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Imagine you’re trapped in a room with a wild animal — a wolf, perhaps.
Both of you paralyzed with fear, you stare at each other until one makes a move. Can you predict what that wolf will do? No. It’s unpredictable.
While true wolf behavior in the wild is well understood, wolf-dog hybrid behavior in captivity is unpredictable.
That’s the take-home message and warning to all when considering getting a wolf-dog hybrid. They are unpredictable.
My Scare With a Wolf-Dog Hybrid Patient
I found myself trapped with and by Titan, a 10-month-old wolf-dog hybrid I had been seeing since he was a puppy.
As a veterinarian with quite a lot of experience with wolves, wolf-dog hybrids and zoo animals, I was shocked to find myself in this situation. The situation occurred because Titan’s behavior was highly unpredictable. We were both trapped. And we were both fearful.
Titan had been brought into my hospital that morning to be neutered. To lessen his fear response, we took many precautions to ensure as fear-free an environment as possible:
- He was familiar with me and the staff and had been to the hospital before.
- We administered a pre-op sedative with the dog’s human present.
- And we did not cage Titan at any time.
Although Titan had been exhibiting some aggression at home lately, he seemed docile and comfortable that morning.
But as he was being held by his leash in surgery, getting ready to be anesthetized, he turned his head ever so slightly toward me. His eyes rose up to fixate on my face and then he lunged about a foot toward me, and just kept staring into my eyes, ready to pounce.
Unnerved, I stepped back from his lunge and he darted into the corner of my surgical suite with a swift and silent bolt.
Planted firmly against the wall, he looked like a statue with live eyes. He didn’t move a muscle, didn’t blink. I couldn’t even see his chest move for breath. He just sat, staring at me.
I had no idea what Titan’s next move might be. Or mine.
As we kept our eyes locked on one another, bodies fixed and silent, I realized it was unnatural for both of us to be in this situation. Titan had been placed in a dog environment that day, but Titan was a wolf — a wild animal that instinctually needed to escape from this dog world.
After about a minute, I gestured for my technicians to cautiously clear the room and bring me the rabies pole.
It seemed that Titan would not lunge at us if we did not move toward him.
A rabies or snare pole is a long metal rod with a controllable cable at the end. If you can cautiously place the cable on the neck of the animal, you can tighten it safely and humanely from about a 6-foot distance, giving you some control and not harming the animal.
If Titan lunged at me first or if I was not strong enough to control him at the end of the pole, he could have certainly attacked me.
My goal was to safely take control of Titan, get him in a room by himself to lessen his fear response, and then have his person come get him immediately.
I stood still with the rabies pole and spoke softly to Titan. Motionless, he kept staring into the center of my skull.
After a minute, I moved the rabies pole slightly toward him. He remained still. He bared his teeth. I talked to him again, and his face became more neutral.
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With one movement, I got the noose over his head and got control. He lunged.
I was able to hold the pole firmly, and he stopped lunging. If he had wanted to, he could have won this tug-of-war for sure.
I guided him to a safe room a few feet away.
What Is a Wolf-Dog Hybrid?
Any animal that is part wolf and part dog is called a wolf-dog hybrid.
You may have seen them called wolfdogs. Same thing — the term wolf-dog hybrid is interchangeable with wolfdog.
These animals can be largely wolf, largely dog or any variation in between. Gray wolves interbreed most easily with dogs.
The dog breeds most readily bred to wolves include the Alaskan Malamute, Husky, Poodle and German Shepherd Dog. The result may be an animal that acts like a couch potato or a wild animal, but the amount of wolf versus dog genes cannot predict behavior.
Because of their wild nature, many wolf-dog hybrids cannot exist happily in a domestic home, even if given large areas to roam outdoors.
According to W.O.L.F. Sanctuary of Laporte, Colorado, each year thousands of wolf-dog hybrids are surrendered or euthanized because people cannot manage their aggressive, unpredictable and destructive behaviors.
Often these animals are abused or inhumanely caged because of their aggression.
Buying a Wolf-Dog Hybrid: A Wolf in Dog’s Clothing
For the past half-century, wolf-dog hybrids grown more popular.
A most recent surge in popularity was brought about by the Stark direwolves on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Some people do serious research before acquiring a wolf-dog hybrid, but other fans think it’s a cool idea to add something that looks like Nymeria to their household.
The fascination of owning a fearsome predator can appeal to exactly the wrong type of person. Matters are made worse since the sale of these wolfdogs are frequently made over the internet, encouraging unscrupulous, inhumane breeders and shady Craigslist deals.
The ironic thing is many of these animals have no wolf in them at all. Backyard breeders play around with shepherd-like and Malamute-looking dogs until they get something that looks like a wolf. It goes without saying that whether the puppies are part wolf or all dog, some breeders have no interest in breeding for temperament or health, despite what their advertisements might say.
