a bath.

Do wolves have to take baths? Because if they don’t, I might consider being one.

Don’t Despise the Familiar

Dogs are amazing.

They are so tuned into humans and have remarkable abilities to read our emotions and body language.

We can live beside them every day for years and still not know all their secrets.

Wolves are beautiful. Wolves are efficient and wondrous predators. Wolves form tight bonds with each other and work collaboratively with other species, like ravens.

But it’s better for wolves if they live far away from humans. [Spoiler alert: As you’d expect, Romeo’s story does not have a happy ending.]

So let’s love canis familiaris and kick the butts of ignorant banana heads who keep saying dogs are like wolves. Because it just ain’t so.

Honey the golden retriever fetches a ball.

On second thought, wolves don’t play fetch, do they?

If you’re as intrigued by Romeo’s story as I was, check out Nick Jans’ book at Amazon by clicking the book image. If you buy something while you’re there, I’ll earn a few cents. Thanks for supporting Something Wagging This Way Comes.

 Thank You Pet Bloggers, For The Gifts

The Third Annual Pet Blogger’s Gift Exchange is winding down. Most of the bloggers who signed up have posted their praise of the blogger they were randomly paired here.

Pet Blogger's Gift Exchange BadgeI wanted to thank everyone who joined the fun for their wonderful gift to me.

People were kind to each other. They took time out of a busy time of year to share their appreciation for a fellow blogger. And I feel very gratified and thankful for your making this event so fun.

Keep the love going. Click on the badge and say hello to the bloggers featured in the gift exchange.

Blogging is a solitary sport so I  know everyone would appreciate your encouraging visit.

And congratulations to Aimee of Irresistible Pets who was randomly chosen to win the Amazon gift card. I’m sure Chuy has some ideas for what you can buy with your prize.

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  1. I’ve always considered wolves more like distant cousins to our dogs. In the area where I live, wolves aren’t that common, but coyotes are. To me, they’re pretty darned different from dogs, too, and I have more personal experience with them than with wolves. I think our dogs do have ancient instincts at times, but I also think we’ve taken a lot of the wildness out of them as the years have gone by.

    • And they’ve certainly taken the wildness out of us. Do you ever look back to the days when you’d go out for drinks with friends without saying, “I have to get home for the dogs?”

  2. Great post Pamela. I wish people would stop using the whole wolf dog comparison. It’s tiring to have to keep repeating that “alpha” is no longer applicable.
    I am fascinated by your analysis of the Romeo’s body movements when compared with a dog. Fascinating! I will be checking out this book!

    • It just seemed so obvious to me that we were looking at two very different animals. And it’s something that I’m sure escaped the notice of the people who brought their kids to see the wolf on their afternoon walks.

      I do think you’d like the book. Jans brought a lot of nuance to the issues surrounding a wolf spending so much time close to human homes. As you can imagine since I’m still thinking about it weeks after finishing the book.

  3. Yes, the whole “alpha” thing has got to go! I hate it when I see a person roll their dog when they see another dog walking their way. How in the hell is that ever going to make their dog calmer/happier to see a strange dog?!

    Didn’t I read in Romeo that the all-black wolves actually have domestic dog genes mixed in? Maybe that is why Romeo had so much interest in the local dogs.

    Wolves are also way more intelligent than dogs (isn’t that a scary thought?). Without humans to do some of their problem solving, they have a much more highly developed brain. Same is true for coyotes and foxes.

    • Yeah, the whole alpha dog thing is so bizarre.

      I once saw a woman alpha roll the golden retriever she was fostering because he got over excited and tried to hump another dog. The crazy dog was a little dim and he had no idea she was “dominating” him. He just thought it was a fun game.

      Unfortunately, that isn’t the reaction of every dog who receives such startling and upsetting treatment.

