While your fluffy white Poodle might seem a world away from a wild wolf stalking its prey, there are more similarities between them that you might imagine. Big or small, all dogs have retained a little bit of the wilderness in them—and that comes through in these five common behaviors.
If you frequently find poorly buried rawhides, bones or even toys in the backyard (or your couch cushions!), you're witnessing something called “caching,” a very common predatory behavior used by wild animals to hide food for later consumption. “Burying food and toys harkens back to dogs’ wolf origin. Wolves gorge on prey but may not be able to entirely consume it,” explains Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, clinical instructor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University's Animal Behavior Clinic. “They may cover it with earth to protect it from scavengers.”
Although not all modern dogs exhibit this behavior, it has persisted in many domestic dogs despite the fact that they rarely need to protect leftover food (or half-eaten bones) from predators in their living rooms, crates, or back yards, explains Borns-Weil.
While dogs' wild ancestors would eventually dig up the leftovers to eat them, this doesn't always happen with modern dogs. “One of our dogs was so persistent about hiding rather than chewing on his rawhides that he would even uproot our house plants in order to cache his fine chewables underground,” explains Trish McMillan Loehr, who holds a Master’s degree in Animal Behavior from the University of Exeter in England, and is a certified dog trainer and dog behavior consultant. “He never did go find them to chew later, either.”
While some breeds like huskies are habitual howlers, other dogs will also howl occasionally for one reason or another—a behavior that dates back tens of thousands of years and has a deep connection to wolves. “Wolves howl to communicate with other members of their pack, to declare their pack territory and ward off intruders, and also as a group activity that serves to deepen the social bond of the pack,” explains National Wildlife Federation naturalist David Mizejewski, who also hosts the Nat Geo WILD series Pet Talk.
Dog howling doesn't sound exactly the same as wolf howling and it serves a slightly different purpose. “Dogs that howl when left alone may be calling to their social group,” according to Borns-Weil. “It is also possible that it is a learned behavior—when you hear him howling, you come back in the house to soothe him.”
The howling of modern dogs might also be connected to territorial behavior, though not exactly in the way wolves think about territory. For example, a dog might howl in response to a siren outside the home because it sounds like an animal claiming territory, so your dog answers back claiming his, Borns-Weil adds.
Dogs seem to love smelling each other. Not only their backsides, but also their ears, their mouths and sometimes just everywhere. While some of that might seem a little gross to their human companions, there's a good reason for this behavior—a reason passed down from dogs’ wild ancestors. “While we humans primarily experience the world through our sense of vision, dogs experience it first through their sense of smell,” says Mizejewski. “By smelling other dogs, a dog can get all kinds of information that humans wouldn't ever be able to determine with just our eyes, including sex, reproductive state and the health of another dog.”
In the wild, this is an import cue to decide whether an approaching animal is a danger or a welcome addition to the pack—especially when it's mating time. “The back end of a dog tells other canines a lot about the rest of the dog—they learn instantly whether they’re greeting a male or female, if their new friend is sexually intact, and if so, whether or not a female is in season,” explains McMillan Loehr. “It is also quite rude, in dog language, to approach from the front. If you watch dogs meet and greet off-leash, they typically circle and sniff, nose to tail.”
If you have a dog who loves to shake and thrash his toys with much enthusiasm, you might be witnessing one of the most basic parts of the predatory sequence. “Wolves kill small prey by thrashing it to break the neck or backbone,” explains Mizejewski. “When our pet dogs do this with a toy, it's the exact same behavior.”
The behavior is connected to what Borns-Weil calls the “predatory sequence,” a pattern of actions that allows a predator to hunt and kill his prey. The sequence includes identifying the prey, stalking it, chasing it, grabbing it, and eventually delivering a “kill” bite. “The kill involves shaking of the head from side to side,” Borns-Weil says. “All dogs may exhibit the behavior, which harkens back to their wolf ancestors, though it may be seen more in some than others.”
While it's hard to explain why some dogs do this and others don't, Borns-Weil says it's a behavior akin to how a border collie uses ‘eye and stalk’ to control a herd of sheep. “It must feel good to some dogs because it comes naturally to them,” says Borns-Weil.
Of all the dog behaviors associated with wild ancestors, this is perhaps the trickiest one because not all dogs exhibit it. Scientists from the Wolf Education and Research Center explain that in wolves, the action of rolling on carcasses or other foul-smelling things is known as scent rolling, a behavior meant to help them camouflage themselves. “Some speculate that rolling in strong-smelling things is a way for predators to disguise their scent ('Oh, that’s just a dead pigeon sneaking up on me, not a hungry dog!'),” explains McMillan Loehr.
Although dog behaviorists can't explain why, not all modern dogs seem to replicate this behavior. “The only dog of our current three who rolls in dead things is our former street dog from Puerto Rico,” says McMillan Loehr. “Is she a little closer to the wild than our Pit Bull and the Doberman, perhaps?” Whether that's the case or not, if your dog likes to roll on smelly things, his instinct might be telling him camouflage is a good thing.