Italian Greyhound Care

The wolf in your home

The evolution of your Italian Greyhound!

The fact that domestic dogs share 99% of their DNA with wolves has always been a factor in our understanding of our canine pets’ needs and behaviour. It has also become a big selling factor, especially within the dog food industry, with everything from business names to the images displayed on packages including a wolf. But how much do we truly understand of the origin of the animal we share our home with?  

Canis and Hominid: a potted overview of the shared evolutionary journey 

The following information includes evidence found around the globe, not necessarily in the UK. As the habits and cultures of hominini changed, it did not suddenly occur globally, with some continents adopting more modern customs sometimes hundreds, if not thousands of years before other countries and continents around the globe.

Homo Neanderthalensis

The earliest potential evidence of the domestication of a canis genus dates as far back as 130,000 years ago in the Middle Pleistocene period, with modern archaeological procedures revealing the bones of wolves being buried with hominid remains. At this point in time, it is believed that the hominid would have been of a genus falling between Homo Erectus and Homo Sapien; So pre “human”, or at least Archaic Homo Sapien (this would include Homo Neanderthalensis, also known as “Neanderthals”). Footnote 1

In the 1970’s a canine skull was excavated in Russia, showing evidence of being an early example of a fully domesticated pet dog. All independent radiocarbon dating dated the fossil’s age at around 33,000 years old.

The Modern Samoyed

At this point, the Homo Sapiens were thriving throughout the continents around the globe. Scientific studies of this skull, compared to that of wild wolves, modern wolves, modern domesticated dogs, and fossilised remains of domesticated dogs from later periods, showed that the dog was most similar to fully domesticated dogs from Greenland in size and shape, much like a Samoyed.

Fossilised canis familiaris remains from earlier than around 26,000 years ago are rare, but there is clear evidence of humans keeping pet dogs from 14,000 years ago onwards. Various new archaeological finds are challenging the theories on when canis familiaris separated from wolves as a species, with increasing evidence that this happened much, much earlier than previously believed.

Eurasian Wolf

Archaeological evidence suggests that as hominidae evolved and populations increased, canis (wolves, coyotes and jackals) found themselves competing with hominids for food. It seems that wolves soon cottoned on that humans were a good source of easily obtained food, and thus the foundations of “mans best friend” were laid, and over tens-of-thousands of years the canis species evolved and adapted to a domestic environment. I’m sure most dogs owners can agree that is probably a fair hypothesis! Footnote 2

How this might relate to your Italian Greyhound

The following is purely my contemplation of how the evolutionary history of the domestic dogs fits with our daily lives with them today. It is not intended as advice. It is important that readers thoroughly research and decide what is best for their own dog/s in each circumstance.

Diet

With food being the most probable attraction to hominids, it is undoubtedly a big factor in the evolution of the domestic dog. So, surely, to understand feeding our pet dogs, we must factor in the part food has played in the evolution of canis familiaris.

In recent years, our dog feeding habits have altered considerably. With the understanding that dogs can be intolerant to grain, we have applied dietary adjustments to our individual dogs’ diets regardless of evidence of any intolerance. Increasingly, dog food manufacturers have replaced grain with legumes as bulk and a binder, and in particular pea protein powder. This has coincided with an exponential rise in diet related Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs of any breed. It has been hypothesised that it is the higher volume of legumes used as bulk and binders in the dog’s diet is suppressing the taurine absorption in some dogs. As such studies take decades to draw conclusions, it is still unknown what exactly is the cause of this rise in diet related DCM in dogs, and it is not simply accepted that legumes are the cause. The common denominator is that a great many dogs improve, or are even cured (if caught early enough) with a change of diet, so it suggests that something in modern feeding trends is linked to the exponential rise in non-hereditary DCM in dogs. Footnote 3

The dawn of agriculture

The history of our pet dogs tells us a lot about the evolution of their digestive system.  As previously mentioned, the earliest evidence of the domestication of canines is as long as 130,000 years ago. There is clear evidence of domestication of canines from 33,000 years ago. Canines have been eating human’s food scraps for well over 33,000 years. Humans were eating grain rich foods 20,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence suggests that humans shifted from a nomadic life to a more sedentary, settled life around 10,000-15,000 years ago. From this point, growing vegetables gradually replaced hunter-gathering and following the natural seasonal food-stuffs. In potentially 130,000 years or more of dogs co-existing with the homo genus, only the last 12,000 years or so have included harvested fruit and vegetables. Domesticated canines must have been eating grain rich human food stuff for thousands of years before even humans started cultivating legumes. 

