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Do Wolfdogs Make Good Pets?

For centuries, wolves — incredibly charismatic, highly social and extremely intelligent — have held a special place in our consciousness, starring in as many nightmares as they have in paintings and pop songs. With their bigger brains, stronger muscles, and teeth and jaws many times more powerful than any dog’s, they’re also quite dangerous, capable of killing an elk, a moose, even a bison.

 

It’s both understandable and surprising that people want to take a bit of that wildness home in the shape of a wolf/dog mix — or “wolfdog” — which some consider to represent the best of both worlds: a dog’s friendly companionship paired with a wolf’s good looks and untamed nature. Buy a wolfdog, the thinking goes, and live out your Jack London fantasies, even if you’re in Akron rather than Anchorage.

 

As with many things, reality is not so simple. Wolfdogs are perhaps the most misunderstood — and, many would argue, mismanaged — animals in America. Advocates say they can be wonderful pets, while opponents argue that they’re unpredictable, untrainable and inherently dangerous. They’re permitted in some places, forbidden in others and are showing up on breedban lists, along with Pits and other so-called “dangerous breeds.”

  

What’s more, there’s no approved rabies vaccination for wolfdogs. While the federal government officially sees them as domestic pets (and leaves their regulation to individual states and municipalities), they’re treated as wild animals when it comes to rabies. Thus, the wolfdog who bites a person can be considered a rabies risk — even if he’s been vaccinated — because the USDA, which regulates veterinary medicines, does not extend approval for use of the standard rabies vaccine with “hybrids” (the vaccine is approved for use in dogs, cats, ferrets and horses). Euthanasia is necessary, the USDA says, because the only reliable test for rabies requires an examination of the animal’s brain.

  

Wolfdog owners are encouraged to vaccinate their animals, but to do so, they have to make a tough choice: lie to their veterinarian about the animal’s lineage or sign a waiver stating that they understand that the vaccine is being used “off-label” on a hybrid animal and thus cannot be relied upon to deliver full protection against rabies, and that their animal can be impounded and put down if it bites someone — a high-stakes gamble, and one for which the wolfdog could pay with his life.

 

When it comes to their legal status, the regulations are literally all over the map. At the time of this article’s publication, it’s illegal to keep one as a pet in Alaska, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Dakota and Rhode Island. However, in some of these states — Alaska, Michigan and North Dakota — a wolfdog can be “grandfathered” in. Other states — Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and Utah — don’t regulate ownership on a state level, instead leaving it up to individual counties. Among the states that allow wolfdogs, many require the owner to obtain a permit, or mandate registration and/or confinement in specific kinds of cages. In some states (New York, for example), that means getting a “dangerous animal” permit — the same type needed to keep a lion.

 

And, legal or not, wolfdogs pose significant behavioral challenges for owners, many of whom are unable or unwilling to meet them, thus creating a large population of unwanted animals who wind up chained in backyards, abandoned or euthanized.

 

“These are beautiful animals, and a lot of people are attracted to something that’s exotic and different,” says Nicole Wilde, a wolfdog expert and author of Wolfdogs: A–Z (nicolewilde.com). “They want to own a piece of the wild, and they often say that the wolf is their spiritual sign or totem animal. Unfortunately, they don’t realize that it’s not really the same thing as having a wolf in their living room.”

 

Like Pit Bulls and pornography, wolfdogs can be tough to identify, regardless of laws passed to limit them. Several years ago, the USDA released a report estimating that there were about 300,000 wolfdogs in the US; how they came to this metric is unclear, as the numbers are impossible to nail down. Some people deny their pets’ heritage, while others claim their 100 percent dogs are part wolf. In fact, experts say that the vast majority of animals sold (or bragged about) as wolfdogs actually possess very low wolf content, or none at all.

 

Part of the problem is that there’s no clear definition of what a wolfdog is, says Nancy Brown, director of Full Moon Farm (fullmoonfarm.org), a wolfdog rescue and sanctuary in Black Mountain, N.C. Most experts use the term to describe an animal with a pure wolf in its family, no more than four or five generations back. But there’s no way of proving any animal’s pedigree, as there is no breed registry (and no such thing as “papers” for a wolf or wolfdog, no matter what those who breed them contend). Genetic testing is theoretically possible but, as it is reserved for wildlife management and law-enforcement agencies, is essentially unavailable to individuals. Phenotyping — having an expert evaluate an animal’s physical and behavioral characteristics — remains the most accessible way to identify a wolfdog. Unfortunately, few are trained in phenotyping wolfdogs and, as a result, many dogs are erroneously labeled.

