Friday, February 5, 2010

I am Not a Wolf

This morning Jason was reading the new tweets he received overnight. In a rather undignified way, he started rolling his eyes. He got a tweet from a psychologist about an article on leadership. The article linked Cesar Millian's philosophy of dog training to good leadership skills in humans. "His true gifts are in teaching the dog's owners that well behaved canines are really about the owner's willingness and ability to step up to being a (pack) leader. The lessons he teaches are insightful for any leader."

The lessons the author derived are not bad lessons: understand how dogs want to be treated; clearly communicate your rules, boundaries and limitations; use calm assertive energy; and imagine a successful scenario. It's what's behind these lessons that are troubling. In the end, none of the behaviors Millan uses to convince dogs he's their pack leader actually exist in nature--for wolves or dogs.

I've blogged before about some of the controversies surrounding Cesar Millian's training style. His training style emphasizes aversive punishments to shape a dogs behavior: endless studies have shown that behavioral training that focuses on positive reinforcement are the most effective and enduring types of training for dogs. Interested in my thoughts about that? Check out the blog posts here or here.

What got Jason rolling his eyes this morning was the conflation of dogs and wolves. This seems to be a common misconception that is in desperate need of clarification, so I'm going to blog about it today. Maybe Jason will even stop rolling his eyes. This is going to be a long one.

I am not wolf. I am dog.

Let's have a little history lesson.

Dogs have indeed descended from Canis lupus--the wolf. That however was a long time ago. Dogs were the first animal to be domesticated (from the wild wolves). This happened sometime around the end of the Ice Age. Archeologists found the first domesticated dog at a German site that dated to 14,000B.C. (that was 11,990 years ago!). It is thought that dogs worked cooperatively with humans to locate and announce the position of prey wounded by the hunters.

Just think about all the different ways in which dogs and humans have evolved together.

What was going on in the world in 14,000 B.C.? Human's were mostly hunter-gatherers. They lived together in nomadic tribes. Metal had not yet been smelted nor had agriculture or towns come into existence. There were no forms of written language. If your curious, the cave paintings in Laugerie-Basse, France were painted sometime between 15,000BC and 12,000 B.C. Wooden buildings were first built in South America and pottery vessels were made in Japan starting in 11,500 to 10,000 B.C.

Just think about all the ways humans have changed since then. Think dogs have changed, too?

Dogs might have even separated from their wolf ancestors much earlier. A recent study in the journal Science concludes that wolves and dogs may have diverged as long as 135,000 years ago (for those of you counting, we'll round up to 133,000 B.C.).

What was going on in the world in 133,000 B.C.? It was the Middle Paleolithic era, and Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals) were using flint tools in Europe. Anatomically modern humans were evident in Northern Africa and the near East. This is to say, humans were not yet exactly human.

Saying I am a wolf is nearly the same as me saying you are a Neanderthal. A lot has changed in the past 135,000 years.

I've digressed a little from what I really wanted to talk about. The uproar in the dog training world has a lot to do with deciding whether or not dogs are pack animals.

There is another history lesson here that gets us to where we are.

Dominance theory dates back to 1922 when Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe did research on chickens. Dogs aren't chickens, by the way. Neither are wolves. This notion of dominance theory was then popularized by the Monks of New Skete with their book "How to Be Your Dog's Best Friend". The book is based on the premise that we should treat dogs like an adult wolf would treat a wolf puppy (though they never really even observed what wolves do with wolf puppies). According to the Monk's understanding, that involves fear and physical punishment (in fact, if one hits a dog and she hasn't yelped, the book suggests you haven't hit your dog hard enough).

Initially, research has shown that wolves are pack animals. That research ends up being incorrect. David Mench, Ph.D., who is a senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, has shown through his research that dominance theory does not apply to wolves in natural, wild, non-captive environments. Check out this link to read his research.

In wild wolf packs there is no pack leader. Further dominant and submissive behaviors are so rare as to be virtually nonexistent. It seems that as a rough rule, domesticated forms of wild mammals will revert back to their wild-type after being feral for a few generations. If these theory is true, feral dogs should have theoretically reverted back to being wolf-like in their appearance and behavior. This isn't the case. What do feral dogs do when they are feral? They are primarily scavengers and often live alone or in very loose groups. Interested in reading more? Check out this great blog post.

So what is my puppy point? I think there are two. First, calling me a wolf is about as silly as calling you a Neanderthal. Please stop. Second, dominance theory is a poor model for describing wolf behavior and an even worse model for training dogs.


  1. The problem with Millan isn't that he's using the wolf model in training, it's that the behaviors he believes are instinctive in both dogs and wolves -- following the pack leader, etc. -- don't exist in either dog or wolf.

    Understanding the wolf means understanding their gifts for being in synch emotionally with one another while hunting. There are only three types of animal that routinely hunt prey larger and more dangerous than themselves: members of the canidae family, homo sapiens, and members of the delphinidae family. These three also happen to be the most social animals on land or sea.

    So we shouldn't hate or denigrate the wolf's role in the social and emotional behaviors of our dogs. We should celebrate it! But we also need to recognize that Cesar Millan hasn't the slightest inkling about the true nature of the wolf or dog.


  2. Isn't 14,000 BC about 16,010 years ago?

  3. Whoops, you are right, Jason. That's too many numbers to count on my little paws. That's for catching the mistake!