HOWL Colorado

Living with wolves: Wolves and dogs, like oil and water

Jess Edberg wrote an article explaining why wolves attack dogs and how owners can effectively protect their dogs with relatively easy and simple steps.

It is well known that wolves are territorial in nature and will aggressively defend their home ranges from other wolves. What may not be as well known is that wolves will also defend against and attack domestic dogs living in or visiting wolf territories. Although domestic dogs do not have instincts for territorial behavior as strong as the wolf, wolves often perceive dogs as a threat nonetheless.

Domestic dogs typically do not hunt for their food or fight against each other for space when kept as pets. However, the root of this behavior is firmly established in the wild wolf and regardless of breed, the presence of a dog sniffing about can initiate an unpleasant encounter with the wolf’s territorial instincts.

Generally speaking, pet owners living in and visiting wolf country have a good handle on ways to avoid negative interactions between their furry family member and wild wolves – or any wildlife for that matter. Yet inevitably, each year wolves depredate or kill numerous dogs around the world.

In 2009, wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan killed 37 dogs and in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming wolves killed 24. Although the incidence of wolf attacks on dogs in these areas are low relative to the number of wolves present (an estimated 6,000 combined), it does not diminish the impact the loss of each pet had on its owner.

Additionally, the emotional response to dog depredation by wolves, and subsequent media reporting, can be a significant factor in influencing public opinion about wolves.

There are several ways a dog can get into a life-threatening situation with a wolf or a pack of wolves. Additionally, wolves don’t see all dogs as a threat, some are viewed as prey. Unfortunately, many of the scenarios that end in the loss of a dog could have been prevented.

Simply being in wolf territory can mark a dog as a target since it is natural behavior for a wolf to confront a canine intruder in its territory. Keeping a dog on a leash when hiking in the wilderness, walking in a rural area, or letting the dog out to relieve itself may reduce such an encounter by keeping the pet on trail and in a more open area. When dogs are allowed to roam and investigate away from the owner, an approaching wolf may not be seen.

A fence or kennel may also help avoid depredation, however the height of the fencing and the presence of a roof make a difference.

This past winter, a small dog was taken from a dog kennel just outside of Ely, Minnesota. Although the small-breed dog did have a door to go indoors, the height of the fence was lower than five feet and a predator was able to get in, snatch up the dog and get out in a matter of seconds, presumably by jumping over the fence. There was little evidence as to what predator took the little dog but tracks present indicated a wolf was the culprit.

It is difficult to determine in some cases what criteria wolves use to distinguish a dog from being a threat or a meal. Evidence suggests wolves usually see larger breed dogs such as black labs as competition based on their size since they are closer in stature to a wolf. Whereas a smaller dog such as pugs are viewed as a food source as they look more like the prey a wolf may hunt such as a rabbit or beaver.

Regardless of the reason for the attack, in many cases the dog is partially or wholly consumed.

What can dog owners do to avoid a situation where their pet may be seriously injured or killed?

As mentioned above, keeping a dog close and preferably tethered when exercising goes a long way to avoid a negative encounter with wolves. As with other wildlife, wolves can become accustomed to vehicle or pedestrian traffic on a road or trail within their territories. Typically, wolves utilize the same thoroughfares yet, slip out of sight when humans approach. Keeping a dog from wandering out of sight may significantly decrease the chances of an attack.

Being an alert owner may also prevent dog attacks. By avoiding areas with fresh wolf signs or a known rendezvous site, owners put a physical distance between dogs and wolves.

What about at home? Living in wolf country has responsibilities just as living in grizzly bear or mountain lion country does. There are steps humans must take to avoid wolf-human contact such as storing food and waste securely and out of reach of animals, feeding pets in a secure area or indoors and housing pets in a secure area if kept or allowed to roam outdoors.

Many people choose to allow their dog to roam freely in “the yard” while they enjoy the outdoors. Although this may be a safe practice 90 percent of the time, keep in mind that for some dogs, a squirrel, rabbit or deer is too tempting to ignore. Once the dog runs off and out of sight, the proximal safety the owner provides is null and void.

There are also cases where a wolf exhibits bold or aggressive behavior toward a dog even with the owner present or in close proximity. It is important to understand the behavior directed toward the dog is not necessarily directed toward the human. The wolf’s territorial nature drives the behavior to eliminate any competition – in some cases at all costs. This may mean they suppress their natural avoidance behavior towards humans to protect their resources.

In a few cases, wolves have had prior experience with humans and dogs leading to a loss of that avoidance behavior. In these cases, the wolf may approach the dog even when on a leash held by the owner. It is essential that any wolf exhibiting fearless, bold or aggressive behavior in the presence of a human be reported to the authorities.

Owning a dog is a significant commitment. With this commitment comes a great responsibility to safeguard the pet from dangers that can be avoided. In most cases, wolf depredation can be avoided with minimal work involved for the owner.

Jess Edberg, information services director – International Wolf Center

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