Why Wolves Hunt and Dogs Can Play

The Geometry of Hunting

There are two articles about wolves on the blog “Science of Dogs” that merit reading. The first one is entitled: “Freeloading Wolves” and I will analyze it in this post.


The author states:

“The folkloric view held by some is that of wolves as supreme social predators with some magical qualities beyond those of other animals. The reality is that wolves are just like any other group predator. Like other social carnivores, birds, insects and primates – including (specially?) humans, bigger hunting groups does not increase hunting success. Increasingly larger groups show ever decreasing levels of cooperation. Token participation allows the individual to partake in the benefits of the group, while withholding effort minimizes the individual cost.”

“Many social (species) also maintain groups several times larger than their optimal hunting numbers indicating that hunting does not play a role in the formation of large groups.”

First of all, the term “withholding” is highly charged as it is imbued with human reason. (Remember that science had the hubris to label the bulk of genetic material in our genes which didn’t appear to them to be functional,”Junk DNA.”) If a wolf is inhibited and “withholds,” nevertheless its position and its presence can still exert a powerful effect limiting the movement of the prey and the amount of pressure they experience from being confronted on all sides, even if one of those sides is populated with “slackers.” The sheepherding dog “withholds” from the active sequences of hunting, and yet still exerts an overwhelming influence on the behavior of the flock, and at a distance to boot. Likewise a sheep guarding breed of dog doesn’t actively chase wolves, but merely positions itself relative to the flock and that is enough to inhibit wolves from attacking. The mere presence of wolves in Colorado kept elk from grazing in Aspen groves allowing the young sprouts to regenerate the forest that had been in decline, even though no elk were actually preyed upon. They merely felt vulnerable with wolves about and adjusted their browsing behavior accordingly.

The author’s larger argument is that if hunting is the mainspring of canine social life, as I for one claim it to be, then success in hunting would be the definitive factor in the makeup of the pack, especially its size. However in apparent contravention of my theory, it has been determined through field observation and statistical analysis that a pack of four wolves is the optimal size for success in the hunt. And since wolf packs are often larger than four, therefore hunting cannot be the defining feature of wolf social life and the makeup of the canine mind. Something other than hunting must account for why wolves pack together in the numbers and in the manner in which they do. And if hunting isn’t the organizing principle of the wolf’s makeup, it certainly can’t be for the domesticated dog as well given that it evolved from the wolf.

When I draw my model for the canine mind with group behavior being a self-organizing system, I always use four individuals as my optimized configuration. This is because there are four quadrants to a circle with four corresponding traits, Direct, Indirect, Active and Reactive. Any action an animal can perform can be categorized according to these basic traits and so any individual can be placed at a given moment in one of these quadrants. If one watches a group of dogs interacting, one will always find this pattern, and the flipping from one to the other as the interaction unfolds.

A group is a blend of individuals with each being a balance of Active versus Reactive, and Direct versus Indirect. These traits correspond to internal states, a manner of perception and then a manner of response. The basic premise is that if wolves approach a large dangerous prey from the cardinal points on the compass, the prey will feel vulnerable, i.e. most susceptible to being made con-fused. One member will be Direct and Active, taking on the prey head on, I call this the “North Pole” or 12:00 on the circle as clock face. The others will refract into the spectrum of Direct/Reactive, Indirect/Active, Indirect/Reactive as they approach in more circumspect styles and occupy corresponding “poles.” This is a dynamic system, not static, in that an individual can flip from one to another depending on context. And the prey animal is also flipping from one pole to another, one moment belligerent, the next moment becoming flustered and retreating. In other words, it’s an emotional response rather than a fixed instinctive reflex. Wolf packs are rarely just four members but there is an upward limit on how big you can go in this model because you can only slice the pie so many times until it becomes incoherent, i.e. there isn’t enough distinction between emotional “polarities.” For example, every section of a hologram contains the whole image, but the smaller you slice the pie the fuzzier the copy. I believe this is what causes some wolves to withhold, there isn’t a clear polarity discernible for them. There is an advantage of a bigger pack in order to better saturate an area and flush prey from cover, but this is counterbalanced by the need for clarity so that a pack can act as a coherent whole.

