Wolves and dogs may seem like very different animals. After all, wolves are wild animals who live in packs and hunt for survival. Dogs are domesticated pets who live in our homes and eat kibble out of bowls.
However, dogs are actually direct descendants of wolves. Despite thousands of years of domestication, dogs still retain many of the instincts and behaviors of their lupine ancestors.
In fact, experts estimate dogs were domesticated from Eurasian gray wolves around 15,000 years ago. While selective breeding has shaped dog behavior over the centuries, at their core dogs are still wolves.
One study comparing wolf and dog behavior found that even puppies who had never met an adult dog still displayed typical dog-like behaviors. This points to the legacy of instincts passed down genetically.
So just what wolf-like traits do our canine companions still exhibit? As it turns out, dogs retain many of the same instincts and behaviors seen in wolf packs.
In this blog post, we will explore 8 key wolf traits modern dogs continue to display. Examining these enduring instincts provides fascinating insight into the connection dogs still share with their wild wolf relatives.
One of the most well-known characteristics of wolves is that they live in hierarchical packs. Each pack has an alpha male and female, beta wolves, and omega wolves that make up the social structure. Strong bonds and group loyalty are essential to the pack’s survival.
Dogs exhibit a similar pack mentality with their human families. Like wolves, dogs are social animals who need companionship and bonding.
According to experts, dogs view their human caretakers as their “pack.” The whole family represents the pack, with the humans assuming the leadership roles similar to the alpha wolves.
Dogs frequently demonstrate pack behaviors like greeting you joyfully when you return home, obeying the “alpha” humans, and learning their place in the family hierarchy.
These behaviors mimic the way wolves relate to each other and reinforce that man’s best friend still has the pack mentality ingrained even after domestication.
Wolves are highly territorial animals who use scent marking and howling to establish boundaries around their home range. Wolf packs claim large swaths of land and defend it aggressively from other wolves.
Dogs have retained this territorial instinct, though not to the same extreme as wolves. Dogs frequently mark their territory at home by urinating on items inside and around the house.
Outside, dogs will mark trees, bushes, fences, and other objects around the perimeter of the yard. This mirrors wolves marking the outskirts of their range.
Dogs also display territorial behavior when it comes to protection. Like wolves guarding their den, some dogs become defensive of their home if strangers approach or try to enter. Their barking and protective stance reflect the wolf’s innate need to protect their territory from intruders.
So while your pooch might not need to hunt prey, his territorial behaviors still resemble that of his wild ancestors.
Wolves are renowned for their hunting abilities. Their survival depends on bringing down large prey like elk, deer, and bison. Wolves have an extremely strong prey drive and will tenaciously track and pursue potential meals over long distances.
While domestic dogs don’t need to hunt to survive, they still retain this innate prey drive. Their desire to chase moving objects reflects an instinct passed down from wolves. When your dog eagerly chases a ball or stick you throw, he is exhibiting remnants of his hunter ancestry.
Herding dogs use stalking actions when controlling livestock. Retrievers “hunt” downed birds during hunts. These hunting-related skills all tap into behaviors that were essential for the wolf to thrive.
So while your pampered pooch enjoys regular meals, his enthusiasm for play that mimics chasing prey shows his latent hunting instincts remain intact.
Wolves are known to dig dens to birth and raise puppies, as well as for shelter from the elements. They will also dig to hide food caches. Digging holes and tunnels is an essential survival skill for wild wolves.
Dogs have inherited this tendency to dig, though not always for the same purposes. Some dogs simply enjoy digging holes in the backyard, perhaps instinctually without needing a reason. Female dogs may try to dig dens when preparing to give birth.
Other times, dogs seem to dig due to boredom or stress, using it as an outlet when their other needs aren’t being met. Regardless of the cause, this natural urge to use their paws to tunnel into the earth harkens back to their wolf ancestors digging dens in the wilderness.
Allowing your dog to occasionally dig, like in a designated sandbox, can satisfy this innate desire.
The wolf’s survival tool of digging is still present in modern canines. Next time your dog is happily digging up your yard, he is just obeying instincts passed down from wolves.
Wolves are highly vocal animals. They use howls and barks to communicate over long distances, strengthen social bonds, and signal warnings. Different wolf vocalizations convey specific messages to the rest of the pack.
