A wolfdog is a mix of a domestic dog and a gray (timber, eastern timber, Great Lakes, Algonquin, deer, arctic/white, Indian, Himalaya, Mexican, etc wolves are, for now, all considered belonging to the 40-something subspecies of the gray wolf), red (Canis rufus; separate species or coyote-gray wolf hybrid? The scientists don’t agree yet.) or Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis, coyote-like in size and built). Most common is the breeding of dogs with gray wolves. As gray wolves and domestic dogs are since the early 1990s reclassified as subspecies, Canis lupis lupis and Canis lupis familiaris respectively, their offspring are technically not hybrids, the cross of two different species.
Genetic research has shown that wolf and dog populations first diverged approximately 14,000 years ago and have interbred only occasionally since. There is some evidence that the shared (wolf)dog-human history goes back to Pleistocene mammoth hunters.
Human-controlled selective breeding of dogs has since the initial domestication increased the dissimilarities between dogs and wolves in both behavior and appearance. Crudely put: friendly, cute, submissive, useful wolfdogs lived; the ones that helped themselves to food or would defend themselves by biting, died.
‘Hybridization’ of dogs and wolves does occur in the wild, often in areas where the human population and their companion animals have encroached on wolf habitat. Where humans and predators meet usually the four-legged (or winged, or finned) animals suffer as a result of habitat destruction, prey depletion and outright persecutions.
Genetic pollution is a concern in wolf recovery areas. It is thought that the wide color variations in wolves and especially black pelts are the result of interbreeding with dogs.
In North America similarly rare coydogs and coywolves form when respectively dogs and wolves ‘mingle’ with coyotes.
Morphological and genetic evidence, however, suggests that all of these interbreeding combinations are rare. The territorial nature of wolves leads them to protect home ranges from intruding canines such as dogs, coyotes and other wolves. Only after the near-extermination of wolves, could coyotes colonize almost the entire North-American continent.
In captivity wolves are bred with Huskies, Malamutes and German shepherds; the latter breed itself the result of breeding with wolfdogs. Other recognized – meaning: accepted as Canis lupis familiaris or domestic dogs – wolfdog-breeds are the Kunming, Saarloos, Hierran and Czechoslovakian wolfdogs.
The reasons for breeding and purchasing wolfdogs vary. Some breeds are used as working dogs for shepherding, border patrolling and other guarding duties, but due to the shy nature of wolves, ‘hybrids’ usually make poor protection dogs.
Other breeders tried to create (unsuccessfully) a dog-breed immune to canine distemper.
The majority of wolfdogs are bred as an exotic pet; man’s ego wanting to own a piece of the wild or imagining the wolf as a spiritual totem animal.
There is no real consensus on how many generations back the pure wolf in the ‘pedigree’ can be to still call a ‘dog’ a wolfdog. Some sources say this should be no more than four or five generations ago.
A first generation wolfdog with one wolf and one dog parent is 50/50 wolf/dog. But after you mix two first generation wolfdogs the resulting animal can contain anywhere between 25 to 75% wolf or dog genes. This diversity of genetic composition even within a litter of ‘hybrid’ pups leads to a wide range of appearances and behaviors and thus unpredictability.
When gaining sexual maturity, wolves undergo a shift in hormone quantity and balance. This hormonal change triggers behavioral changes in the wolf(dog), including a drive for status. The territorial instinct of wolves to protect their food source by establishing a home range through defecation and urination may be transferred to the wolfdog owner’s home. Wolves are social pack animals by nature and demand a great amount of attention and interaction from their household peers.
Telltale signs of high-content wolf in a wolfdog are erect, smaller, well-furred ears on a relatively large head with pronounced cheek-ruff and well-blended colors and markings. He or she will have a long, thick snout, light-colored eyes and black lips and eyeliner. The legs will be long and the tail normally straight.
Many claimed wolfdogs are not wolfdogs at all, but shepherds, huskies and malamutes interbred until the result looks somewhat like a wolf and can be sold for thousands of dollars.
Wolfdogs are controversial. Wolves and dogs share more than 99% of their DNA, but those few aberrant base-sequences make a big difference. Just look at the morphological and behavioral differences between us-humans and chimps, gorillas or orangutans and compare that to the few percentages of DNA difference that separate us genetically.
