By: Patti Strand  Date: 01/9/2012 Category: | Canine Issues |

Taxonomists are those scientists who spend their time assigning and then arguing about the appropriate scientific names for living organisms. While their activities may often seem quite esoteric and somewhat trivial to the uninitiated, it is important to realize that the name which they may eventually agree to assign to a given animal generally represents a consensus of the best available scientific evidence as to what the exact evolutionary relationships are between that particular animal and its most nearly related kin. While even that information may seem to be of largely academic interest to the lay public, there are now an increasing number of cases where laws have been written and government regulations established, the enforcement of which may be dependent on the exact scientific taxonomic designation associated with a given animal or group of animals, and this is where all of this begins to impinge upon those of us who "do dogs."

Just such a situation occurred in 1993 when the American Society of Mammalogists and the Smithsonian Institution published Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference. In this volume, it was agreed that our domestic dog should be designated Canis lupus instead of the more customary Canis familiaris, thereby confirming the consensus of the scientific community that the dog is indeed exactly the same species as the wolf, the species from which it is generally assumed to have been derived through the process of domestication.

Just think about that! That adorable little Pug, Poodle, or Pekingese that curls up each night beside (or often probably in) your bed is in reality a wolf! To be sure, it is a wolf that has been incredibly altered in appearance and behavior through generations of artificial selection, but it is a wolf nevertheless!

This exciting news carries legal and ethical ramifications of this designation that may directly impact the lives of those of us who live and work with purebred dogs and some of the wild canine species. Many state and local governments have strict laws restricting and regulating the keeping of exotic wild animals, and the federal government, through the US Department of Agriculture, also exercises jurisdiction through the licensing and inspection of those who keep wild species such as the wolf. While it would certainly be absurd to believe that such oversight and control will now be applied to all persons who keep domestic dogs (because they are now defined as wolves), I have learned never to underestimate the ability of a government agency to carry the application of the letter of the law to such absurdity. Furthermore, such an application of the law would actually be technically correct, and we need to be alert to the possibility of some factions of the anti-dog movement seizing upon this as a new weapon in their arsenal.

Another ramification of the official taxonomic designation of all dogs as wolves has been to greatly strengthen the now nationally-organized efforts of the owners of wolf hybrids to have commercial dog rabies vaccines licensed for use in their animals. For many years, many states and other jurisdictions have sought to control and in some cases to prohibit the ownership of wolf hybrids on the grounds that since the rabies vaccines were developed for and only tested on domestic dogs, there was no evidence that they would be safe or effective if given to hybrids with a different species (the wolf) for which no such clinical testing had been done.

Regardless of what you or I might personally feel about the breeding and ownership of wolf hybrids, we have to admit that such an argument is now technically fallacious. This has also resulted in potentially dangerous situations in those jurisdictions where wolf or wolf hybrid ownership is possible, but the animal still cannot be given rabies vaccinations. I am sure that we can all agree that whatever we may think of them, wolf hybrids that have had rabies vaccinations are more desirable to have in our neighborhoods than those that have not. Furthermore, if we are really honest from a technical point of view, the available documentation suggests that a number of our own registered AKC breeds, particularly some of those in the northern sled-dog group, are themselves "wolf hybrids" in that in the distant past of their breed development (actually before there were "breeds") there was undoubtedly some either inadvertent or possibly deliberate back-crossing to wild wolves. Technically, then, such breeds only differ from current first- or second-generation wolf hybrids by the amount of time and number of generations of back-crossing, selection, and breed development that has taken place since the original wolf cross was made.

But oh – what a difference that can make! I am personally aware of a breeding program that began with a German Shepherd X timber wolf hybrid and which, in less than two dozen generations of careful and controlled back-crossing to high-performance German Shepherds, has now produced an admirable animal of sound body, stable temperament, and superb trainability. A number of the animals from this breeding program are now in fact being used by several state law enforcement agencies with more than satisfactory results. This sharply demonstrates that the steps of careful and conscientious selective breeding from the wild ancestor which produced our domestic dogs in the first place are still capable, when properly applied, of repeating that process today.

In the final analysis, however, crossing dogs of any breed with timber wolves in the name of getting back to the "roots" of the dog's wild ancestor is a misinformed process since the archaeological record and all other available information make it quite clear that the original ancestor of our domestic dogs was not a large northern subspecies of wolf such as the timber wolf , tundra wolf, or gray wolf of the Arctic and northern hemispheres, but rather a quite different and much smaller subspecies of wolf from the region of southwest Asia, the Middle East, or North Africa. Thus the most primitive dogs were not those of the more wolf-like northern sled dog type but rather were more like today's Basenji, Canaan Dog, or Australian Dingo. The implications of this fact for better understanding our dogs and their role in both past and present human society are enormous. Moreover, a more careful study of these unique smaller southeast Asian wolves and their domestication to produce dogs similar to these smaller and more primitive breeds can provide us with a new and fresh perspective for developing our own up-close and personal, one-on-one relationships with the modern wolf among us.

Dr. Brisbin is a member of the graduate faculty of ecology at the University of Georgia, where his teaching and research interests focus on wildlife biology and animal behavior. He has trained and exhibited dogs of a number of breeds in bench, field trial, and obedience competition for more than 25 years. He was the first person to obtain a UD title on a Bloodhound and is the AKC delegate from the Staffordshire Terrier Club of America. He has also taught canine behavior and olfaction to law enforcement agencies and has offered expert courtroom testimony on these subjects on a number of occasions.

About The Author

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Patti Strand - NAIA President

Patti is a recognized expert and consultant on contemporary animal issues, most notably responsible dog ownership and the animal rights movement. She often appears on radio and television and her articles on canine issues, animal welfare, public policy and animal rights have appeared in major US news publications and in trade, professional and scientific journals. Patti and her…

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