What is a wolfdog?
Before looking more closely at why people may want to own such animal and what they may be letting themselves into, we should first define what a wolfdog is. Amongst dog breeders wolfdogs are breeds that were originally created to hunt wolves in the wild. These include breeds like the huge Irish and Scottish Wolfhounds, the Russian Borzoi, and even the Chinese Shar-pei. When “wolfers” talk of wolfdogs they refer to crossbreeds between any domestic dog and a wolf instead. The term “hybrid”, often used in this connection, is basically wrong because it does not meet the scientific definition of “hybrid” (usually a cross between two natural species or subspecies), and Canis familiaris, the domestic dog, is not a natural species.
A wolfdog is not like a dog and therefore one should not expect it to behave like one, even if it looks more like a dog than a wolf. In fact, you cannot ever be quite sure of what you are getting when you acquire a wolfdog pup. While certain dog breeds are known to have certain behavioural characteristics, and wolves also follow certain general behavioural rules, the mixing together of the two also mixes up these guidelines, the extent of which then often surprises the owner. The more different the two mating partners are in character, generally and as individuals, the more unpredictable are their offspring.
Most common are wolfdogs obtained from crossing a wolf with a German Shepherd or a Malamute, and crosses with the Rottweiler, Doberman, Boerebull and various others have been attempted. The Malamute is thought by many to be the domestic dog most closely related to the wolf, although some DNA research actually suggests this to be the Groenendael (the black, long-haired Belgian Shepherd), at least as far as the European wolf is concerned. The resulting pups may eventually look either more like the parent dog or the parent wolf, and it is here that a lot of confusion arises as to the “amount of wolf blood” in a wolfdog. One has to understand that there is a difference between genotype (the genetic composition of an organism) and phenotype (the outward appearance of an organism). One simple example may illustrate this: if you cross A with B, the genetic composition (genotype) is 50% A plus 50% B throughout the litter, no exceptions. Depending on which genes dominate over others, the individuals in this litter may either look (exhibit a phenotype) more like A or B or a mix of both. Their genotype, however, is always 50/50, and trying to evaluate each individual of such litter with a percentage as to their “wolf blood” is therefore utter nonsense. If this 50/50 mix is now mated with a 100% wolf or 100% dog, the arithmetical genotype is 75% vs. 25% of this or that. It does not mean, however, that the phenotype shifts accordingly throughout the litter, although statistically it does (visible when the sample size is large enough). As with all statistics there is a range between both near 100 and 0%, so that even a quarter wolfdog (25% wolf genes) may well exhibit the phenotype of a purebred wolf. Its offspring, however, are likely to reveal eventually that it was not purebred at all, because the genotype will again express itself in a range of phenotypes.
The phenotype does not apply to the animal’s appearance alone, but also to its disposition, attitude, and instinctive habits. Now consider this: mating partner A has been bred for countless generations to be man’s best friend, to be loyal and trusting and do everything to please him. In contrast, mating partner B has been persecuted relentlessly by man for thousands of years, considered one of his worst enemies, and has learnt to never trust but always fear him. Mixing these two fundamentally different attitudes must have some effect, don’t you think? Some animal psychologists therefore presume that many wolfdogs embody schizophrenic (“split”) personalities of entirely opposite polarization, and many problems with wolfdogs may in fact be explained by just that.
Animals with 50% or more wolf DNA are for all intents and purposes and in their own minds wolves, no matter whether they look like it or not. A wolfdog can look like the perfect example of the dog breed it has been crossed with but still behave like a purebred wolf. The same may apply to wolfdogs with a lesser percentage of wolf DNA.
Another good example is what kind of dog “character” you cross with a wolf. If you cross a generally friendly and unaggressive breed with a wolf you might be lucky to get an animal that you can handle without greater problems. True herding dogs are not aggressive towards other animals, unless they have been trained to, and that suits the naturally unaggressive character of the wolf much better than if you would cross a wolf with a dog breed that is bred for aggression. In such case the aggressive nature of the dog would clash with the unaggressive nature of the wolf, and you might easily end up with an unpredictable animal.
Now, are all wolfdogs unpredictable “fruitcakes”?
Statistically they are, but again there is a range from near 100 to 0%, and you may just hit it lucky, not so bad, or draw a blank.
So why do people breed wolfdogs in the first place?
