Dog pups begin to walk later than wolves, and by contrast, all their senses are mostly developed when they do. Photo: John James
You can tame a dog, but it's pretty tough to tame a wolf, and now one researcher says she's figured out why.
"We can socialize them to a degree, but not the same as we can with dogs," Dr. Kathryn Lord of the University of Massachusetts told the Weather Network last week.
Even though dogs and wolves are genetically very similar, Lord says there are critical differences in their early development -- the most important of which, is that wolf cubs begin to walk two weeks before dog pups do.
That doesn't sound like much, but it makes all the difference when you think about how the two species' senses develop.
They actually develop in stages, beginning with smell at two weeks, and develop at the same time in both species.
But by the time dog pups begin exploring the world, at four weeks of age, they are more likely to have developed all their senses.
Wolves begin exploring at two weeks, when only their sense of smell is active.
This "critical period of socialization," Lord says, is when the cubs learn to recognize their own species.
Because of that difference in sensory development, by the time this "critical period" is over, the pups are much more likely to be comfortable around other species, whereas wolves almost never lose their fear of that unknown.
"During that critical period, they are definitely going to learn that they are wolves. Dogs, not so much. If dogs are around sheep during that time, they will bond with sheep. If they're around people during that time, they'll bond with people," she says.
"So they are kind of released from this interaction between the fear system and, say, visual system developing. They're just, like, whatever, we'll bond with anything! And that's what really makes them different."
As it happens, Lord says, wolves can be socialized around people -- but it's hard work, the handlers must be with the cubs almost 24/7, and even then, they will only be familiar with those who raised them before they are returned to their own kind.
"A well-socialized dog is pretty much good with everybody," Lord says. "A wolf is very specific. So if it only saw, say, three or four people, people who look like those three or four people will be all right, anyone who looks significantly different is scary."
Lord spent eight years investigating the sensory development of wolves and dogs, studying wolf litters in Indiana and Quebec.
But even though your dreams of having a wolf companion may have to be tempered somewhat, Lord says that might not be a bad thing.
"They're awful pets," she laughs. "They go around eating your neighbour's cats, that's not good."
Lord's findings appear in the current issue of Ethology.