9 ways wolf pups offer clues to dog intelligence

Wolves at the Wildlife Science Center
Wolves at the Wildlife Science Center in Columbus, Minn.
Courtesy of Brian Hare

After studying domestic dogs for nearly 20 years, a champion of canine intelligence is turning his attention to his subjects' wild ancestors - wolves.

Brian Hare, a professor at Duke University, is teaming up with the Columbus, Minn.-based Wildlife Science Center. Together, the two research groups will collect data on wolf puppies, ultimately aiming to grow our understanding of "dognition."

9 facts about the evolution of dogs

Peggy Callahan and fox kit
Peggy Callahan, founder and executive director of the Wildlife Science Center, holds an 8-week-old fox kit in the MPR studios July 17, 2014.
Hart Van Denburg/MPR News

1. Dogs evolved from wolves between 14,000 to 40,000 years ago. This correlated with humans becoming more sedentary and not wandering as much for food. This meant more concentrated garbage from humans. Clever, friendly wolves saw this as an opportunity to have a reliable and safe food source.

2. We got more than we planned during domestication.When wolves were selected, by nature and people, for their friendliness and interest in people, that also caused morphological and physiological changes such as curly tails, floppy ears and different coats.

3. Scientists believe dogs are the "Peter Pan" of the Canidae family. The latest scientific theories explain domesticated dogs as wolves frozen as juveniles. This is what makes them less aggressive and playful compared to adult wolves. In order to study this theory, Hare said it's important to compare the development of dog and wolf pups, which is part of his current research.

4. Dog with specific skills come from hyper-focused breeding of wolves. If you look at a dog breed, such as those with strong hunting instincts, those skills come from wolf hunting behavior. Dog breeding distilled one job for a breed based on human needs.

5. Dogs have evolved to digest human foods. A study in Nature last year showed dogs are more like humans when it comes to their digestive enzymes. Dogs have enzymes that are better able to digest grains and carbohydrates compared to wolves.

6. Unlike wolves, dogs have trouble digesting rotting meat. Dogs don't tolerate post-mortem bacteria as well as wolves, said Peggy Callahan, founder and executive director of the Wildlife Science Center. This concerns veterinarians as dogs owners move to raw food diets. It's not the raw meat that causes problems, she said, but the storage and management of the meat.

7. Howling was also a selective trait, but many dogs still have it. Callahan said the pack of dogs that live at the center all howl, even if they aren't traditionally known as howling breeds.

8. Dogs hug you with their eyes. Hare discussed recent research that showed an oxytocin loop between humans and dogs when they make eye contact. It's known as the "hug hormone" and is released when a human is bonding with a child, family member or friend. It feels good for dogs and humans to share that connection.

9. Not all "accidents" in the house are a housebreaking failure. Callahan said when a dog urinates in the house, it's the ultimate form of submission. Wolves do the same behavior in front of dominant members of their pack too.

Dogs from our listeners:


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