In the past, Rough Collies became popular because of Lassie, Dalmatians because of 101, Cocker Spaniels because of Lady and the Tramp, etc. For much more on this, see my article “Hollywood’s Dog Curse: How Movies and TV Shows Have Ruined Dog Breeds.”
All these breeds suffered, since high demand resulted in inbreeding, an increase in hereditary health conditions and more behavioral problems.
But the plight of wolf-dog hybrids may be the biggest injustice caused by human fetishism or fads. Housing a wild animal in your backyard or walking it on a leash when it was meant to roam free is selfish at best, unethical and cruel at most.
Wolf or Dog?
Consider the most basic differences between wolves and dogs:
- Dogs bond to humans. Wolves are innately afraid of humans.
- Dogs love to sleep on your bed. Wolves thrive in the wilderness.
- Dogs eat the dinner you give them or scavenge your trash. Wolves hunt.
- Dogs love to respond to commands. Wolves don’t like commands.
- Dogs can learn to respect their environment. Wolves inherently roam. And in attempting to escape captivity, they can be extremely destructive.
In a wolf’s own words, this is a perfect wolf life:
- I want to be self sufficient, kill my prey and fend off my enemies. I perceive anything that threatens me as an enemy.
- I want to explore my wild environment, investigating all 50 to 1,000 square miles of it.
- I want to roam, and 15–20 miles a day sounds good. And I want to mark that territory by urinating and defecating all over it, many, many times along the way.
- I like to explore with my teeth and my claws. If I’m interested in an object, I want to tear it to shreds.
- I want to dig and build a den, but I don’t want to be enclosed. If enclosed, I’ll eat, scratch and bite through anything to get free.
- I like to look at all small creatures as dinner. I have an intense need to track and kill prey.
- I am afraid of humans, and I don’t want them where I live. I want to be left alone — but if you threaten me, I might attack.
For local authorities, vaccine companies and vets, wolf-dog hybrids are considered wild animals. They are never categorized as domestic dogs or pets, which poses many other problems for their caretakers:
- Laws and restrictions on wolf-dog hybrids are different from state to state, even county to county or town to town. It may be completely illegal to house a wolf-dog hybrid where you live, or perhaps you must obtain a special wildlife license/permit.
- Vaccinating wolf-dog hybrids is possible and recommended. However, all vaccines are extra-label for wolf-dog hybrids. This is of particular concern with the rabies vaccination. Even if your wolf-dog hybrid is vaccinated against rabies, they are not considered legally vaccinated. This means that if the wolf-dog hybrid is bitten or bites another animal or human, the animal is placed under a strict rabies quarantine, regardless of proof of rabies vaccination. If the quarantine is impossible, some animals have been euthanized.
- Some vets may refuse treatment based on their own experience, legal issues, insurance, ethical considerations, etc.
- Insurance companies may not insure, or they might revoke existing policies.
Training a Wolf-Dog Hybrid
Wolf-dog hybrids can be trained or domesticated to a certain extent — but trying to force them into a domestic lifestyle is difficult.
Wolf cubs develop differently from puppies. It is more difficult to train the fear response out of wolves, even if adopted from an early age.
- According to Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM, “While dogs are easily socialized to humans if exposed between 3 and 12 weeks of age, wolf puppies must be taken from their mothers and from the pack before 3 weeks of age and then hand raised by humans through 4 months of age. If left with the pack and just exposed to close interaction with humans during this period, they develop an intense fear of humans, even if the mother and pack members are tame.”
- And in one study where wolf cubs and puppies were raised in an identical way by humans, there were many social and behavioral differences between the 2 groups. The dogs were more interactive with humans, would wag their tails and gaze at human faces from a very early age. Meanwhile, the wolf cubs did not show such attachment behavior to humans. The wolves didn’t seek out human attention even with early exposure.
It makes sense that training is particularly difficult because wolves don’t get pleasure from pleasing humans and are innately afraid and untrustworthy of people. This can make wolves largely intractable, even with a dedicated training program.
“A dog is like a 12-year-old child, and a wolf is like a 35-year-old man,” says Kim Miles of the National Lupine Association advocacy group. “The dog will generally do what you want it to, but the wolf will do what you want only if he wants to do it himself.”
Some people might say this of their Beagle or Bichon, but it’s a lot easier to deal with an obstinate 20-pound lap dog than a wolf in your living room.
Lovers of wolf-dog hybrids insist their animals are loving, docile, compatible with other pets in the house, and easy to live with. While this is true in some situations, the likelihood and probability of there being a problem with a wolf-dog hybrid in containment is real and should be acknowledged and respected for the sake of the animal.
Unpredictable Behavior and Fear Response
Remember my experience with Titan?