      As for more intelligent, I sometimes wonder if dogs aren’t more intelligent for getting humans to do their bidding for them. :)

  4. I have a hard time making that comparison to a Golden. I’m sure it’s buried deep down somewhere, but it’s not that close to the surface anymore. I think people like the idea of being close to the wild, so they look for signs that their pet is carrying that in them. Think of comparing a house cat to a tiger…

    Monty and Harlow

    • Good point that people attribute wild characteristics to their dogs to make themselves feel something about being close to wild creatures. You may be onto something.

      I recently read some research that says dogs are closer to each other genetically than they are to wolves. Which means a chihuahua, husky, and golden retriever share nearly all the same DNA. Fascinating, huh?

  5. I actually met a wolf that was raised like a dog. Beautiful, gentle creature. But I had to wonder, is the instinct still there to hunt for it’s dinner? She didn’t seem prey driven, was very mellow actually. But, you never know.

    • From my reading, it seems that wolves have as many different personalities as dogs. If the wolf you met had been raised with her family in the wild, I’m sure she would have found her place in the hunt. But it probably wouldn’t be as the first one taking down an elk.

  6. Margaret T says:

    I took the five day seminar at Wolf Park (Battle Ground, IN) and was in with the main pack of wolves, minus their alpha female, interacting every day in addition to classroom work. Their behavior with each other was beautifully ritualized. There was no fighting for food–that really would be counterproductive in a wild pack. Injuring each other weakens the pack, and they hunt together. I never saw a wolf roll another, but I did see wolves offer their bellies to a superior. If a wolf actually rolls another, it’s a fight that will generally end with one wolf running away or dying, so an alpha roll is terrifying. (Wolves kill other wolves, or are killed by them, over territory. They also kill coyotes and dogs in their territory.) It was the most intense five days of my life, I think. These wolves were raised so they had imprinted on people, then turned back in with the other wolves–wolves in spring and summer are very nurturing, no matter whose pups–and they were clicker-trained, but there was never any doubt that they were wolves, with all the instincts of wolves. They would cooperate with the clicker, and do tricks–walk a board over a log like a teeter, and back over that same board, jump up on a log to pose for pictures, etc. But when something more interesting came along, there was never any question in anyone’s mind–those were requests, not commands, because you do not command a wolf.

    • How fascinating. That must have been an amazing experience.

      I went to the Wolf Park website and I didn’t see an answer to my question. I assume the wolves were a pack created with human involvement rather than an actual family of blood relations?

      That would also affect their behavior. It would be interesting to compare your experiences with the wolves at Wolf Park with observations made in a totally wild setting.

      • Margaret T says:

        At that time, in the main pack there were two sets of brothers from different parents, the alpha male, and the alpha female. One pair were the sons of the alpha male. Pups were introduced after imprinting on humans to make things like veterinary work and observation simpler, during the summer when they were still quite young and the pack was nurturing. (During spring and summer, when the babies are born and dependent on the pack to bring them food, prolactin levels soar, even in the males, to the point where they are generally sterile.) They are in a 40+ acre enclosure.
        The captive group that David Mech first worked with elsewhere had been introduced as adults, making that situation radically different. The information from those studies has been refuted by Mech himself.
        Since then, they have had a litter of pups, and some of them are in the main pack. One set of brothers from the main pack when I was there is still in the main pack, one the alpha male, the other the beta.

        • Thanks, Margaret. That’s really interesting. And just what I wanted to know.

        • Margaret T says:

          A couple of other points–all the females except those they intend to breed retain their breeding organs, but have their tubes tied.
          And because their girls were not getting along, the alpha was the only one to remain with the pack, to keep things relatively bloodless.
          With wolves, “alpha” generally means mom and dad. The others do have their rank, though. They just almost never actually fight for it, although there is a lot of posturing.
          Many people from all over the world, including those who study wolves in the wild, come to Wolf Park and observe the wolves there and then observe wild wolves as much as they can, looking for differences and similarities.

