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Wolves Are Kinder, More Tolerant Than Dogs

The finding has animal experts puzzling over what led to domestication of man's best friend.

Wolves are inherently more tolerant than dogs are, according to new research that helps explain why wolves are so good at cooperating with each other.

The findings, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, runs counter to the idea that domestication has made dogs more social and tolerant. Since the ancestor of dogs and wolves likely already had those skills, other factors, such as losing fear of humans and readily accepting us as social partners, could explain why dogs make better pets than wolves.

"Wolves cooperate more (than dogs do) in terms of breeding, defending territories and probably hunting," lead author Friederike Range told Discovery News. "Dogs are scavengers."

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Range is co-director of the Wolf Science Center at the Messerli Research Institute, University of Vienna. For the study, she and colleagues Caroline Ritter and Zsófia Virányi raised a dog and a wolf pack under identical conditions at the center. The wolves originated in North America, but were born in captivity. The eight dogs were mutts that were born in animal shelters in Hungary.

The researchers documented how the animals interacted with their fellow pack mates. Dinnertime was especially dynamic and revealing. The wolf pack turned out to be more of a democracy, where anyone had a chance at monopolizing the food. High-ranking wolves, as well as low-ranking ones and those in between, could growl and do stare-downs to get their fair share of the meat.

In contrast, only the higher-ranking dogs in the dog pack showed such behavior since it wasn't tolerated among the lower-ranking dogs.

"This means that in the wolves, the higher-ranking partners were more tolerant of the lower-ranking ones," Range said. "In the dogs, the lower-ranking ones did not dare to challenge the higher-ranking partners."

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Some of this has to do with basic structural differences between dog and wolf packs. Range explained that feral dog packs consist of multiple males and females that are not necessarily related. A wolf pack, on the other hand, usually has a male and female dominant couple that lives with their offspring from the past 2 to 3 years, so it's more of a family group.

The scientists noted that wolves only showed rare and weak aggression toward their fellow pack mates. Wolves therefore appear to be surprisingly tolerant -- a trait associated with kindness and cooperation -- with the important catch that such feelings are limited to their own pack mates.

Still they do show some mercy in antagonistic encounters with unrelated wolves. If one rolls over in a submissive position, with its stomach facing upward and vulnerable, the other wolf might not attack.

While most of us envision wolves stealthily chasing deer and other hoofed animals, studies have shown that wolves actually prefer more tranquil fishing to hunting.

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Chris Darimont, a research scientist at the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, and his team studied the feeding habits of wolves in a remote area of British Columbia. For four years, the researchers conducted chemical analysis of wolf droppings to determine what they were eating.

Whenever salmon were prevalent, the wolves shunned their venison diet in favor of seafood feasts. Darimont explained that "selecting benign prey such as salmon makes sense from a safety point of view." He added that "salmon also provides enhanced nutrition in terms of fat and energy."

Just because wolves are tolerant of pack mates and would rather be peacefully fishing does not mean that they should be anyone's pets.

"We (humans) did select dogs for skills that make living together with them a lot easier!" Range said.

Now the question is, what exactly were those skills if they weren't tolerance or reduced aggression? Range and her team hope to find out, as doing so could improve our understanding of dogs and how to better address their particular needs.

A wolf at the Colorado-based animal sanctuary Mission greets a male visitor with a face lick.

A pointer named “Major” is identified as the first known example of a modern dog. A description of the dog was found in a now-obscure 1865 edition of a Victorian journal called The Field. It marks the earliest reported dog breed based on physical form and pedigree. “The invention of ‘breed,’ physically and imaginatively, still shapes how we see and think about dogs today,” Michael Worboys, Director of the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, told Discovery News. Worboys and his team found the information concerning “Major” while preparing a new museum exhibit on dogs.

The first domestication of dogs was thought to have taken place 31,680 years ago -- but new research suggests the skull in question likely belong to a wolf. This particular specimen was found with a still-visible mammoth bone in its mouth.

The paleolithic dog remains resembled a modern Siberian husky, but suggest an animals that was significantly larger. Today, the Siberian husky, Samoyed and Alaskan malamute breeds are all closely related. "The most remarkable difference between these dogs and recent dog breeds is the size of the teeth,” paleontologist Mietje Germonpré said. Other early dog breeds, with a focus on the U.K., are featured in the museum exhibit curated by Worboys and his team. Entitled “Breed: The British and Their Dogs,” the exhibit runs at the University of Manchester museum through April 14.

Another team of researchers, led by Heidi Parker of the National Human Genome Research Institute, used DNA analysis to determine the genetic relationships of numerous dog breeds. One such ancient breed is the Afghan hound. As its name suggests, it's native to the Middle East. It’s one of the oldest dog breeds in existence, and was originally used for hunting hares and gazelles.

Parker and her team found that Akitas are yet another ancient breed. These dogs originated in Asia and are genetically similar to chow chows. The breed was not included in the first dog show. “The first dog show was in 1859 when only two varieties were shown: pointers and setters,” Worboys said. It had nothing to do with the handsome Akita’s looks, as he explained that the first dog show was “for gun dogs only.”

The sleek-bodied saluki comes from Iran, where its distant ancestors might have once lived near the earliest farmers from the Fertile Crescent. Dogs in this region evolved the ability to eat a starch-rich diet around 12,000 years ago. “Our findings show that it was crucial to early dogs to be able to thrive on a diet rich in starch,” Uppsala University’s Erik Axelsson, who led a related study, told Discovery News. “That indicates that dog domestication may be linked to the development of agriculture. It is possible that dogs may have been domesticated independently at locations where agriculture developed early, such as the Fertile Crescent and China.”

One of the most ancient dog breeds native to the United States is the Alaskan malamute. The DNA study found that they are genetically similar to Siberian huskies. This large, muscular dog was used -- and still is -- for pulling sleds, hauling freight by other means, and for additional work tasks.

The basenji is “an ancient African breed,” according to Parker and her colleagues. While “Major” the pointer is the first documented modern breed of dog, the basenji is arguably the first dog to be heavily bred by humans. Although this dog hails from central Africa, paleontologists believe its wolf ancestors originally came from eastern Asia.

In China, the chow chow is affectionately referred to as Songshi Quan, meaning “puffy-lion dog.” It is genetically close to the Akita, also from Asia. It represents yet another early breed.

Of the four most ancient known Asian dog breeds, the shar-pei was the first to diverge from a wolf ancestor, suggesting it is the oldest known Asian breed. This dog is famous for its deep wrinkles and blue-black tongue. Mutations of the same gene that causes wrinkles in these dogs can also cause wrinkling of human skin.