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Family Pet Animal Care by Michael Trapani

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Family Pet Animal Care 
The Myth of the Lone Wolf

by Dr. Michael Trapani

The sky is dark, and a cold, sharp wind whips flakes of snow through the trees. High atop a rocky hill, silhouetted against a rising moon, the Lone Wolf raises its head to howl a blood-curdling, yet somehow mournful, cry. For miles around, meek woodland creatures and strong men cower as the great predator declares lordship over all it surveys.

Hogwash.

It’s a LONE wolf. The only thing it’s howling out is LONELINESS, perhaps with a liberal topping of hunger. It’s a forlorn creature, isolated from pack and family, with no other wolves to interact with, or compete against, or cooperate with so that it can hunt prey larger than gophers. It has no mate, no pups, no companions, and little prospect for obtaining any. A lone wolf is not engaged in “dispersal,” where a mated pair of wolves strike out on their own to form a new pack. The lone wolf is ALONE. Its quality of life is doo-doo. 

Wolf packs rarely adopt other wolves into their fold, and typically kill them. In the rare cases where outsiders are accepted, the adoptee is almost invariably an immature wolf, acceptable only because it has no chance to compete for breeding rights with the dominant mated pair. In some cases, a lone wolf is adopted into a pack to replace a deceased breeder, but that’s about as likely as winning the lottery. Maybe, just maybe, the lone wolf will meet up with another lone wolf of opposite gender and start a pack of its own: IF it is incredibly lucky, AND there is territory available that isn’t already controlled by hostile packs, AND there’s enough game to survive, and, and, and….

Our dogs are closely related to wolves, so the social nature of Canis lupus, the wolf, illuminates the social nature of Canis familiaris, the domestic dog. Although these two canine species diverged 27,000 and 40,000 years ago, they continue to share many characteristics. Canines live their lives as members of a cooperative, but competitively ranked group. While it may appear that dogs fit into human social structures, in fact it is we humans who have insinuated ourselves into the instinctive social structures of dogs. We have become our dog’s extended family - their pack - but much, much more. 

Dogs are scary smart. Some dogs have been proven to understand over 1,000 object names (nouns) and action names (verbs). Dogs read and react appropriately to human body language and gestures. Dogs engage in deception, demonstrating their ability to comprehend what another mind perceives and also to manipulate that mind. They have advanced memory skills and are capable of retaining acquired knowledge for a lifetime.

It seems inevitable that the minds of dogs would be shaped by nearly 30 millennia of contact with humans. More than any other species, dogs have developed the ability to understand and communicate with people. In fact, dogs have become uniquely attuned to human behavior. No other animal, not even our closest evolutionary relative, the chimpanzee, can match a dog’s social-intelligence skills when it comes to interacting with humans. Our dog’s ability to understand and interact with us rivals that of our own children!

But dogs are more than “man’s best friend.” When faced with an insoluble problem, dogs look to humans for assistance. This trait is not exhibited by socialized wolves, even when those wolves have spent their entire lives among humans. Dogs depend upon people - and know it - and come to us when they need our help.

There’s a down side to this: Dogs get lonely. Like their lupine cousins, it is the dog’s intrinsic nature to be - always - a part of a group. Dogs can learn to get along without us for a few hours, but a life of social isolation is something our dogs have little ability to manage. Dog are far to intelligent to simply stare at a wall all day.

Your dog has an innate need to be your friend. When excluded, a dog will be stressed, and will often relieve that stress by barking, chewing, and engaging in other activities that we consider undesirable. Social deprivation (solitary confinement) is probably the worst thing you can do to a dog. On the other hand, a dog who knows he is loved and is part of a group is more likely to be trouble-free and happy.

So spend some quality time with your dog every day. It’ll do you BOTH good.

The Family Pet by Michael Trapani, DVM