  7. I have a hard time interacting with my Poodles, Chihuahua, and generic dog and think of them in any sense as wolves. Thousands of years of domesticating them has pretty much made them whole nuther species. I don’t believe that wolves are more intelligent. Dogs have just figured out how to get us to do some of their work and thinking.

    • Yeah, I made a similar comment to Taryn above. I suspect dogs might be even more intelligent than wolves than they figure out how to train humans to do their bidding.

      After all, whose smarter? The one who works his butt off just to eat? Or the one who waits for dinner on the couch?

  8. I’m going to bookmark that video so I can send it to every person who ever uses the word alpha to describe their dog. I saw a blog post he wrote a while back but was never able to find it again. Now I have something to reference specifically.

    Sometimes when Bailey is covering my husband’s face in kisses, he yells, “help! Bailey’s trying to dominate me!” and we just laugh and laugh because of how ridiculous it all is.

    • Poor Dr. Mech. His 1970s research has spawned empires of mistaken training advice. I was very glad to find that video. It was concise and clear.

      Mike and I also joke about Honey dominating us. I suspect people who go crazy talking about being a strong leader are telling us far more about themselves than about their dogs.

  9. I love it! Blogging is a solitary sport! LOL! Thanks for hosting the match up, it has been fun to see what everyone has to say about their paired partners. As for wolves and dogs, the only comparison we have seen is to say a wild wolf looks a bit like a mangy husky dog, but that is about the only thing.

  10. I would be hesitant about letting my dogs visit or play with a wolf, even a cutie like Romeo.
    I think wild animals should be left alone in the wild.
    I’ve seen many documentaries about wolves and they definitely speak a different language from dog. Their body posture, use of eye contact or lack thereof, tail position, is all different from the language of our domestic dog.
    I also don’t like the dogs-wolf comparison, and alpha rolls don’t make any sense.
    When we need our dogs to calm down, we ask them to lay down but we don’t roll or toss them into the proper position. Some dogs can become very reactive if they are manhandled and “rolled”.

    • I agree with you about leaving wild animals alone. As did the writer of the book. After he got over the initial wonder and amazement that Romeo greeted his lab gently, he started chasing Romeo away from the house and keeping the dogs away as well. He knew it would be a mistake to have Romeo get too comfortable around humans.

      As for becoming reactive when being alpha rolled, I feel the same way. :)

  11. I’m in the middle of ‘A Wolf Called Romeo’ thanks to your review and I believe it explains very well how and why wolves and dogs are so different. I also recommend it highly and you didn’t spoil it, I had to find out so I looked it up. Last weekend I saw a coyote in my yard (about 7 feet from me!!) and even knowing we have a number of very large dogs in our neighborhood, it was distinctive. The difference between wild and domesticated is so eerie. I was inside very quickly!

    • Hope you enjoy the book. It’s not always happy. But it’s really though-provoking. And I thought Nick Jans was very even in his discussion of a really controversial issue.

      Be careful with coyotes around. I think of it as a gift to be able to see wild animals. But I know they have a lot more to lose from getting used to human neighborhoods than I do.

  12. I don’t think I realized how large wolves were until seeing Romeo next to those dogs. I don’t think I’ve ever really thought of my dogs as being similar to wolves.
    I’m still working my way through some of the gift exchange posts, but I’ve been enjoying them all. There are blogs out there I haven’t visited in a while, and some I didn’t know of. It’s been fun and I’m so glad you did it again. It really adds a little special something to the holidays.

  13. First off, that was an amazing video. I never heard that story about Romeo, and so interesting that the wolf was so interested in the dogs. Leave it to a Lab to get a wolf to wag his tail though!

    While I know you are looking at this from the behavioral angle, and I know everyone has the right to their own opinion, but this is one of the reasons why I personally don’t feed raw. When many people advocate raw diets, they say it is because it is what a wolf would eat in the wild…but our dogs aren’t wolves, and most of them are not wild. I believe that dogs evolved right alongside us, eating our cooked scraps, and therefore are very different than wolves, for many reasons, including those you wrote about in your post!