Titan had not acted aggressively with me for 10 months, until he was placed in a setting that threatened him. His behavior became unpredictable because of his innate fear response.
In home situations, the same unpredictability and fear response can occur, even with solid, thoughtful caretakers. Once some of these wolf-dog hybrids are past puppyhood, their behavior can become unpredictable even to someone who is good at “reading” canine or wolf behavior.
This was the case with Titan. His human was a strong, single man who had devoted much time, effort and expense in understanding and training Titan. But at 10 months old, Titan was brought to me to be neutered because “he was getting a bit unpredictable.”
Ah, that unpredictable word again!
This man was most likely not being candid with me about the extent of Titan’s behavioral problems.
He mentioned that more people who used to trust Titan “were afraid of him,” and that it was getting harder and harder to curb some destructive behaviors. There are many accounts of wolf-dog hybrids eating through walls and garages; digging out of elaborate enclosures; and stalking, injuring or killing other pets and sometimes children.
As a good friend of mine used to say about being asked to neuter an aggressive dog in order to change the behavior: “I’m removing testicles. I’m not performing a lobotomy.”
Truer words were never said about a wolf-dog hybrid. Trying to alter a wolf-dog hybrid’s instinctual behaviors by altering his reproductive status is not going to work.
In this video, a woman who rescued a wolf-dog hybrid explains why you need to do your research and think twice before getting one of your own as a pet:
“It’s Not Their Fault”
It’s not the wolfdog’s fault when:
- They pace relentlessly in a suburban backyard.
- They are docile with humans and children until they are not or act out unpredictably.
- They eat through house walls or scale 6-foot fences to try and escape.
Most sadly of all, it’s not their fault when they cannot be contained or trusted by their humans and are relinquished to a shelter, caged inhumanely or killed.
The luckiest ones, it seems, wind up in good sanctuaries where they are free to roam and choose how much human interaction they want, but most sanctuaries operate at capacity and cannot take in all animals in need of a place to live out their lives. Those that are turned away from wolf sanctuaries are often killed.
As a veterinarian and lover of all animals, I’ve found that treating wolf-dog hybrids and counseling people on how to manage them is fraught with challenges.
Many people interested in buying a wolf-dog hybrid are not qualified to train and house them. This is no surprise to me. I’ve had many clients, even great dog people, who became overwhelmed by a difficult Beagle or an obnoxious Bichon, not to mention the challenges imposed by more classically difficult dog breeds such as Akitas, some of the Northern breeds, and guard dogs whose instincts are closer to the call of the wild.
Speaking of the famous Jack London novel that most kids read in grade school, I’m so happy the recent Call to the Wild remake starring Harrison Ford stays true to the novel and stars Buck, a Saint Bernard cross, not a wolf-hybrid looking dog.
Hopefully, a resurgence in popularity of this novel might show people how strong the call of the wild truly is.
Oh, and let’s hope this movie doesn’t bring about an unhealthy interest and increase in Saint Bernards! It never ends…
- “Wolf Ecology and Behavior.” Western Wildlife Outreach. http://westernwildlife.org/gray-wolf-outreach-project/biology-behavior-4/.
- Terrill, Ceiridwen. “The Lives of Captive Wolves: You Can Take the Wolf Out of the Wild, But You Can’t…” The Montana Pioneer. January 2012. https://montanapioneer.com/the-lives-of-captive-wolves/.
- “FAQ’s: Common Questions & Concerns.” W.O.L.F. Sanctuary. https://wolfsanctuary.co/f-a-q/.
- “Raising Wolf-Dogs.” Cesar’s Way. June 18, 2015. https://www.cesarsway.com/raising-wolf-dogs/.
- Davis, Maia. “Hybrid Breed of Wolf, Dog Can Pack Nasty Disposition.” Los Angeles Times. June 29, 1993. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1993-06-29-me-8100-story.html.
- Lowrey, Annie. “What Do Wolfdogs Want?” The Atlantic. Feb. 2, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/02/what-do-wolfdogs-want/605896/.
- Schindler Connors, Martha. “Do Wolfdogs Make Good Pets?” Bark. May 2011, updated June 2018. https://thebark.com/content/do-wolfdogs-make-good-pets.
- Yin, Sophia, DVM. “Wolf Hybrids: The Best of Both Worlds…or Not?.” Cattledog Publishing. July 10, 2012. https://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/wolf-hybrids-the-best-of-both-worlds-or-not/.
- Gácsi, M. et al. “Species-Specific Differences and Similarities in the Behavior of Hand-Raised Dog and Wolf Pups in Social Situations With Humans. Developmental Psychobiology 47, no. 2 (Sept. 2005): 111–122. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16136572.
- “Aggressive Pets and Wolf Hybrids.” VIN, 2015–2020.