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Revisiting the Differences among Wolves, Dogs, and Wolf-Dog Hybrids

Jess Edberg, Information Services Director for the International Wolf Center, published the following on the center’s official site –

Wolf and wolf-dog hybrid ownership by private citizens has long been a contentious issue in the United States.

Recently this issue gained more fuel as media coverage of an animal purchased online through Craig’s List was reported as a wolf or wolf-dog hybrid and potentially dangerous. This misunderstanding ignited a renewed discussion on whether wolf or wolf-dog hybrid ownership is good or bad.

Wolf-dog hybrid (hybrid for short) is a term used to describe an animal that is part wolf and part domestic dog. Dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) and wolves (Canis lupus) share an evolutionary past and thus share many physical and behavioral traits.

Dogs evolved from wolves through a centuries-long process of domestication. Domestication is the process by which a wild animal adapts to living with humans by being selectively bred by humans over thousands of years. Through this process, a dog’s behavior, life cycle and physiology have become permanently altered from that of a wolf.

Wolves can interbreed with any type of dog, and their offspring are capable of producing offspring themselves. Although hybrids can occur naturally in the wild, they are rare because the territorial nature of wolves leads them to protect their home ranges from intruding canines such as dogs, coyotes and other wolves.

Governed by instinct, wolves in the wild and wolves in captivity will exhibit behavior that is relatively consistent. Their behavioral characteristics have been studied and observed for many decades by researchers, and much has been published about their social dynamics, hunting behavior and territorial nature. Thanks to the researchers’ hard work, we are able to understand the wolf’s reactions to different situations based on their inherent instincts. However, just as with any wild animal, their behavior will always retain some unpredictability.

People who own hybrids often find that their pet’s behavior makes it a challenge to care for. The diversity of genetic composition even within one litter of hybrid pups leads to a wide range of appearances and behavior patterns among all hybrids, thus making their behavior inconsistent and more difficult to predict.

Wolves and dogs mature at different rates, making the physical and mental development of a hybrid animal unpredictable. Sexual maturity of wolves signals a shift in hormone quantity and balance. This hormonal change is often coupled with behavioral changes in the animal.

When a wolf reaches sexual maturity at anywhere from 1 to 4 years of age, its role in the pack often changes. Pups become adults and are expected to contribute to the pack. Status becomes much more important, and the animal may begin testing its pack mates to achieve a higher-ranking position in the pack. Testing or challenging of pack mates can be transferred onto a human “leader” when a wolf is kept in captivity, causing the animal to be perceived as stubborn, bold or even aggressive.

Domestic dogs tend to mature much earlier (6 to 8 months of age) and have significantly fewer hormonal changes, but the challenging behavior still exists, although it is typically less intense in most breeds compared to wolves. Hybrids can exhibit any combination of wolf or dog maturation rates and behavioral changes.

Additionally, the territorial instinct of wolves to protect their food source by establishing a home range through defecation and urination may be transferred to the owner’s home. A couch or corner of the room may take the place of a tree or rock. Dogs, on the other hand, through domestication, have lost that instinct to urinate or defecate anywhere they feel is their territory and are easily trained to eliminate in a designated area.

Hybrids, being a mix of these two distinct behavior patterns, may have any degree of territorial or testing behavior—from one end of the spectrum to the other.

Whether or not hybrids make good pets is perhaps the biggest contention. Some people have outstanding success with hybrids as pets so to make a blanket statement is difficult. The reality is that there is an animal with a genetic stew that includes contributions from a line of dogs that has been domesticated over the centuries compiled with a contribution of an animal that has not.

Wolves are social by nature and demand a great amount of attention and interaction from their pack. This expectation translates onto the owner when a wolf is kept in captivity. Often, potential hybrid owners overlook the important task of understanding the nature of the wild wolf and the domestic dog and become overwhelmed when their “pet” begins to show behavioral traits that are unexpected and unmanageable.

One organization educating the public about the issues of wolf and hybrid ownership is Wolf Park. Director Erich Klinghammer explains that while many individuals do make an effort to become educated about the potential outcome of owning a wolf or hybrid, others unfortunately do not. This results in the animals being kept in an environment where their social and behavioral needs are not met. In these situations, the animals frequently spend their days in small cages or tied to chains, with very poor quality of life.

When any animal, wild or domestic, is kept in conditions inadequate to their mental and physical needs, there is a safety risk for humans. This risk is almost always preventable through proper preparation before the animal is purchased and continued through responsible care for the animal over the duration of its life.

Every year, thousands of pet wolves or hybrids are abandoned, rescued or euthanized because people purchase an animal they were not prepared to care for. A few facilities exist around the country that take in unwanted canines, but their resources are usually very limited. Education about the behavior, health and containment of wolves and hybrids and about laws pertinent to their ownership before people buy may prevent hardships for both human and animal.

– Jess Edberg, Information Services Director — International Wolf Center

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