Although the origin of the domesticated dog is a topic of debate in scientific communities, the wolf still remains the modern-day canine’s closest living ancestor. The long-held belief that dogs evolved directly from the gray wolf was challenged this year when researchers found genomic evidence that links both dogs and wolves to a common wolf-like primogenitor. Even though the exact genesis of our four-legged friends is still a mystery, many commonplace dog behaviors can be explained by looking at the behaviors of wolves.
Before she was a dog trainer for famous celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Ozzy Osbourne and Ben Affleck, Tamar Geller observed the habits of wolf packs in the Arava Desert. Geller says that identifying the wolf-like instincts of domesticated dogs can help pet parents better understand their canine companions.
“When a dog is behaving according to wolf instincts, people think that a dog is misbehaving. I’m here to say-no he is not,” says Geller, who runs the the Los Angeles-based cage-free facility The Loved Dog. “Don’t make your dog wrong for being different than you. It’s your role as a dog parent to teach him how to meet your needs using positive methods.”
Here are five common dog behaviors inherited from wolves and some insight from Geller into what they really mean.
1. Running away from you. Like wolves, dogs learn by playing games, says Geller, and one of the most common games involves chasing. When she was studying wolves in the desert, Geller noticed one wolf in particular that was leading the other wolves on wild pursuits. “I started to feel sorry for him,” she says. “But then I realized that he was the one calling the shots. When he wanted to stop, he stopped, and all the other wolves stopped. He was in charge.”
If you chase your dog around the house as a method of playing, you might actually be giving up control. “If you’re playing chasing games with your dog, you’re actually teaching your dog that it’s a game to run away from you,” says Geller. “It’s also showing the dog that he’s more agile and creative than you. It’s not a place you want to be.”
Instead of chasing your dog around the house or the yard for fun, Geller suggests playing hide-and-seek games where your dog has to find you.
2. Wrestling with other dogs. In the wild, wolf cubs frequently wrestle with each other to get out energy and demonstrate dominance. And wrestling between dogs is a common practice that pet parents often try to stop from happening. “When people see their dogs wrestle, they think it’s a fight. It’s not a fight,” says Geller. “That’s how they bond with each other and that’s how they assess each other’s rank in their pecking dynamic. It’s equivalent to people playing basketball together.”
Next time you see your dog wrestling with a playmate, don’t yell or go over and intervene, says Geller. Just let the dogs interact and keep an eye on the situation to make sure the wrestling remains playful.
3. Jumping up when you come home. Many pet owners try to curb their dog’s jumping behavior by yelling at him or pushing him down each time he jumps. But Geller explains that it is instinctual for dogs to jump when you return from being away. In wolf packs, when a pack leader returns from hunting, the young cubs jump and lick the bigger wolf’s lips. That action causes the hunting wolf to regurgitate food so that the cubs can eat.
“When dogs jump on us when we come home, that is a wolf’s instinct,” says Geller. “They want to lick our face because they are asking, ‘Do you have anything for me?’ Instead of being mean or kicking them, teach them a different behavior.”
Geller suggests simply turning your back when your dog begins jumping. The moment you turn your back, the dog will realize that you don’t have anything for him and that his jumping behavior is not what you want him to do.
4. They roll in mud after a bath. Have you ever washed your dog, only to have him roll around in the dirt right after a bath? He’s just doing something that comes naturally to him, says Geller. Wolves track and mark everything in the wild by their scents. Dogs do the same thing.
“One theory is that dogs roll around to become part of the environment,” says Geller. “[After a bath] they’re thinking,’ get that terrible, dangerous clean scent off of me,’ because that scent marks them as a target.”
Want to prevent your pooch from getting dirty? Just dry your dog off thoroughly with a towel before you let him out of the bathroom. Then keep him indoors until he has a chance to dry off and get accustomed to that clean feeling. Your pup will most likely roll around on the couch or the carpet, but at least he’ll be clean while he’s doing it.
5. Pawing and spinning before lying down. Research has a few explanations about why your pooch always paws at his bedding and spins around before settling in for a rest. But Geller explains that one commonly held belief is that it is an instinctual nesting habit that was passed down from wolves. “Wolves do it because they are preparing the earth to be as comfortable of a nest as possible,” she explains.
Like wolves, dogs clear an area and make a nest. This might involve tossing around a blanket, pawing at pillows or a dog bed, and spinning around to claim his sleeping spot. A dog also has scent glands on his paws (another trait inherited from wolves) and he may be pawing at his bedding or sleeping spot as a way of marking territory.
While this behavior is harmless, some pet owners may not appreciate a dog constantly pawing at furniture or nice bedding in their homes. Train your dog to sleep in a designated area-on the floor, a pet bed, or an older piece of furniture-and avoid giving him access to any valuable blankets or pillows.
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