 

Even if you could draw its family tree, there’s no way to predict an animal’s “wolfiness,” says Stephen L. Zawistowski, PhD, executive vice president and science advisor for the ASPCA. “I’ve seen ads for animals that are ‘98 percent pure wolf,’ but these are bogus numbers,” he says. “These claims are based on the misguided belief that genes blend like food coloring: if you take half red and half blue, you get a nice, even purple.” In reality, he says, genes “blend” more like marbles. Say you have a dog, represented by 20 red marbles, and a wolf, represented by 20 blue ones. If you breed the two, you’ll get 10 marbles from each parent, so you’ll have half of each color; this is an F1 (Filial 1, or first filial generation) cross. But in subsequent generations, you’ll get a random assortment of red and blue from each parent. So the individual offspring of two F1, 50/50 wolfdogs (an F2 cross, a generation removed from full wolf) could have anywhere from three-quarters wolf genes and one-quarter dog genes to three-quarters dog and one-quarter wolf — yet all will be considered one-half wolf. Thus, he says, you can see enormous variations among wolfdogs, even those who come from the same litter.

  

Knowing an individual animal’s filial number — the number of generations it is removed from a pure wolf — is probably the best way to speculate about its future behavior and potential problems, says Kim Miles, vice president of the Florida Lupine Association (florida lupine.org), a wolfdog advocacy group. “Wolfdogs aren’t easily pegged because they’re essentially a combination of wild and domesticated animals.” According to Miles, the biggest difference between a wild and a domestic animal is its tractability, or the ease with which it can be managed or controlled. “A dog is like a 12-year-old child, and a wolf is like a 35-year-old man. 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.”

 

Experts agree that the vast majority of wolfdog breeders are selling dogs with little or no wolf content, despite the fact that the animals fetch as much as $2,500 apiece. Moreover, the majority of “wolfdogs” being kept as pets — and being surrendered to shelters and sanctuaries — are all dog, too. “I’d say about 70 percent of the so-called ‘wolfdogs’ out there are not wolfdogs at all,” notes Ken Collings, director of Wolfdog Rescue Resources, Inc. (wrr-inc.org), a national rescue organization headquartered in Stafford, Va. “Individuals take Malamutes, Shepherds and other dogs and cross-breed them until they get an animal who looks like a wolf. And because most people [who want a wolfdog] are uneducated [about them] and have no idea what they’re looking at, they buy it.”

 

Unfortunately, people who like the idea of owning a fearsome predator as well as those with a misguided nature fetish often don’t understand what they’re getting into. In many cases, a person will think he has had experience with wolfdogs in the past — maybe he had or knew an animal who he thought was a hybrid but was, in fact, all dog — and decides to get a wolfdog puppy. “Only this time, he gets the real thing,” Collings says. “And by the time the pup is five or six months old, [she’s] eaten the couch or clawed [her] way through the drywall.”

  

Of course, not all wolfdogs behave the same way, and there’s probably more variety in behavior among wolfdogs than any other kind of dog. “You have to remember that a wolfdog is not a wolfdog is not a wolfdog,” says Brown. “There’s no such thing as ‘typical.’”

 

“A high-content animal is probably going to act a lot more ‘wolfie’ than a low-content animal,” adds Wilde. “With a high-content wolfdog, you might start out with the puppy in the house and then, as he hits adolescence, you’ll be building an enclosure outside. You’ll have to.” It’s for just these reasons that many experts, including Wilde, discourage people from breeding wolfdogs, or buying wolfdog pups from breeders.

 

“The average dog owner won’t deal with their Beagle, and can’t handle an ordinary dog’s behavior problems,” says Wilde, who rescued a wolf and two wolfdogs several years ago. She can personally attest to the challenges of keeping these beautiful canines. “I worked with them to the point that I could look between their paw pads and look at their teeth — and give them tummy rubs — but I never forgot what they really were.”