<<5/4/13: But to plumb a little deeper on the success-in-hunting criteria relative to “withholders,” the active sequence of cornering and bringing the prey to ground isn’t the only facet to hunting. The other aspect is locating the prey and if a pack has numbers larger than optimal in regards to the active phase of the kill, a somewhat greater number might be beneficial for saturating an area in order to locate the prey. I would expect that the more inhibited members would be the “withholders” and are best at scouting. Also, wolves hunt small prey as well as large prey and we would have to consider that a pack that was larger than the optimal four members to deal with large prey could facilitate the better sweeping of an area to drive small prey into the open. I would also look more closely at the withholding category in this way. A football team has reserves in training who sit on the bench. They watch the game but are not withholding. African Wild Hunting Dogs run their prey to ground in relay fashion, the ones in the rear conserving their strength for their turn at the lead. Are they withholding, or occupying a specific niche? There are only so many positions available, when they get better they are then able to get in the game when a starting player loses a step or gets injured. We really have to take a dynamic overview rather than a linear static zero-sum kind of analysis of the kind offered by the author.>>

Finally the author’s argument would be valid if success in hunting were the overarching criteria in hunting; in other words, only if we consider that predator and prey are in competition against each other, linked circumstantially as if in an arms race. However what I find compelling about the hunting behavior of wolves relative to the large dangerous prey they target, and relative to other group predators and how they hunt, is that they INFREQUENTLY enjoy success. I’ve read that only one out of thirteen hunts of moose are successful.

From the following website: http://www.wolfhaven.org/predation.php

“Hunting can be dangerous for a wolf. The antlers and the hooves of a large animal like a moose or a caribou can injure or kill an attacking wolf. As hunters, wolves have a low success rate. One study shows that for every twelve moose tracked, only one was caught.”

And yet wolves persist. Feeling attracted to that which is extremely hard to obtain I believe is the most important aspect of canine hunting style which is then responsible for their makeup.

In contrast to wolves, African Wild Hunting dogs almost always (Wikipedia quantifies it as 80%)enjoy success as they live in packs of up to fifty members.


“The African wild dog has a bite force quotient (BFQ, the strength of bite relative to the animal’s mass) measured at 142, the highest of any extant mammal of the order Carnivora, although exceeded by the Tasmanian devil, a marsupial carnivore.[5] Nearly 80% of all wild dog hunts end in a kill; for comparison, the success rate of lions, often viewed as ultimate predators, is only 30%. Schaller found that 9 of 10 wild dog hunts in the Serengeti ended in kills.[17]”

In their social life there is little tension relative to “status” or “access to resources” as all individuals routinely seek to “appease” others: and it’s a matriarchal rather than an autocratic society with the non-contributing young eating alongside the elders at a kill. Also, fertile females breed and have litters simultaneously as opposed to wolf society wherein a “superior” female represses the estrus cycles of the other breed-age females. Most telling is that in such numbers, wild hunting dogs are physically superior to their prey because in relay fashion they literally run them to death. Once they target their prey they are virtually always successful and they kill their prey when it is at the point of exhaustion and defenseless. But there is a dark side to AWHD society. There is no communal raising of the young and in fact infanticide is regularly practiced between female dams. In other words one single litter of pups is not the center of AWHD social life. It is the center of but one female and her affiliates.

So if success in hunting were the main criteria essential to social adaptability, and since social adaptability is the key to domestication, then African Wild Hunting Dogs that live in large social groups that are always successful would be the more likely prototype for the domestic dog rather than the wolf. And yet no version of a domesticated AWHD has ever emerged in the tens of thousands of years that they’ve lived alongside early hominids and then human beings, especially since Africa is the place where hominids became human beings. Could it be that success in hunting limits the evolutionary adaptability of AWHD? Could it be that physical inferiority to their prey is why wolves have an emotional relationship with their prey as opposed to an instinctive one?

Statistical success in hunting is not what makes hunting relevant to wolf social behavior because efficiency is not the metric by which nature evolves. (Improvement of flow is the key to evolution, and prey and predator compute one flow system, not two in competition with each other.) For example, many dogs chase cars despite no success in catching them. Yet dogs still chase cars. Yes the inefficient exercise in futility is subsidized by a big bowl of dog chow every evening, but well fed cats don’t chase cars. My reading of the canine behavioral landscape has always been that success in hunting limits the AWH dog’s capacity to adapt to novel situations that don’t offer an immediate and apparent return. Other than factoring in local topography, the prey instinct works the same in every hunt. There is no need to adapt on the fly, in sync, to a prey sealed off behind an impenetrable defense and which can inflict great physical injury and death at the moment of drawing blood. The AWHD hunt by instinct and therefore their relationship with their young mirrors their relationship with their prey.