I see a lot of people saying they are changing their dog’s diet to a grain free because dogs don’t naturally eat grain in the wild. It is equally arguable that they don’t naturally eat legumes, either! There are good reasons to adopt a good quality grain-free diet for our dogs; it being natural to them or not is not one of them! 

Socialisation

Reading scents

Key differences between wild canines and their domestic counterparts is the way they travel across terrain. If you look at domestic dog tracks, they travel all over an area; back and forth, circling round, zig-zagging (particularly scent breeds), and generally discovering every sniff and story within range. By contrast, a wild canine will leave just one line of footprints in a very decisive straight line, travelling from A to B. Our domesticated canine companions have the luxury of humans providing regular meals and safe spaces to rest. They can afford to waste energy reading the scents of what has gone by before them. Wild canines have to conserve energy and never waste it. It is one example of how domestic dogs are so different in their behaviour to their wild counterparts.

Agility

Wild European Grey Wolves do not naturally jump – they dig. Jumping fences is not something they do naturally! To access fenced territory, they will naturally dig, or swim, but not jump. Countries with a wild wolf population will invest more in secure fencing below ground level than in tall barriers! A European Grey Wolf that jumps has learned this behaviour, it is not natural to them!

Pricked vs floppy ears

As generations of canines became increasingly domesticated, their ears became less pricked and more floppy, and their tails became more curly. There are no wild canine species with floppy ears, or curly tails. Over the last 59 years, a team of Russian geneticists led by Lyudmila Trut have been breeding silver foxes in domestication. As the generations progressed, the foxes offspring developed characteristics of domestic dogs, including floppy ears, curlier tails, and a considerably lower level of stress hormone. Footnote 4 & Footnote 5

Living in packs

It’s interesting looking at facts about modern wolves and seeing some common misconceptions about them. Take a country like Germany, for example, where Eurasian Wolves still live wild and are a strictly protected species. There is a body of people studying and protecting the wolves inhabiting their countryside and what they have learned over the decades is very interesting.

One of the key things we know about wolves is that they live in packs. However, our vision of wolf packs probably does not resemble that of the Eurasian Wolves, who live in family units consisting of the mother and father pairing, adolescent offspring, and puppies. A mating pair of wolves will stay tother through choice and have their own territory. The mortality rate in Eurasian Wolves is around 50%, so roughly half make it to adulthood, and young wolves stay with their parents until they are sexually mature at around 2-3 years old. Subsequently, adolescent wolves play a part in raising the youngest offspring. Once sexually mature, the leave their family unit to find a partner and establish their own territory. There is no “Alpha male” or dominant leader, only a consenting mating pair and their immature offspring.

The idea of an “Alpha” and pack members requiring domination originates from a flawed study by animal behaviorist, Rudolph Schenkel. In 1947 Schenkel published a then-groundbreaking paper “Expressions Studies on Wolves”. Schenkel studied captive wolves in Basel Zoo, Switzerland. His objective was to identify a “sociology of the wolf.” The resultant paper draws many parallels to domestic dogs and so the foundation was laid that our pets must be dominated in order to live harmoniously with us, because that is natural to them and, in turn, what they want and expect.

The problem with this study is that it took wolves out of their natural habitat and forced them together in close confinement. The subsequent conclusions were based on how these wolves interacted and behaved in this entirely false, incredibly stress inducing environment. Naturally, the wolves fought and the strongest, most aggressive individual was assigned the label of “alpha”.

The idea of the “alpha wolf” was reinforced further by wildlife biologist L. David Mech’s book The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species (1970). Again, Mech’s studies were not of wolves living in their natural environment, but in artificial confinement. Mech has since renounced the notion of the “alpha wolf”, having gone on to study wolves in their natural habitat. He admitted that previous studies had been flawed and that they had not observed the same behaviour in wild wolves in their natural habitat. Mech went on to say in 1999, “The concept of the alpha wolf as a “top dog” ruling a group of similar-aged compatriots is particularly misleading.” Mech went to to explain that his studies on wolves in their natural environment do not have an innate sense of rank; they are not born leaders or born followers. The “alphas” are simply what we would call in any other social group “parents.” The offspring follow the parents as naturally as they would in any other species. No one has “won” a role as leader of the pack; the parents may assert dominance over the offspring by virtue of simply being the parents! Footnote 6