    • I agree so much with this comment. This is the main reason I can’t seem to get the raw feeding.

    • Interesting point, Donna. And one I didn’t quite get to in my thinking about this.

      In truth, if we wanted to feed our dogs they way their ancestors ate, we’d chase prey down side by side over many miles. I guess that’s one way of meeting my resolution to get more fit. :)

  14. I find the dog/wolf studies and comparisons fascinating, but there are vast differences between a wolf in the wild and the domesticated dog. Switching gears, thanks for hosting the PBGE. I had so much fun discovering a lot of wonderful pet bloggers!

  15. Enjoyed the video, and never, ever heard of Romeo. may just have to add this to my winter hibernation library collection. I love reading in the winter. Fascinating subject Pamela – very well done!

    • Thanks. When I had a shepherd mix, I thought more about the similarities. But no one would ever get a golden retriever (or doodle) confused with a wolf.

      The book is excellent. And I always love to read. But I’d gladly trade winter reading in for beach reading. :)

  16. This was a wonderful post! It drives me nuts when people say how much dogs are like wolves, and they say even more so when it comes to huskies. It is SO not true!!! Two very different animals.
    ღ husky hugz ღ frum our pack at Love is being owned by a husky!

    • Yep, I best you hear wolf comparisons a lot. Huskies and malamutes are probably the most wolf-like of all dogs. And yet genetically, they have more in common with a chihuahua than they do with a wolf.

      Fascinating, huh?

  17. It’s crazy how pervasive that “alpha dog/male” thing is in society. Just heard it on TV again yesterday. I wonder if it will ever go away?

    But I think folks probably compare a dog to a wolf not so much in the ways they (think they) are similar now, but in the deep-down things that affect a dog because they evolved from wolves. Just like a modern human is not a caveman (well… most of them aren’t) but we have some things that are hard-wired in us that have come along from our caveman days. Like… why does my dog roll in stinky stuff? Does it harken back to those hunting instincts? (And why does my heart race when I’m late for a flight or whatever? It’s not as if it’s the same as a saber-toothed tiger sniffing around my cave, but you get the same stress response.)

    And I totally agree w/ Donna. The ‘feed raw cuz that’s what wolves eat’ argument doesn’t make sense to me. Dogs have been eating our scraps (mostly cooked scraps) for 1000s of years.

  18. I shudder when I hear about people breeding wolves for pets. But that’s another story. When I hear someone mention how they had to be dominant with their dog I usually say “did you do an alpha roll and then pee on him?” and unfortunately not everyone thinks it sounds as ridiculous as I do. I remember watching a documentary about humans raising wolves, and although they had a few similarities it was made extremely different they were by the ripe old age of 6-8 weeks. The cute little baby wolves were viciously defensive of their food and objects instantly. I don’t know how true it is but for those few wolves every single baby had severe resource guarding (for lack of a better word.)

    It’s a shame that people become so fixated on exotic pets when we have so many wonderful dogs around already. They’re seek out our companionship, they look to use for cues, and they actually try and engage with us through eye contact unlike other mammals. They’re the perfect companion for us. I find it hard to believe that anyone could ever run out of things to do with their dog – hence their need for something more exotic.

    • Margaret T says:

      Wolf rule # 1: If it’s in my mouth, it’s mine. Period. It’s very counterproductive for wolves to fight with each other.

  19. Brilliant post!!

  20. Thank you again for hosting this gift exchange and I’m so happy about the gift card! Happy New Year!

  21. When Rumpy and I walk, some people smile, and some even stop and ask about him. And then there are others who, I can tell, are terrified of him. He looks like a wolf, right? Maybe, if you don’t know what either wolves or Malamutes look like. Of course, there are idiot humans who think it’s a good idea to have wolves as pets, so I can understand their terror.