January 21, 2013

How Two Weeks Make All the Difference

redOrbit writer April Flowers recently published an article outlining why dogs are more likely to be domestic and tame than wolves. Flowers wrote about a study completed by University of Massachusetts Amherst doctoral student Kathryn Lord. Lord took eleven wolf pups from three litters and 43 dog pups—33 German shepherds and border collies raised by their mothers and ten German shepherds hand-raised by humans. The findings showed a pretty specific difference that explains just why dogs are man’s best friend and wolves remain at a distance.

The most exciting news from this research will help scientists with managing wild and captive wolf populations, which is definitely good. So what did the study find? Well, first of all, wolves begin to walk and explore at about two weeks old while dog pups begin this at four weeks old. This is called the socialization window.

That may not seem to be all that big a difference; however, when coupled with the fact that both wolf pups and dog pups develop their sense of smell at two weeks, hearing at four weeks, and vision at six, suddenly the socialization window becomes more complicated.

Because wolf pups begin their socialization window at two weeks that means that they begin exploring while developing smell, but still deaf and blind. Like most animals, the fear response is heightened when a wolf can’t see or hear. Contrarily, dog pups experience their socialization window beginning at age four weeks when they can definitely smell and likely hear. They will begin seeing as they are exploring. Their fear response will therefore be lessened because they can smell, hear, and almost see.

During the socialization window, if dog pups are introduced to something new (i.e. humans, cats, or other animals), they will forever be comfortable with whatever they are introduced to. The fact that they can smell and hear and almost see really affects this. On the other hand, wolf pups do not have the same sense and comfort experiences during the socialization window because they can barely smell and cannot hear or see thus they are more suspicious and cautious during their socialization window.

As I read through all of this information about dogs and wolves, I thought about how the little genetic differences affected these two sub-species. If wolf pups started their socialization period even a week later, their ability to connect and imprint with humans and other animals would be completely different. It is amazing how the little differences have such an impact.

I really am amazed by genes when I read about findings like this. I mean, something as simple as when we start to walk and explore in conjunction with when our senses kick in can change everything. It really shows the complexity and delicacy of all life. Science like this reminds us all of the nature of life. For some, it also shows the relationship that science has to spirituality.

Studies like this also help us to appreciate the roles each of us—mammal, animal, fish, bird, plant, and all other life—play in the world. And they give us insight into our relationships. With just one extra week, it is possible that wolves and not dogs would be man’s best friend. As it stands now, though, the genes will keep dogs tame and wolves wild. I guess, wolves will remain mysterious for many of us.

Image Credit: Lori Labrecque / Shutterstock

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Rayshell E. Clapper is an Associate Professor of English at a rural college in Oklahoma where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition classes. She has presented her original fiction and non-fiction at several conferences and events including: Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium, Southwest/Texas Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association Regional Conference, and Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference. Her publications include Cybersoleil Journal, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, Red Dirt Anthology, Originals, and Oklahoma English Journal. Beyond her written works, she successfully created a writer's group in rural Oklahoma to support burgeoning writers. The written word is her passion, and all she experiences inspires that passion. She hopes to help inspire others through her words.

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