Are Dogs Wolves?

By Dr. Carly I. O'Malley June 30, 2020

Domestic dogs can strongly resemble wolves in many ways including how they look and the way they behave. Dog food commercials often use images of wolves to encourage dog owners to feed their dog’s “wild” side. There are also many dog trainers who used the alpha dominance theory of wolves to train domestic dogs. So how closely related to wolves are dogs? Should we treat them like wolves or like dogs? What are the similarities, and what are the differences? These are topics that will be discussed in this article.

Are Dogs Wolves?

While dogs and wolves are closely related, domestic dogs are not wolves. Domestic dogs differ from wolves in their anatomy, physiology, and behavior. Understanding these differences in important to providing your dog good welfare.

How Did Wolves Become Dogs?

Dogs and wolves are both members of the family Canidae. A common misconception is that our domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) came from modern day grey wolves (Canis lupus). In reality, domestic dogs and modern grey wolves share a common ancestor, a prehistoric wolf that lived in Asia and Europe (VonHoldt & Driscoll, 2016). These wolves eventually evolved into our domestic dogs due to close contact with humans that resulted in positive benefits for dog and human.

When Did Dogs Get Domesticated?

The relationship between dogs and humans go very far back in time. Dogs and humans co-evolved together around 20,000-40,000 years ago when humans were starting to transition from hunter-gatherers to settlers (Botigué et al., 2017).

Why Were Dogs Domesticated?

At the very beginning, it is theorized that dogs domesticated themselves. When humans began living in settlements, ancient wolves would hover around human settlements to scavenge for our food waste. The wolves that were bold enough to get close to humans likely gained benefits, such as more access to food, water, and shelter while the humans also received benefits, like protection from predators. This caused a mutually beneficial relationship between dogs and humans that continues to evolve until this day. (Clutton-Brock, 2016; VonHoldt & Driscoll, 2016). Hence, dogs can understand human behavior better than any other species (Riedel et al., 2008).

Eventually, humans began selectively breeding dogs for certain traits to help us with hunting, herding, chasing vermin, and other important jobs. Selective breeding caused major changes in dog anatomy, physiology, and behavior with modern breeds showing a wide range of sizes, shapes, coat colors, coat textures, and breed-typical behaviors (Grandin & Deesing, 2014). Currently, the American Kennel Club recognized 193 dog breeds that are broken down into 7 breed groups. These breed groups include sporting, non-sporting, hound, herding, working, terrier, and toy (AKC). There are also a variety of designer breeds and mixed breeds not recognized by the American Kennel Club. Many modern dogs are no longer used for their originally bred purpose, with their primary job consisting of being companions to humans.

What Are The Differences Between Dogs And Wolves?

There are a number of differences between dogs and wolves stemming from the domestic dog’s primary role as a companion to humans and needing to fill specific roles. Prior to selective breeding for different dog breeds, the wolf-like ancestor would have been selected for tameness. The wolves that were more likely to approach human settlements would have been those that were tamer, and likely braver, to approach a different species. The tamer wolves would have been welcomed to stay around human settlements, while wolves that were more aggressive towards humans would have been chased away. Selection for tameness is common in all domestic animals, since humans have to work closely with these animals and tameness helps ensure human safety. There are other key changes that occur to all domesticated animals, collectively known as the domestication syndrome. Most domesticated animals share the following traits: floppy ears, curly tails, juvenile characteristics, changes in reproductive cycles, reduced stress hormones, and changes to fur pattern (Dugatkin, 2018).

When comparing the anatomical, physiological, and behavioral differences between wolves and domestic dogs, you will notice that dogs bark, have shorter muzzles, smaller teeth, shorter legs, larger eyes, are more docile and playful, have poorer social skills with other dogs, and poorer spatial reasoning skills (Grandin & Deesing, 2014). Another key difference in domestic dogs compared to wolves is their diet. Wolves are carnivores and domestic dogs are omnivores. One of the key physiological changes that occurred when domestic dogs split off from their wolf-like ancestor was their ability to digest starch (Bosch et al., 2015; Botigué et al., 2017). This difference likely evolved because dogs were eating human food waste.

What Are The Similarities Between Dogs And Wolves?

Dogs and wolves share more differences than they do similarities despite being genetically similar. Dogs and wolves share about 98% of their DNA, potentially more. To illustrate the relationship between domestic dogs and modern grey wolves, think about the relationship between humans and chimpanzees. Humans share a common ancestor with chimpanzees, similar to dogs and wolves. We share about 99% of our DNA with chimps but our anatomy, physiology, and behavior are wildly different.

One of the key similarities between dogs and wolves is that they are both social animals that rely on a social group for survival and use similar body language cues to communicate. However, wolves create strong social bonds with members of the same species. Dogs, on the other hand, create strong social bonds with humans. Dogs and wolves also have similar lifespans, approximately 12-14 years. However, the lifespan of domestic dogs is linked to body size with larger breeds have shorter lifespans and small breeds having longer lifespans.

