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Canis lupus familiaris

What do they look like?

Domestic dogs come in a bewildering variety of shapes and sizes. They have been selectively bred for thousands of years for various behaviors, sensory capabilities, and physical attributes. Domestic dogs have been bred throughout most of their history to be one of a kind of working dog, including dogs bred for herding livestock, different kinds of hunting (pointers, hounds, etc.), catching rats (small terriers), guarding humans (mastiffs, chows), helping fishermen with nets (Newfoundlands, poodles), pulling loads (huskies, St. Bernard's), guarding carriages and horsemen (dalmations), and as companion dogs. Some kinds were even bred simply as lap warmers (Pekinese). Their basic physical make-up though, no matter how modified, is that of their wild ancestors, gray wolves. In other words, all domestic dogs, from miniature chihuahuas to German sheperds to St. Bernard's have the same traits, they are just different sizes and shapes.

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger

Where do they live?

Domestic dogs are now found worldwide. Their wild ancestors, gray wolves occurred in North America and Eurasia, the Neartctic and Palearctic biogeographic regions.

What kind of habitat do they need?

Domestic dogs are found in association with humans worldwide and in a wide variety of habitats.

How do they reproduce?

Reproduction in domestic dogs is generally manipulated by humans. Wild-living males compete among themselves for access to mates. Some wild-living domestic dog populations have reverted to their ancestral wolf habits where a single male and female pair (the alpha animals) are the only ones who mate in a small, family group, or pack. Other pack members help to care for the offspring of the dominant pair.

Domestic dogs have a gestation period of 9 weeks, after which anywhere from 1 to dozens of puppies can be born, depending on the breed and nutritional status of the mother (how well fed she is). Average litter sizes are from 3 to 9 puppies.

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Domestic dogs can reproduce at approximately six month intervals, though usually less frequently.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding can occur throughout the year.
  • Range number of offspring
    1 to many
  • Average number of offspring
    3 to 9
  • Average gestation period
    9 weeks
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    6 to 12 months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    6 to 12 months

Females nurse and care for their puppies until they are weaned at about 8 to 10 weeks of age. In wild-living domestic dog packs, puppies are cared for by all members of the pack.

How long do they live?

Longevity in domestic dogs depends on the care they receive, their breed, and body size. In general, larger breeds have shorter lifespans. Well-cared for animals can live for 12 years or more.

How do they behave?

Domestic dogs are similar to their ancestors, wolves, in that they are both pack animals with a complex set of behaviors related to determining the dogs position in the social hierarchy and their mood. There is only one leader in a pack, and often there is a struggle between members of the pack to determine who the leader is. The struggle ends with one animal on top of the other, with the submissive animal lying on its back. The dominant animal places its paw on the chest of the submissive one, and until the submissive animal looks away from the eyes of the dominant animal, the struggle continues. As soon as the submissive animal averts his eyes, he has admitted defeat and the leader of the pack has been determined. Dogs exhibit characteristic postures that reveal their states of mind. The neutral position is when a dog is calmly observing things in the environment. The mouth of a dog in this position may be open or closed. In the alert position, the dog's mouth may be open or closed, depending on the excitement level and environmental temperature. The hairs along the back and shoulders may raise without any intent of the dog to attack. The dog has simply focused his attention on some object and is curious about it. Offensive threat posture: hair raised, teeth showing, nose wrinkled, and growling may be heard. The tail is upright, although it may be wagging. A dog in this stance is ready to attack. Defensive threat: although the dog may be growling and snarling, the ears are laid back, which is a sign of submission in normal dogs, and the tail is hanging down. Greetings: relaxed face, mouth slightly open, loosely pulled back ears, tail wagging. This is the posture dogs assume when playing with family members or other dogs. When greeting humans, domesticated dogs have learned to smile (exposing incisor and canine teeth). Humans often misinterpret this as aggressive behavior because this behavior never occurs when dogs greet other dogs. Play invitation: lowered front part of body while keeping the rear end up. A dog may bark in this invitation to play, but it does not growl excessivly. Submission: body low to the ground, as compact as possible. Ears are drawn back, tail is tucked tightly under body. Submissive dogs pull the corners of their mouths back but do not show their teeth (submissive grin). Some submissive dogs assume the most vulnerable position known to dogs, lying on the backs, exposing their undersides. This position admits ultimate defeat in the struggle of dominance between dogs.

