What's the Difference Between Domesticated,Tame, Feral and Wild Canids?
Introducing the Domesticated Dog
The canidae family basically encompasses carnivorous (meat-eating) and omnivorous (all-eating) mammals. What animals are included in this family? Your domesticated dog, the wolf, the fox, the jackal and the coyote are just a few of the most popular representatives of this family. The domestic dog has been recently categorized as canis lupus familiaris by the Smithsonian Institute so to emphasize being a subspecies of canis lupus (the wolf)
What do canids have in common? Most canids have long legs and agile bodies so they can chase prey. They walk on their toes, have bushy tails their claws don't retract as in felines and most have dewclaws on their front feet. Males have reproductive organs meant to lock up in a tie. Pups are born helpless and blind and are raised in maternal dens dug underground. Once they are weaned they are fed food regurgitated by the parents after going on a hunt. A special ligament of the head and neck helps them conserve energy while running and keeping their nose level to the ground for scent detection. Most canids are equipped with 42 teeth. The long canines are built to firmly hold food so to tear it apart and occasionally use as weapons, whereas, molars are built so marrow bones could easily crack.
Socially, the canids are social animals. In many fox groups, the male and female pair collaborate in hunting and raising pups. Gray wolves, on the other hand, live in larger social groups known as packs. To learn more about the social structure of wolves, read David Mech's theory. Most canids use scent, body language and vocalizations to communicate among each other.
So the dog ultimately turns out being a domesticated animal and the wolf is believed to be its wild ancestor. Yet, in order to better understand a dog's past history, it helps to get a better grip on what the terms domestic, tame, wild and feral all mean as these all apply to the canid family to some extent.
Great reads on dog domestication
Defining Wild, Feral, Tame and Domestic
The terms wild, feral, tame and domestic seem to be often confused and used interchangeably. As I was reading Steven Lindsey's book "Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, I stumbled upon a great chapter discussing about these terms. According to the book, several years ago, a woman was fatally attacked by a wolf hybrid and the reports were all in contrast with one another. A reporter claimed that the wolf hybrid can be domesticated, but yet remains a wild animal. Another reporter claimed that such animals were not tame as they still retained a wild side. So let's shed some light on these terms, shall we?
Let's start from the extreme side, the wild part. These animals basically follow their full life cycles without any reliance on humans. Examples of wild canids include the following:
A feral animal is an animal with a history of being previously domesticated and then being released again into wild either being released purposely from humans or the animal escaping. Zoologists, however exclude the term "feral" for animals that were genuinely wild to start with and escaped from captivity. You therefore won't call a lion escaping from a zoo as feral, but you have feral cats. Examples of feral animals indeed include:
- Feral cats
- Feral dogs
- Feral horses
*And what about strays? Usually, the term feral is used to depict dogs who have been domesticated and socialized and have been released to the wild and have lived all their lives always away from people. The word stray instead depicts domesticated species such as dogs or cats who have been socialized to humans and have been taking to the free-ranging life, either because lost or abandoned.
Taming an animal can seem close to domesticating it, but it remains a step behind. Yes, you can tame a wild animal through socialization and handling, but the animal will have to go through precise biological and behavioral changes taking place through several generations to become domesticated, according to Lindsey. Tameness, therefore, depicts a reduction of wildness in an animals, but just for the purpose of allowing them to become easier to handle. Examples of tamed animals include:
When an animal is domesticated, it changes at a genetic level. Through artificial selection, humans mold the animal to make desirable traits more pronounced so they can benefit humans. There are both changes in appearance and behavior. In taming instead, the animal is simply accustomed to the presence of humans and there are no noticeable changes at a genetic level.
Domestication fits the purpose of humans. Animals are domesticated so to provide a source of food, textiles, for work, protection, but also for companionship. Domestication applies not only to animals but also plants. You have house plants and ornamental plants for human enjoyment and then you have plants grown as a food source through crops. In the same way, domesticated animals for companionship are known as pets and domesticated animals for food are known as livestock.
There are several examples of domestication and its effects on plants and animals. Wild wheat, in nature, for instance, falls to the ground so the seeds reproduce in fertile soil, domesticated wheat instead, stays erect so its easier for humans to harvest. In animals, a great example of how domestication may cause changes is the farm fox experiment. To learn more about this intriguing experiment read: How Farm Foxes Provide Insights About Dog Domestication.
There is still some controversy over tamed versus domesticated animals. Some people claim the elephant has actually been domesticated while others claim cats were really never domesticated.
So what about dogs? A good way to demonstrate that dogs are domesticated is by thinking about wolves. A wolf pup even if raised in captivity would be a far cry both in appearance and behavior from a dog. Domestication takes many generations to produce changes.
It's speculated that wolves became dogs through many generations. The tamer wolves were less wary than humans and used to scavenge for food left behind by the village's garbage dumps. Soon the humans discovered that these self-tamed proto-dogs were capable of alerting of any potential dangers, had the potential for becoming partners in hunting and provided warmth and companionship.
Examples of domesticated animals include:
- Dogs-wild ancestor- the wolf
- Pigs-wild ancestor- the wild boar
- Cat-wild ancestor- the wild cat
- Horse-wild ancestor- the wild horse
- Chicken-wild ancestor- the red junglefowl
As seen, these terms at a first glance appear similar but at a closer glance are quite different. Acknowledging them can help grip a better understanding about the history of the domesticated dog.
For further reading
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