Dogs have a similar range of vocal abilities and “speak” to humans using barks, growls, whines, and howls. However, dogs sometimes use these vocalizations for different reasons than wolves do. For example, dogs may howl along with sirens just for fun, while wolves howl to communicate location.
Dogs bark frequently to get human attention, while wolves rarely bark unless threatened. And dogs growl over things like having their food bowl approached, rather than to assert pack dominance.
While the purpose isn’t always the same, the origins of these dog vocalizations can be traced back to wolf communication.
Understanding wolf communication provides insight into why dogs vocalize the way they do. So the next time your dog barks to come inside, know that he is expressing himself using sounds that were essential for his wild wolf ancestors.
A hallmark of wolf behavior is their strong prey drive and ability to single-mindedly chase down fast-moving animals. Whether hunting alone or in packs, wolves rely on their obsessive focus and pursuit of prey to survive.
Dogs descended from wolves also have an innate predatory instinct to chase fleeing objects. This explains why many dogs delight in chasing birds, squirrels, and other small animals that run away from them.
Prey drive is deeply ingrained in dogs, even if they are well-fed and don’t need to actually catch the animal.
Some dogs also chase moving vehicles like bicycles or cars. Others will chase anything that rapidly moves away from them across the ground.
These behaviors show that the wolf’s innate prey drive remains intact in today’s dogs. While frustrating, this instinct must be properly managed rather than eliminated in dogs.
Understanding the evolutionary basis of prey drive allows owners to prevent problematic chasing and instead channel this instinct into appropriate games and toys. But at its core, the dog’s desire to chase shows his ancestral wolf nature is still alive and well.
Wolves are opportunistic eaters that will scavenge when necessary. If they come across an abandoned carcass or human garbage, wolves have no qualms about taking advantage of an easy meal. Their ability to eat whatever food sources are available aids the pack’s survival.
Dogs retain this wolf-like tendency to scavenge and eat anything remotely edible. Dogs are notorious for rummaging through trash cans and eating scraps we discard. Interesting smells and tastes seem irresistible to our canine companions.
While eating odd non-food items can be a health hazard for domestic dogs, their willingness to consume anything traces back to wolves. In the wild, wolves must take advantage of any calories they find to maintain energy.
Your dog’s counter surfing is simply their old genetic mandate to never pass up the possibility of food.
So next time you catch your dog sneaking snacks from the trash, remember he is just obeying his inner wolf’s urge to scavenge. Careful management of food sources is needed, but the behavior itself is deeply rooted.
As predators at the top of the food chain, wolves must remain constantly alert to possible dangers in their environment. Whether watching for prey or threats from rivals, wolves are ever-vigilant and react quickly to any perceived change. This hyper-awareness aids the wolf’s survival.
Modern dogs have inherited this trait of attentiveness from their wild ancestors. Dogs are quick to react to sights, sounds, or movement that seem out of the ordinary. A passing car, animal, or neighbor may trigger your dog’s excitability. They may bark, growl, or become agitated in response.
This instinct means dogs excel at watching the home for anything unusual. However, sometimes this vigilance is mistaken for aggression in dogs. In reality, your alert dog is simply using his innate wolf radar. With training, you can modulate your dog’s reactions while appreciating his instinctive protectiveness.
So the next time your dog startles you by abruptly reacting to something you didn’t notice, remember you can thank his wolf ancestry for his watchful nature.
The Enduring Wolf Legacy in Modern Dogs
Despite being domesticated for thousands of years, dogs still retain many behaviors and instincts from their wild wolf predecessors. As we’ve explored, dogs exhibit pack mentality, territoriality, hunting instincts, digging, vocalization, prey drive, scavenging, and alertness—just like their wolf relatives.
While selective breeding has shaped some traits over time, ultimately the wolf’s genetic legacy still flows through modern canines. Understanding this connection allows us to better interpret our dogs’ actions and meet their needs.
Appreciating which behaviors are hardwired versus trained also helps us be realistic about what we can (and can’t) expect from our dogs.
By recognizing the wolf instincts our dogs display, we can nurture the enduring human-canine bond that originated with that very first wolf who ventured near the warmth of a human campfire so many millennia ago.
So the next time your dog howls, digs, or acts territorial, remember he is simply staying true to his wild wolf nature. After all, our beloved dogs are wolves on the inside!