The truth about wolves living in family units vs packs leads to training…


Training

As far as we can hypothesise, wolves started hanging around hominids to scavenge for food scraps. Much like people today feeding wildlife and building a relationship of trust with a wild animal, hominids of hundreds of thousands of years ago must have been doing something similar with wolves. Quite probably, the initial trade off between species was food for protection; “I feed you, you resource guard me”. Over thousands of years, I image the trade off extended to hunting together. One thing that we can be sure of; the earliest relationship between hominid and canine was reward based. There is no other reason for a wolf to stick around with humans long enough to evolve into a domestic species. At that point in history, there is no evidence of hominid farming and corralling livestock, so there’s no reason to believe they were keeping wolves captive.

Modern training methods

Many people shun reward based training, claiming it is simply bribing a dog to do what you want. It is not. Correctly executed, it is simply conditioning the dog to want to work with you. Much like us being paid at the end of our working week. However, reward based training is not simply feeding your dog treats when he comes back to you; it can also be games-based training that taps into your dog’s natural instincts and desires. The whole species has evolved from being fed human food scraps, leading to a partnership based on the canine’s natural instincts and behaviour. It is the basis upon which every breed of domestic dog has developed; through an exchange of favours between the hominid and canis genus. From herding breeds, to guarding breeds. From hunting breeds to companion breeds. The entire basis of domestication is that of food reward. Yet in modern times, people have chosen to model their training methods upon a flawed study of a completely different genus of canine, kept in false conditions in captivity! 

It always saddens me when I see and hear people talking of needing to be “pack leader” to their pet, or that their pet needs to “know who’s boss”. This is certainly not how canis familiaris has evolved alongside hominids, and it is only within the last 80 years that this mindset has become commonplace! Footnote 7

Fun facts that count

  • Humans share 98.8% of their DNA with chimps.
  • Humans share 98.4% of their DNA with Gorillas.
  • Humans share 98% of their DNA with pigs.
  • Humans share 90% of their DNA with cats.
  • Humans share around 85% of their DNA with mice.
  • Humans share about 84% of their DNA with dogs.
  • Humans share 70% of their DNA with slugs.
  • Humans share 50-60% of their DNA with bananas.
  • Humans share 50% of their DNA with trees.

When considering that humans share 98.8% of their DNA with Chimps, I think it’s fair to say very few of us feel inclined to swing from tree branches or pick nits from each other’s hair! Despite domestic dogs sharing 99% of their DNA with wolves, consider exactly how important and influential this might really be with regards to how we manage them and our relationship with them daily!

Footnote 1 – National Geographic: Dog and Human Genomes Evolved Together
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/130514-dogs-domestication-humans-genome-science

Footnote 2 – National Geographic: Ancient Dog Skull Shows Early Pet Domestication
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/110819-dogs-wolves-russia-domestication-animals-science-evolution

Footnote 3 – FDA Investigation into Potential Link between Certain Diets and Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy
https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/outbreaks-and-advisories/fda-investigation-potential-link-between-certain-diets-and-canine-dilated-cardiomyopathy

Footnote 4 – BCM: The Silver Fox Domestication Experiment
https://evolution-outreach.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12052-018-0090-x

Footnote 5 – National Library of Medicine (US): Animal evolution during domestication: the domesticated fox as a model
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2763232/#:~:text=In%20the%20domesticated%20foxes%2C%20morphological,domesticates%2C%20mainly%20dogs%20

Footnote 6 – Mexican Wolves: WHY EVERYTHING YOU KNOW ABOUT WOLF PACKS IS WRONG
https://mexicanwolves.org/blog-why-everything-you-know-about-wolf-packs-is-wrong/

Footnote 7 – Simone Mueller: Predation Substitute Training
https://predation-substitute-training.com/about-simone/

About the author

Kelly Wallace Horne

Kelly has two Italian Greyhounds, Chico and Pasha, and is the Breed Education Coordinator for The Italian Greyhound Club.

Kelly enjoys training her own Italian Greyhounds in obedience, participating in agility, hoopers, and dabbling in scent work, and breed showing.

Kelly is a qualified Pro Dog Trainer and a member of the National Institution of Canine Ethics. She loves to study and learn, and has gained a variety of diplomas and advanced diplomas in canine behaviour, nutrition, physiology, canine holistic care, pet bereavement counselling, wolf behaviour and the correlation with 'canis familiaris', and canine law.