"Unified Dog Theory 4: Celebrating the Wolfiness in Dogs."

It’s Time We Started Celebrating the Wolfiness in Dogs!

Originally published in slightly different form on October 27, 2010 at PsychologyToday.com.

“I have spent the past few years puzzling over why dog training is no longer working that well. Today there is much more management and less reliability...” —Dr. Ian Dunbar

Existing Learning Theory

The quote above comes from Dunbars blog. Dunbar is right, especially later in the same post when he writes that the teaching process he espouses “cannot really be defined by existing learning theory.” As of this writing, Dunbar has agreed to contribute a chapter to Cesar Millan’s upcoming book.

As for me, I first saw Cesar Millan on TV in 1997, long before he was famous. He was featured in an evening news clip on New York’s channel 7. Personally, I thought his insistence that no dog walk ahead of him because no wolf walks ahead of the pack leader (which, it turns out, isn’t true), was misguided and misinformed, and possibly based on personal issues. But in the ensuing years, he’s softened. In fact, I now agree with him about 33% of the time (or so).

And while Millan is growing and learning, the +R movement is stuck in the past, defining what they do as the only “scientific method,” or the only real alternative to dominance training. And one of the ways they’re doing so is by downplaying the connection between dogs and wolves.

With that in mind, I’d like to go over the five primary reasons I think the wolf modelthe real oneis important to understanding dogs.1

One: Sociability in Dogs Come from the Wolf’s Prey Drive

The social instincts in wolves only exist to facilitate the hunting of large prey. Wolves who settle near garbage dumps don’t form real packs. Coyotes form packs, but only when they need to hunt large prey. Clearly, a canine pack is, first and foremost, a cooperative hunting unit.

While the predatory sequence (the chain of hunting behaviors) seen in wolves (the search, the eye-stalk, the cull, the chase, the grab-bite, and the kill-bite) has been “broken” in dogs (meaning that wolves can’t stop once the sequence starts, while dogs can’t always follow through), the genetic tendency to engage in these behaviors is still found in all dogs (except the cull, which is found only in some types of herding dogs).

It’s often said, for instance, that you can’t teach a bloodhound to play fetch, because the “search” aspect of the sequence is too strong in the breed; there’s not enough “chase” left in the genes. And yet it’s quite possible to teach a bloodhound to fetch. You just have to start with very short throws.

Two: Dogs and Wolves Sublimate Aggression

In order for the wolf’s aggression (his urge to bite) not be directed at his packmates, there has to be a behavioral/cognitive mechanism in place that allows the individual wolves to sublimate the energy behind that aggression into alternative, pro-social behaviors.

The primary mechanism facilitating or controlling the formation of packs (as well as the ability of each wolf to sublimate aggression into alternative social behaviors) is probably oxytocin. Most predators kick their young “out of the nest” at about 6 mos. Wolf pups stay until they’re at least 2 years old. My hypothesis is that wolf pups and parents keep producing oxytocin long after other predators and their offspring do. Keeping the young around longer is what enable wolves to hunt together rather than separately.

I think it’s also important to understand that almost all obedience behaviors (except the sit) are based on the predatory motor patterns found in wild wolves. So no matter what techniques we use, if we’re teaching obedience, we’re still stimulating and satisfying a dog’s prey drive in some way.

Three: Differences Between Captive and Wild Wolves

The ability to bite and kill large prey on a regular basis is what marks the distinct differences between the behavioral tendencies we see in wild wolf packs (where dominant and submissive behaviors are rare), and captive packs (where such behaviors are the norm). It’s clear that the latter is a product of captivity stress.

One indicator that this is so is that “dominance-aggression” in dogs can be managed with anti-anxietals. If dominance were an inherited character trait, drugs would have little or no effect. It’s also been observed, that playing tug-of-war, reduces dominant-type behaviors in dogs. Likewise, overmarking, which is often thought of as a “sign of dominance,” disappears once the dog is able to play biting games.

Going back to wolves, the primary difference between the two types of “packs” is that wild wolves still hunt large prey for a living. They run through all the steps of the sequence, and their ultimate release of stress comes via the kill-bite. Captive wolves never get to experience that kind of release. It’s also interesting to note that when a real wolf pack becomes too big—essentially limiting the number of wolves able to get the satisfying release of tension brought on by biting and tearing at the hide of a large prey animal—that’s when you also begin to see dominant and submissive behaviors emerge where you don’t see them as often in smaller packs.

Four: The Dog/Wolf Connection Is Over 5 Million Years Old

The current model for how dogs became domesticated is based on the fact that some modern wolves seem to prefer settling near a garbage dump rather than expending their energy hunting large prey. This has been observed in Mexico by evolutionary biologist, Raymond Coppinger. And his theory on how domestication took place—the dogs-as-scavenger’s-model—is currently widely-accepted, and has a great deal of merit.

However, even if this is how domestication took place, modern dogs still share a long evolutionary history with wolves and/or pre-wolf like animals that goes back much further in time (at least 5 million years) than the domestication process (about 44,000). As a result, dogs still retain many of the behavioral tendencies seen in wolves. It’s true that wolves make a living with their teeth, while dogs make a living with their hearts. But no matter how big a dog’s heart is, his teeth and jaws are still hardwired to find satisfaction through biting. (This is why most, if not all, dog owners have baskets full of toys, bones, etc.)

Five: Repressing the Urge to Bite Increases Stress

Some dogs have been bred to have less of a “kill bite” than others. Others have been bred to focus their urge to bite, independently, onto small prey animals, rather than to be part of a group hunting dynamic. These types of dogs are usually more susceptible to certain types of behavioral problems. That’s where the genetics comes in. Still, it’s always about the urge to bite, and how it’s either suppressed by breeding, repressed by training, or sublimated into social behaviors by the dog himself.

In a recent post I talked about new scientific evidence strongly suggesting that the dog’s genetic diversity may come directly from the wolf’s DNA. It should be clear that much of a dog’s behavioral traits (except dominance and submission, which aren’t character traits, but are probably symptoms of anxiety) also come from the wolf’s DNA.


Wolves are getting a bad rap. It may be part of their nature, and ours. We love our dogs to pieces (most of us), but the human race as a whole has not been kind to wolves. We seem to hate and fear them more than almost any other species, except perhaps snakes and sharks. After all, when a puppy “attacks” his toys, we think it’s cute. “Go get ‘em, Tiger!” But if we’re out camping and we see a wolf pack on the prowl, or hear them howling nearby, we can’t help it: our spines start itch, if only just a little. This is unfortunate, because we share a common trait: both wolves and humans are social predators, who target large prey animals.

I think we need to start celebrating the wolfiness in our dogs!

“Go get ‘em, Wolfie! Kill that toy!”


“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”

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Footnotes: 1) Just as each dog is different, so is each dog trainer. Some will be more attracted to dominance techniques, others to clicker training. I’ve found, personally, that the method that works best for me, and that makes the most sense to me, is Natural Dog Training, which is based on the way working dogs are trained, through games that stimulate and satisfy a dog’s prey drive. In fact, it’s my belief that only the precepts of Natural Dog Training—that learning and behavior are based on the energetic principles of attraction & resistance, and tension & release—can explain why dominance training works when it does, and why operant conditioning doesn’t when it doesn’t. My purpose in writing these articles is to try to open up a middle ground in the current divide between the two main camps, and to remind people—dog trainers and dog owners alike—that there’s a third form of dog training (which, again, is based on the way working dogs are trained), that is just as valid as the two more common forms of training, and much more effective.

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