The geometry of the hunt is more important than success in the hunt. Hunting is a circle with prey and predator as its equal and yet opposite halves. They are not independent. They co-evolve as one flow system. And in an emotional relationship between wolves and large, dangerous prey, it is a process of elaboration. Sometimes the prey is Direct and Active, and wolves flip to stay out of harm’s way. Then the wolves flip to D/A and move the prey closer to I/R (i.e. breaking ranks).

A circle has a geometry. At the center of the circle is the prey brought-to-ground. At the center of an individual prey animal’s body is its center of gravity. If a predator can exert enough force against the prey’s center of gravity, it can bring it to ground. If it can bring it to ground it can kill it. The body of the predator evolved around the physical geometry of the body of the prey it hunts, not to mention a calculus of force, thermodynamics and the laws of motion, which are also invoked in bringing a prey to ground. The circle applies to all forms of hunting. If a group of predators configure themselves around a prey hiding in cover, and one of the group then moves into the center of the circle, they flush the prey from cover and bring it to ground. Harris hawks are a good example of this. Their social lives configure around the circle of hunting by which they make their living. Their social life takes on the configuration of how they hunt and thus they prove the easiest species of raptor to train in falconry.

At the center of a defensive formation of adult prey animals such as Musk Ox or bison, pressed tight against their rumps with their massive horns pointed outward, are their young. When the AWHD target a prey animal, does the herd form up into a circle with their young at its center and present a united front? No. Where does this particular relationship between prey and predator happen? Between wolves and their prey. I suggest watching The National Geographic Video, “The White Wolves of Ellesmere Island;” featuring Dr. David Mech and photographer Jim Brandenburg, the first film to document wolves hunting musk ox on the high arctic tundra in total daylight, in order to appreciate this point.

What makes hunting overarching in the development of the canine makeup is emotion and a number of derivative traits: persistence, herding (alignment/synchronization), focusing a concerted emotional charge on the most vulnerable, moving as a group in unison and in counterbalance to the herd, and all of this under a high degree of resistance. This emotional dynamic is the basis of the relationship between wolves and large dangerous prey and this emotional interplay between these two species defines their social life, not success. The capacity to feel an intangible (potential energy) and be moving as a group in syncopation around that potential, an “absential,” is self-reinforcing without any material consequence. This emotional dynamic is universal in the makeup of all animals, however, species vary by how much resistance they can endure and still remain able to feel how to align around a midpoint, and with all the variables of a situation becoming configured in the mind as components of an emotional cycle, i.e. a circle. Feelings are the capacity to feel that point and to slot oneself into an appropriate pole in the circle (alignment) BY HOLDING BACK (synchronization) rather than being consigned to a straight ahead, all or nothing manner of dispatching the prey in pursuit of a far more immediate gratification.

Before we draw an ethogram, a precise detailing of the characteristic of every action, we should first draw a circle within which all those actions take place. At the center of the wolves social circle are their vulnerable young at the den. The adult wolves orbit this center forming a circumference and radii in all that they do. The adults go out in hunting parties, return, regurgitating what they’ve caught and predigested in their stomachs to their young who have come to the mouth of the den, and later to the edge of the site, to receive their food. As the pups mature, they proceed to rendezvous sites and their circle of activity radiates from this point. Then when the pups are old enough to keep up, they circumscribe the entire area within which the pack hunts.

The advantage to hunting large dangerous prey is the resulting bounty of nourishment, and this is adaptive because it then makes possible for their young to have a prolonged upbringing, a slower process of maturation in order to be steeped in the state of emotional suspension and the fluidity of role reversals that constitute how wolves hunt and interact with each other. Wolf cubs don’t have to hit the ground running prepackaged with hardwired fixed action patterns. The geometry of wolf social life, mirrors the geometry of the hunt. And the emotional dynamic between predator and prey in the hunt (Direct/Indirect/Active/Reactive) mirrors the emotional dynamic between pack members in their relations, (Direct/Indirect/Active/Reactive). Being able to flip from Direct and Reactive, to Direct and Active, or Indirect and Reactive to Indirect and Active, and so on, is a state of emotional suspension and fluidity. This is not an otherworldly, magical, supernatural process. It is simply what hunting feels like and how it works as opposed to instinctive triggers and fixed action patterns. Personality traits in both wolves and dogs follow from these emotional polarities.