Dogs went through millennia of domestication, selectively bred by humans for desirable behavior and physiology often far removed from that of a wolf. Wolves and dogs are however inter-fertile, meaning they can breed and produce viable offspring, but the physical characteristics and behavior of an animal created by breeding a wolf to a dog are not predictable. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) and the Wolf Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, amongst others, consider wolfdogs to be wild animals and therefore unsuitable as pets, and support an international ban on the private possession, breeding, and sale of wolfdogs.
Most European nations, many U.S. states and some Canadian provinces have either outlawed the wolfdog entirely or put restrictions on ownership.
For adult humans the issue is not so much danger, as wolves tend to be socially shy and fearful of humans – and rightfully so if you look at what we have done to this species – but the absence of the desired friendly companionship trait of dogs.
When the ‘wolfishness’ takes over in a wolfdog, a child might be considered prey as much as a lamb, rabbit or fawn, while with adults a battle for alpha dominance might ensue within the family.
The tendency of many wolfdogs to dig dens, chew up furniture and other household items, climb fences, escape, show social, territorial or predatory aggression and a resistance to ‘housebreaking’, a dog-kibble diet and other forms of ‘training’, results in wolfdogs ending up dumped by their ignorant, irresponsible ‘owners’ in shelters, abandoned by the roadside or forever chained up in backyards living in their own filth.
If a wolf or a wolfdog doesn’t work out as a pet that is because they are not pets. This is not a wolf or a dog problem, but a people problem.
While wolfdog breeders and other advocates claim they can be wonderful pets, wolfdogs, when surrendered, will in most instances be considered unsuitable for adoption and in many cases be killed.
An often-cited issue is that the rabies vaccine cannot be relied upon to deliver full protection against rabies in wolfs and wolfdogs. Therefore it can only be administered “off-label” on a ‘hybrid’ animal. As a result an animal can be impounded and put down if it bites someone, because the only reliable test for rabies requires an examination of the animal’s brain. Wolf ‘hybrids’ might be confiscated and killed when escaping even without biting someone.
Aside from all the above, wolves are wild animals. They have evolved to roam and hunt for their food in packs, to dig dens and defend a territory. They are intelligent, curious, enterprising predators that do not belong in a house, in a cage or on a leash as a piece of property.
Thus breeding for wolfdogs creates not only a large population of unwanted animals destined to be killed, but also condemns ‘wild genes’ to a frustrating life of captivity.
For both reasons wolfdog breeding should be considered unethical.
The number of extant wolfdogs is impossible to verify, but the USDA estimated a couple of years ago that there were 300,000 in the USA alone.
If you’ve read through the above, it will come as no surprise that sanctuaries have to take in a lot of wolfdogs. It is in most cases the only alternative for death. Wildlife Waystation houses a number of them and they have found their forever home here. The amount of wolf in each of them differs substantially.
Lair was born in 2006 and is a white female. She came to the Waystation when another sanctuary had to close because their caretakers were elderly and could no longer care for their animals. Lair is a very petite, shy wolfdog who loved her mate Arctic, but he unfortunately passed away in 2015. Lair now lives together in a large enclosure with newcomer Colt. Colt arrived in 2016 as an adult. He was retired from the film industry. Colt has clearly taken up the guard duties of their large enclosure, barking at those who approach the chain link fence.
Lair arrived with her daughter Ginny and son Dakota, both born in April 2009, and three male wolfdogs called Woofy, Oshaia (Lair’s original partner) and Rex. The last three have all passed, but Ginny, short for Virginia Wolf, and Dakota still live together and are inseparable. Watching them, the love between these ‘wolves’ is undeniable.
Skagway and Wednesday lived together. Wednesday is, judged by her looks – coloring of her fur and eyes a.o. – more dog than wolf and the floppy ears of Skagway tell a similar story. Wednesday came in alone and was someone’s pet, but they could no longer keep her. Skagway, a male, died in 2016.
Alaska, another white wolfdog, came in from Oregon with a few other wolfdogs. She was retired from the film industry. Her date of birth is unknown. She lives together with Buff and Sage, both males – and hard to tell apart in the photos – who arrived at Wildlife Waystation in 2014. They are housed opposite of Ginny and Dakota with some coyote neighbors.
If after reading this you still decide to devote – not to say sacrifice – your life to a wolf(dog), your first step should be to spay or neuter the animal. DO NOT BREED! DO NOT SUPPORT BREEDING!