Which Breeds Are The Most Closely Related To Wolves?

The breeds that are closely related to the their wolf-like ancestor are the Chinese Shar-Pei, Shiba Inu, Chow Chow, Akita, Siberian Husky, Alaskan Malamute, Afghan Hound, and Saluki (Parker et al., 2004). Many of these breeds are known for being more aloof and independent compared to other breeds.

Can Wolves And Dogs Mate?

Dogs and wolves can mate, producing wolf hybrids. Wolf hybrids do not often occur naturally but are actively bred and marketed as pets in certain parts of the United States. Some parts of the United States ban wolf hybrids as pets. It is not recommended to keep wolf hybrids as pets because they are difficult to keep in a home and can display a number of behavioral problems, including aggression. Many wolf hybrids end up relinquished to rescue groups.

Do I Need To Dominate My Dog For It To Listen To Me?

A common myth of dogs is that they adhere to dominance hierarchy social behaviors. This has led many dog owners and even dog trainers to believe that misbehaving dogs are trying to dominate their human. So in order for you to keep them in line, you have to be the alpha. This theory is false and can lead to harmful and abusive training techniques.

The dominance theory of dog behavior has long been debunked, and it comes from the idea that wolves operate in a dominance hierarchy controlled by the alpha dog. These dominance theories are based on observations of interactions between captive wolf populations. However, observations of wild wolf populations tell a different story. Wild wolf packs operate more like a nuclear family, consisting of a breeding pair of wolves and their offspring. As the offspring become sexually mature, they disperse to other wolf packs. Any displays of rank are subtle and communicated via body language cues. Essentially, social behavior in wild wolf packs is more similar to the social interactions between human parents and their children. As children grow up and become teenagers, they may act out a little towards their parents and there may be some conflicts, but they are easily resolved and eventually the kids move out on their own (van Kerkhove, 2004). Dog trainers who perpetuate the idea of needing to dominate your dog are not using modern, evidence-based training practices. Training techniques based on dominance theory and fear is more likely to cause stress and anxiety. Positive-reinforcement based training techniques promote good animal welfare and positive human-dog relationships (Kwan & Bain, 2013).


Domestic dogs and wolves are closely related. However, there are far more differences than similarities between the two. Domestic dogs and wolves differ in their anatomy, physiology, and behavior, including dogs having shorter muzzles and smaller teeth, the ability to digest starch and changes to reproductive cycles, to differences in social behavior that center around humans as their social companions. Domestic dogs are closely bonded to humans, having co-evolved with us from the time we became settlers. Domestic dogs are not wolves and should not be kept or trained as if they are. Dogs should be respected as the unique creatures they are that provide humans so much support and joy in many aspects of our lives.

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Works Cited

American Kennel Club (AKC). Dog Breeds. Retrieved on June 26, 2020.

Bosch, G., Hagen-Plantinga, E., and W.H. Hendriks. 2015. Dietary nutrient profiles of wild wolves: insights for optimal dog nutrition. British Journal of Nutrition 113(S1):S40-S54.

Botigué, L.R., Song, S., Scheu, A., Gopalan, S., Pendleton, A.L., Oetjens, M., Taravella, A.M., Seregély, T., Zeeb-Lanz, A., Arbogast, R.-M., Bobo, D., Daly, K., Unterländer, M., Burger, J., Kidd, J.M., and K.R. Veeramah. 2017. Ancient European dog genomes reveal continuity since the Early Neolithis. Nature Communications 8:16082.

Clutton-Brock, J. 2016. Origins of the dog: The archaeological evidence. In J. Serpell (Ed), The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behavior and Interactions with People (p. 7-21). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Dugatkin, L.A. 2018. The silver fox domestication experiment. Evolution: Education and Outreach 11(16).

Grandin, T., and M.J. Deesing. 2014. Genetics and the Behavior of Domestic Animals (2nd Ed.) Academic Press.

Kwan, J.Y., and M.J. Bain. 2013. Owner attachment and problem behaviors related to relinquishment and training techniques of dogs. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 16(2):168-183.

Parker, H.G., Kim, L.V., Sutter, N.B., Carlson, S., Lorentzen, T.D., Malek, T.B., Johnson, G.S., DeFrance, H.B., Ostrander, E.A., and L. Kruglyak. 2004. Genetic structure of the purebred domestic dog. Science 304:1106-1164.

Riedel, J., Schumann, K., Kaminski, J., Call, J., and M. Tomasello. 2008. The early ontogeny of human-dog communication. Animal Behaviour 75:1003-1014.

van Kerkhove, W. 2004. A fresh look at the wolf-pack theory of companion-animal dog social behavior. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 7(4):279-285.

VonHoldt, B.M. and C.A. Driscoll. 2016. Origins of the dog: Genetic insights into dog domestication. In J. Serpell (Ed), The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behavior and Interactions with People (p. 22-41). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.