The author concludes that this study demonstrates that wolves are just like any other group predator. That leaves the most important question unanswered, why is it the wolf that  rendered the only animal–the dog–capable of being fully domesticated so that it can be integrated into every aspect of human work and life? In my view the wolf’s unique style of  hunting is a process of elaboration that puts the individual into a state of emotional suspension. This dynamic is responsible for all the ways we are able to train and play with dogs outside of actually hunting: playing, fetching, car rides, herding, search and rescue, etc., etc.. It is the source of the dog’s behavioral plasticity. Because dogs can hunt with man, they are able to live with man, and more importantly, play with us.

<<As a postscript: the author makes the following criticism of my argument which I did not get to earlier:

“Behan goes on to make the same fallacious claim that he has repeated in other posts as well as his book; that wolves are different because they are physically weaker/smaller than their prey. Again this is not unique, the same is true for lions, leopards, cheetahs, foxes, hyenas, cougars, dholes, piranhas and even ants; they all take down prey larger than themselves.”

KB: The internet is a wonderful tool. Anyone can watch all the above mentioned predators take on their prey and decide for themselves the relative disparity in power. Dr. Coppinger states that canines are relatively weak-jawed compared to other predators, and also note, that the relatively tiny piranha is physically more powerful than their much larger prey due to their numbers. One piranha can perhaps inflict a nasty bite or two, but a school of dozens/hundreds is overpowering to any animal trying to cross their waters. Ants may be tiny, but they are physically more powerful than their size, not to mention where there’s one ant there’s likely to be another ten thousand, so ants are also physically more powerful than their prey. Wolves on the other hand are physically inferior to something larger than a deer and have to confuse and wear down their prey. My point isn’t size disparity, it is physical strength disparity and this forced the wolf to evolve a circumspect hunting strategy.

Note the internal contradiction in the following points:

“The final false argument Behan makes is to let his readers believe that wolves are unique and different from their precocial prey.”

“Wolf cubs don’t have to hit the ground running prepackaged with hardwired fixed action patterns.”[1]

“But that’s the same for all mammalian, avian and even some reptilian predators. Lions and bears stay with the mother for 2 years, tigers for 3, killer whales 4 years, dholes 2 years, leopards 2 years, jaguars 2 years and the wolves also about 2 years.”

When scientists such as this author debunk the dominance hierarchy model, they note that wolves aren’t ruled by an autocratic leader but that they live as an extended family group. The family stays together longer than other canines, they don’t have a leader they have parents. But now to make the above point, the author says there’s nothing special about the length of time that the young stay with wolves. (By the way, killer whales are the oceanic equivalent of wolves so it wouldn’t surprise me that there are great similarities, which is why I noted in “YDIYM” the incredible relationship that evolved between Aboriginal whalers and Orcas in the Bay of Eden.) But why do the young stay with the parents longer than other canines? This indicates that there is a prolonged upbringing, that something is developing more slowly, and this certainly jibes with my experience raising many puppies and kittens, hence my expression that they don’t hit the ground running. Lions live in extended family groups, but the physical strength disparity with their prey isn’t as great as with wolves. Foxes and coyotes do not live in extended family groups, do not target prey that are physically more powerful and thus there are no domesticated foxes or coyotes as ubiquitous family pets. >>


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Published September 29, 2012 by Kevin Behan
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Books about Natural Dog Training by Kevin Behan

In Your Dog Is Your Mirror, dog trainer Kevin Behan proposes a radical new model for understanding canine behavior: a dog’s behavior and emotion, indeed its very cognition, are driven by our emotion. The dog doesn’t respond to what the owner thinks, says, or does; it responds to what the owner feels. And in this way, dogs can actually put people back in touch with their own emotions. Behan demonstrates that dogs and humans are connected more profoundly than has ever been imagined — by heart — and that this approach to dog cognition can help us understand many of dogs’ most inscrutable behaviors. This groundbreaking, provocative book opens the door to a whole new understanding between species, and perhaps a whole new understanding of ourselves.
  Natural Dog Training is about how dogs see the world and what this means in regards to training. The first part of this book presents a new theory for the social behavior of canines, featuring the drive to hunt, not the pack instincts, as seminal to canine behavior. The second part reinterprets how dogs actually learn. The third section presents exercises and handling techniques to put this theory into practice with a puppy. The final section sets forth a training program with a special emphasis on coming when called.
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