 

Editors’ Note: In our opinion, despite their undeniable beauty and appeal, deliberately breeding or purchasing wolfdogs as companion animals does a disservice to both Canis lupus and Canis lupus familiaris as well as to the individual animal. If you love wolves, honor their ancient connection with our domestic dogs by joining the effort to preserve their habitat and maintain their status as a federally protected species. HSUS (hsus.org) and the Defenders of Wildlife (defenders.org) are just two of many groups working on their behalf.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 62: Nov/Dec 2010
Martha Schindler Connors writes about health, fitness and nutrition and is a former senior editor at Natural Health. In her free time, she volunteers with Pointer Rescue (pointerrescue.org). martha-connors.com
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Submitted by Beware Pseudo S... | December 5 2012 |

No dog can be a quarter wolf. Dogs and wolves are different species, and one of the defining traits of a species is the ability to mate with one another and produce fertile offspring. Cross-species hybrids are infertile and cannot mate (that's why a donkey and horse can make a mule, but mules themselves can't make more mules). So yes, half-wolves do exist, but if anyone tells you they own a quarter-wolf dog, they're misinformed.

Submitted by Susan M. | May 30 2013 |

The statement above is incorrect, because dogs and wolves are *not* different species. The domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris) is a subspecies of the gray wolf, Canis lupus. Dog-wolf hybrids remain fully interfertile with both dogs or wolves beyond the first generation.

Speciation is a *process.* The definition of a species as a population being unable to produce fertile offspring with a different species is useful, but is in some cases arbitrary. The coyote, Canis latrans, is classed as a different species than the wolf (and by extension, domestic dog). In the case of coyote-dog hybrids, it can take several generations of interbreeding, not one, for health and fertility problems to manifest. There is reason to believe, however, that the coyote is much more interfertile with the wild wolf than with the domestic dog, and that ongoing hybridization is going on in the wild between coyotes and wolves in some areas of North America. Genetic analysis of the red wolf of the southeastern U.S. indicates it is a hybrid species - a combination, over many generations, of wolf and coyote.

Submitted by Kira | October 1 2013 |

A great reference is a book called PART WILD by ceiridwen terrill. She covers her experience with the wolf-dog she owned and actually DOES the research in understanding the orgins of wolves and dogs, and if they are linked. She visits research facilities and so on.

Submitted by David | June 7 2013 |

A wolfdog is fertile and can reproduce. Dogs and wolves both have 78 chromosomes. Your mule example refers to a hybrid with an uneven number of chromosomes, but even then there are gender scenarios that can result in A fertile donkey/Horse hybrid....

Submitted by Isabelle | January 3 2013 |

I own a wold/husky hybrid. Her name is Lisha. The wolf in her does NOT make her wild, or crazy, or even dangerous. Instead it makes her intelligent, beautiful, and courageous. It really kills me a little bit every time I hear someone calling her evil, or dangerous. Lisha is my life. DEAL WITH IT!

Submitted by Mik | January 12 2014 |

But is your dog a safe good dog? All wild animals are good but like the article stated people dont know what there getting into.

Submitted by Isabelle | January 3 2013 |

I own a wold/husky hybrid. Her name is Lisha. The wolf in her does NOT make her wild, or crazy, or even dangerous. Instead it makes her intelligent, beautiful, and courageous. It really makes me so sad every time I hear someone calling her evil, or dangerous. Lisha is my life. DEAL WITH IT!

Submitted by Marysue | January 14 2013 |

That's better than being killed by Lisha, I suppose.

Submitted by Wolf-dog owner | November 4 2013 |

I agree that not all people would be the best owners of a wolf-dog. Anyone that is planning on making a wolf-dog their pet needs to be prepared for the amount of work essential to caring for a hybrid. They need constant attention when it comes to training, entertaining, and maintaining their fur coat. This dog is not for the unexperienced. They are big (120 lbs) so they need a lot of room. They also need CONSTANT watching while they are young. This is not because they are unpredictable, but they are extremely mischievous. They love trouble. And by trouble, I mean stealing couch pillows to take outside to play with. My family has a wolf-dog and he is one of the most caring dogs I have ever known. He is five years old and is 3/4 wolf. His grandfather was full wolf, so he's not that far from pure wolf. However, despite the common misbeliefs, he has been a great addition to our family. He loves all people and all dogs. He loves attention and his favorite thing is when someone comes to our house and he gets to greet them. He also loves our cats. He plays with them (allowing them to beat him up), lets them eat his food, and panics when they get outside. When they come back home, he checks them out, sniffing life crazy, to make sure they are okay. Wolves have gone through many decades of negative stigmas. What most people don't know is that they are not evil creatures. At one time, they lived as companions of humans. Yes, they are predators, but they kill to eat, not to just kill.

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