The Behavioral Connection Between Dog and Wolf

Wolf and Dog

Many of the wolf-like social behaviors of the dog are not things that endear them to us, and many have lost their original social purpose to the dog as well. They are appendages that evolution hasn’t managed to shake yet. Like the human appendix, they range from merely useless to downright awkward.

The elaborate eliminatory patterns of the dog are a source of puzzlement and grief to many a dog owner, but if it is any consolation, they don’t make a great deal of sense for the dog, either. In wolves, both the alpha male and the alpha female generally urinate with a raised leg; all other members of the pack merely squat. The raised-leg urinations involve depositing relatively small amounts of urine in prominent places and on conspicuous objects. This of course has almost nothing to do with the needs of elimination and everything to do with territorial markers.

Many people have come to believe the frequently repeated tale that wolves only mark the perimeter of their territory in this fashion, as a “keep-out” signal. In fact, careful studies in Minnesota found that wolves urine-mark throughout their territory. They do the same with their feces (scats) which are frequently deposited on prominent spots, too, such as snowbanks, stumps, shrubs, and even empty beer cans.

Wolf scats are also frequently found at trail junctions, especially in the immediate vicinity of rendezvous sites where growing wolf pups are left while the adults go off to hunt. Scent glands on either side of the anus probably serve to add an individually distinctive odor to scats, reinforcing their function as scent markers. The scratching of the ground that sometimes follows elimination by socially dominant wolves, and which some but not all dogs exhibit, appears to be aimed at reinforcing the scent mark with a visual mark, or possibly to reinforce it more directly with odor from glands in the paws. (Wolves are careful while scratching up dirt or leaves during this action not to aim the debris directly at the site of their eliminations.)

Dogs not only have no instinct to keep such a large area clean; on the contrary, they have a definite instinct to thoroughly mark their immediate vicinity with both urine and feces. Wolves apparently do this so that pack members can know at any time whether they are in their home territory. The primary stimulus for raised-leg urination in wolves is not, as is often said, the smell of a strange wolf’s urine, but rather the presence of the wolf’s own mark: there is a strong instinct to mark and remark sites along frequently traveled routes within the wolf’s own territory. Indeed, it may be an almost automatic response to the odor of urine. Laboratory studies have found that when the nasal lining of dogs is electrically stimulated, it triggers an immediate relaxation of the urinary sphincter muscles.