Despite coming in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, dogs all belong to the one species. Compare this to birds, which are all different species. The definition of belonging to a given species is ‘the ability to reproduce to yield fertile offspring’. All dogs (in theory) can mate to produce fertile offspring, whereas birds cannot.
Dogs are directly descended from the wolf. Our pet dogs are very different to the wolf in temperament, despite belonging to the same species. This has come about through thousands of years of humans domesticating the dog and selectively breeding them to perform different roles.
While wolves do not interact with humans the way the domesticated dog does, there is a richness of character that has been preserved through millennia. We see this in the social structure of wolves: how they interact with each other.
At this point I must handover to an excellent post, “The Social Wolf” from the website ‘Living with Wolves’. What follows here is taken from this excellent post, which I cannot improve upon. There are many more topics about the wolf to be found on this site and and all are equally interesting and well written.
Living with Wolves is dedicated to raising broad public awareness of the truth about wolves, their social nature, their importance to healthy ecosystems, and the threats to their survival.
Wolves are complex, highly intelligent animals who are caring, playful, and above all devoted to family. Only a select few other species exhibit these traits so clearly. Just like elephants, gorillas and dolphins, wolves educate their young, take care of their injured and live in family groups.
Genetics leaves little doubt that domestic dogs, our canine companions, are descended from wolves. The DNA of any dog is almost exactly the same as that of a wolf. You can see a lot of your dog in a wolf and a lot of wolf in your dog. They are both social animals. Just like elephants, gorillas and whales, they educate their young, take care of their injured and live in families groups.
The traits that wolves passed on to dogs served us well as we became shepherds and farmers. We capitalized on the wolf’s territorialism to create a dog that steadfastly guarded our flocks and property. We put the wolf’s superior sense of smell and knack for locating prey to use as trackers and retrievers on our own hunts. We transformed the wolf’s skill at harassing and maneuvering big grazing animals into a herding instinct, helping us move our livestock from place to place.
The wolf also passed along to dogs its most indispensable qualities: devotion to its pack, sociability, and a capacity for learning, communication, and expression. In turning the wolf into the dog, we created the ultimate companion, a faithful friend that can understand our intentions even better than our fellow primates can.
Both wolves and humans brought unique, complementary talents to a relationship that was based on mutual respect. Several scholars agree that humans learned to hunt from wolves. The relationship between dogs and humans has been so mutually beneficial and enduring that it is clear that we influenced each other’s evolution.
The ‘lone wolf’ misnomer
We often hear the phrase “lone wolf,” an expression of grudging admiration. A lone wolf is often viewed as a rugged individualist, uncompromising and independent, driven to forge his own path, unfettered by the sentimental need for companionship. In reality, few people would ever want to live this way—and, as it turns out, few wolves would either.
Wolves, males and females alike, may go through periods alone, but they’re not interested in lives of solitude. A lone wolf is a wolf that is searching, and what it seeks is another wolf. Everything in a wolf’s nature tells it to belong to something greater than itself: a pack. Like us, wolves form friendships and maintain lifelong bonds. They succeed by cooperating, and they struggle when they’re alone. Like us, wolves need one another. Read more…
Family groups – packs
A wolf pack is an exceedingly complex social unit—an extended family of parents, offspring, siblings, aunts, uncles, and sometimes dispersers from other packs. There are old wolves that need to be cared for, pups that need to be educated, and young adults that are beginning to assert themselves – all altering the dynamics of the pack.
The job of maintaining order and cohesion falls largely to the alphas, also known as the breeding pair. Typically, there is only one breeding pair in a pack. They, especially the alpha female (the mother of the pack), are the glue keeping the pack together. The loss of a parent can have a devastating impact on social group cohesion. In small packs human-caused mortality of the alpha female or of both breeders can cause the entire pack to dissolve.
After the alphas, wolves second in command are called the betas, followed by mid-ranking wolves, and finally the omegas. Both mid- and low-ranking positions are somewhat fluid. Although an omega may hold that position for many years, it is not unheard of for the pack to pick a new omega and let the other retire.
Living in a pack not only facilitates the raising and feeding of pups, coordinated and collaborative hunting, and the defense of territory, it also allows for the formation of many unique emotional bonds between pack members, the foundation for cooperative living.
Wolves care for each other as individuals. They form friendships and nurture their own sick and injured. Pack structure enables communication, the education of the young and the transfer of knowledge across generations. Wolves and other highly social animals have and pass on what can be best described as culture. A family group can persevere for several generations, even decades, carrying knowledge and information through the years, from generation to generation.
Wolves play together into old age, they raise their young as a group, and they care for injured companions. When they lose a pack mate, there is evidence that they suffer and mourn that loss. When we look at wolves, we are looking at tribes—extended families, each with its own homeland, history, knowledge, and, indeed, culture.
Wolves communicate, collaborate and share knowledge across generations. The older wolves, as more experienced hunters, share hunting strategies and techniques with younger wolves, passing down knowledge from one generation to the next, maintaining a culture unique to that pack.
Source: Living with Wolves website
Humans can learn much
Given this insight into the origins of our beloved dogs, it leaves me thinking that the human species can learn a lot from them: they are loyal, honest, and non acquisitive. They take care of their old and sick, and nurture and teach their young, They kill for food and not for fun, and live in harmony with their environment.
I am moved – humbled – when I look into the eyes of an old dog, for tangible pure integrity looks back.