WOLF WEEK: From wolves to man's best friend

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It is believed that early humans learned how to hunt by watching packs of wolves.  

Ancient cave drawings tell the story—it was a wolf that crept close enough to prehistoric man’s fire looking for a scrap of food, or maybe a companion. That, over time, created a bond between man and beast. As thousands of years elapsed, man peeled off genetic traits from the wolf that fit into a human’s world.  

Eventually, man’s best friend was born, taking countless forms like the Labrador retriever, the mini golden doodle and even the mutt.  

It is hard to imagine the wolf - which still roams the forests - as the genetic “grandfather,” so to speak, of every dog on Earth today, regardless of breed. Even the smallest of our pets have wolf DNA. 

L. David Mech, a senior research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, has been studying wolves for more than 60 years. For him, it is not hard to imagine how man’s love of dogs began with an appreciation for wolves, especially when you consider that 40,000 years ago it was all about food.  

“If they were to have raised some wolves and the wolves were tame to them and all, these wolves probably would have done some hunting themselves too, and it’s conceivable the people that lived with these wolves would have thought, ‘Hmm, we can get something extra to eat when these wolves kill something,'” Mech said. 

From there, jump forward to 14,700 years ago. Archeologists have discovered remains from that long ago where man was buried next to his buddy—what by then, had evolved into something more “dog-like.” 

At the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota, a display shows the amazing skeletal transformation from wolf to various dog breeds—an amazing evolution in body proportion that took hundreds of years. 

So, how did we get from wolf to Labrador or Chihuahua or any dog you want to name today? 

“That just takes selective breeding, and it’s a matter of time, and you have to have something in mind when you do that,” Mech said. “You select for certain traits. If you want a small animal, if you have a lot of them you take the smallest and let them breed. Then take the smallest of the result and let them breed and keep selecting for smallness …if you want.”

But unlike wolves, today’s pets suffer all kinds of maladies not found in healthy wolf populations. Continuous breeding to keep bloodlines pure is often the cause. 

“Why do dogs have hip dysplasia and wolves don’t? Natural selection is one reason,” Dr. Andrew Jackson, a specialist at Blue Pearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital in Eden Prairie. “So a wolf with bad hips isn’t going to breed, live, catch things. And then in our situation, we’ve developed these dogs, we’ve looked at dogs for looks, sometimes function...so we’re breeding them not for natural dominance like what happens in the wild.” 

“In the wild” is where wolves belong. As dog-like as they may seem at times, wolves are not dogs. Wolves still possess all the characteristics that an apex predator needs to survive in the wilderness, including avoiding humans.  

On the other hand, man’s best friend is an entirely different species today, one that relies on humans for food, for play, for shelter and for affection, but in return rewards us with so much more.

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