There are a variety of reasons. Some dog breeders simply attempt to strengthen the bloodlines of certain precious breeds with the genes of a distantly related animal. As the creation and maintenance of purebred dogs often necessitates inbreeding, especially when the gene pool is rather small, genetically fixed weaknesses often manifest themselves that cannot be eliminated (bred out) with stock from within that breed. However, to remove the wolf characteristics (phenotypic manifestations) from that bloodline will again necessitate intense inbreeding with the consequent negative effects. Crossing a wolf into a dog breed’s bloodline is therefore not really a solution.
Another motivation stems from the general misconception of how wolves are. Their intelligence, power, endurance, boldness, and resistance to hardship, are equally feared and admired. By crossing these characteristics into a dog bloodline breeders hoped to create new dog breeds that showed these attributes, but would still be eager to please their masters. Here the phenomenon of the difference between genotype and phenotype (as discussed above) led to results not quite expected.
Lastly, it is a basic rule of economics that a demand creates suppliers. People saw a tame wolf or wolfdog in a movie or happened to come across one, and they start looking around for one for themselves. But because they take the tale of “Little Red Riding Hood” too literally, they are now scared that the real thing may turn out to be too dangerous. They want to play it safe, they are after a wolf that is “watered down” to something less threatening. They believe that a wolfdog must certainly be more dog-like, with the looks of a wolf, and breeders find themselves tempted with an opportunity to increase their turnovers. Unfortunately most of these breeders lack a proper knowledge of wolves, and therefore buyers rarely get any practical information about what they let themselves into. The sad result is that by far most of the oh-so-cute pups do eventually not die of old age because their owners discover much earlier that this animal is not what they had wanted and expected. The authors of these lines know of some case where it worked out fine, but at the same time they learnt of many others where it did not. For that simple reason it is our opinion that these manmade wolfdogs should not exist in the first place.
What to do if you get a wolfdog by chance?
It may just so happen that you end up with a wolfdog pup. In this case you should brace yourself with the idea that eventually you may be dealing more with a wolf than a dog. If you expect it to behave like one and you treat it accordingly, there will be few surprises and crises. Read the discussion on keeping a wolf as a companion and you may get an impression of what may be coming your way. Also, read everything you can find on wolf behaviour and learn from the experiences and mistakes others made before you.
In a nutshell, wolfdogs are animals with a behavior one would consider as “odd” in a dog, but for them it is absolutely normal. If you have ever had to child-proof your home because of your kids, then you should make friends with the thought of having your home like this forever. Kids grow up – wolfdogs don’t. They may have just enough dog blood in them to lack the good sense of wolves to be afraid of humans, but there is no guarantee for it. But they will always have enough wolf in them to behave like one.
If no wolf and no wolfdog, what then?
If you are after a canine that looks wolfish, but behaves more like a dog, there are a few excellent dog breeds to choose from. The long-haired variety of the German Shepherd is one of them (look out for a specimen from box-rumped breeding stock), the Tervuren (the copper-colored, long-haired variety of the Belgian shepherd) another. The Groenendael (the black, long-haired Belgian Shepherd) would be a prime candidate, too. Good specimens are supremely intelligent and display a lot of wolfish behaviour and habits (training requires a different approach than with most German Shepherds, though). All three breeds are not too difficult to find, but you may want to go for good working dogs rather than show specimens. If you lead a very active lifestyle, a Malamute or Husky may be the right choice as both need daily exercise and love to run long distances. Especially the latter can be quite vocal, though. Rarely seen, difficult to obtain, but surprisingly wolf-like is the Russian Shepherd, a largely unrecognized breed badly neglected in the west. The white German Shepherd, now known as the Canadian Shepherd, may remind you of the Arctic Wolf, especially if you can find a box-rumped, long-legged specimen certified free of hip dysplasia. Large specimens of the Belgian wolfhound with their medium-long off-white coat combine the looks of a tundra wolf with the character of a good family dog.
As you can see, you do have a choice.
As was said before, we strictly oppose the breeding of wolfdogs. We advise people to not even consider buying them. It is senseless and cruel to help create a market for artificial animal creations that are likely to be eventually despised, dumped, and euthanized. There are dog breeds available that combine the looks of a wolf with the temperament of a dog.
If however, after everything you now know about wolfdogs you are still compelled to have one, we cannot help it. All we can do is try and provide you with what you need to know – education is the only answer. We will go on discussing this topic in our monthly newsletters.
If you will grant us one wish – please get the education first and then the animal, not the other way around.