Domestic dogs can be active at any time of the day or night. Wild-living domestic dogs maintain home ranges that they defend against others and may move around throughout the year.

How do they communicate with each other?

Domestic dogs use a complex set of communication modes to navigate their social environment. Chemical cues, such as pheromones, communicate information on reproductive status, social status, and mood. Body language is heavily used and various vocalizations are used as well. Social bonding and communication also occurs through touch.

What do they eat?

Puppies have different feeding habits than older dogs. A puppy needs twice as much protein and 50% more calories per pound of body weight daily in order to meet its growth requirements. A rapid change in a puppy's diet may cause gastrointestinal upsets. Puppies must feed 4 times daily until the age of 3 months, 3 times daily until 6 months and twice daily for the rest of its life. Older dogs' feeding habits are different in a couple of ways. The average size dog requires about 30 calories per pound of body weight per day. Interestingly, larger breeds need only 20 calories per pound of weight, while smaller breeds need about 40 calories per pound of body weight. A dog's diet should consist of balanced porportions of proteins, carbohydrates, fats and, of course water. A dog can go days without food and lose 30%-40% of it's body weight without dying, but a 10%-15% water loss could be fatal. All-meat diets are not recommended for dogs due to the lack of calcium and iron found in meat. Diet supplements should be avoided. Human foods that can be fatal to dogs include moldy cheese, onions, and chocolate. Wild-living domestic dogs will eat a variety of foods including animals and fruits. Their diet becomes similar to that of their wild ancestors, gray wolves.

  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals
  • amphibians
  • reptiles
  • fish
  • eggs
  • carrion
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Because of their association with humans, domestic dogs are not generally preyed upon by wild predators. However, wild-living domestic dogs may be preyed upon by any large predator. Often they are killed by other canids, such as wolves, coyotes, and jackals.

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Wild-living domestic dogs impact ecosystems mainly through preying on native wildlife. This often leads to severe population declines of native animals, especially on islands.

There are many species of parasites and disease organisms that infect dogs. Some of which can also infect humans.

Do they cause problems?

Domestic dogs carry and transmit human diseases, including viral, bacterial, and parasitic diseases. Dogs are still responsible for transmitting rabies to humans in undeveloped parts of the world. In addition, domestic dogs are responsible for attacks on adults and children, sometimes resulting in death.

  • Ways that these animals might be a problem for humans
  • injures humans
    • bites or stings
    • carries human disease

How do they interact with us?

If trained properly and treated well, dogs are loyal and protective animals. Domestic dogs have been bred to many purposes throughout the millenia, including as draft animals, guards, hunting, herding, and fishing aids, and as lap animals. Dogs are used for many positive reasons: guide dogs for the blind, deaf, and disabled. Dogs are used to find drugs, for their keen sense of smell can detect minute quantities or well-hidden contraband. Therapy dogs in hospitals learn how to play with children that are sick, on crutches, or using oxygen tanks or other aids.

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • pet trade
  • research and education

Are they endangered?

Domestic dogs are not threatened, though some agencies try to protect rare breeds from disappearing.


American Kennel Club. 1992. The Complete Dog Book. Howeel Book House, New York, N.Y.

McGinnis, Terri. 1974. The Well Dog Book. Random House, New York

The Marshall Cavendish International Wildlife Encyclopedia.1989. V. 7. Marshall Cavendish Corporation. Freeport, Long Island. New York.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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. "Canis lupus familiaris" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 22, 2024 at

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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