When the Stark children from Game of Thrones bought home a litter of orphaned direwolf pups, people were entranced. Suddenly, the prospect of raising wolf pups seemed appealing. However, a study has found that domesticated wolves can't actually be completely domesticated. If you hand-rear a wolf pup, it will most likely form an attachment to you. However, that pup will never be a pet the same way that a dog is a pet.
15,000 years of evolution separates wolves from dogs. Though the two species have some similarities, they've gone down completely different paths. One thing they do have in common is the ability to form lasting attachment and affection for humans. However, it's important to remember that wolves are not dogs, and no amount of tender loving care will undo thousands of years of evolution.
Thus, though it is indeed possible to raise wolf pups, it doesn't mean that we can or that we should. At least, not if we're just doing it for personal reasons.
Wolves that form attachments with humans are more of the exception than the rule. For one thing, wolves are wired to be wary of humans. In this respect they are unlike dogs, which are wired to seek human companionship out. However, researchers postulate that the ability of dogs to form attachments with humans may be rooted in their wild canine ancestors.
Researchers thus conducted experiments on wolf puppies that grew up and socialized extensively with humans. They took 10 one-week-old gray wolf pups and brought them to the homes of their handlers for hand-rearing. There, at home with their handlers, the pups were able to socialize with humans and other animals for up to 24 hours a day. The pups lived in a city, had everyday walks on leashes, and regularly interacted with unfamiliar humans and animals. They were basically domesticated wolves, at least for the time being.
This wasn't a permanent arrangement for the pups. Researchers had the pups stay with their handlers for only a few months, after which the pups returned to the park where they were born. The researchers found that the pups were still willing to approach and interact with strange and familiar humans and other animals even at 12 months of age. Thus, the wolves retained at least some of the attachment they formed with humans.
Wolves that grew up in the wild and even in animal parks aren't as friendly to humans as the wolves in the study. These hand-reared wolves show what may have been the roots of canine domestication. If wild canines are able to form attachments to those not of their own species, this may have been the trait that enabled the domestication of dogs.
Of course, as the researchers emphasize, the idea of domesticated wolves is still little more than a myth. Wolves are still wild animals, and even the wolves in the study returned to live as undomesticated wolves. The study merely found that the ancestors of modern dogs likely already had a predisposition to domestication. Thus, the results of the study aren't proof that wolves can be tame and docile household pets.
Get weekly science updates in your inbox!