Why Wild Wolves Can Never be Tamed

First Posted: Jan 17, 2013 05:05 PM EST

If dogs are man's best friend, then why aren't wolves? This question has baffled scientists for years; the two species are genetically similar, but wolves will remain obstinately wild while dogs can be tamed.

New research by evolutionary biology Kathryn Lord at the University of Massachusetts may explain why. In her study, she examined seven wolf pups and 43 dogs to try and understand their developmental differences. She exposed both the dogs and the wolves to familiar and new smells, sounds, and visual stimuli during a four-week period of development that defines a critical period for socialization. She then assessed how their senses developed.

During this window of socialization, both wolf and dog pups will begin exploring their surroundings without fear. They will retain familiarity with the things they contact during this period throughout their lives. After this period, though, new stimuli will cause both wolves and dogs to be fearful. The end of this window also means the end of the opportunity to "tame" wolf pups.

While their responses during this period were the same, the actual time when this period of socialization began and ended were completely different. Dogs first began their socialization period at four weeks of age when they can both see and hear; wolves, on the other hand, began it at two weeks. Since wolves are still blind and deaf when they begin to walk and explore their environment at two weeks, the way they experience their surroundings is completely different. At the time, wolves primarily rely on their sense of smell.

Because of this period difference, dogs are more easily tamed and wolves are less likely to form attachments to humans. In order to effectively tame a wolf, you would need to be in constant contact with the animal starting before the age of three weeks.

The study has implications for managing both wild and captive wolf populations.

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