When dogs are pushed to mix together closely with wolves or coyotes, they will sometimes interbreed and produce fertile offspring. In the wild this presents a challenge to the conservation of many different wolf and wolf-like species around the world. In captivity, we are confronted with the phenomenon of the wolf dog as a companion or privately held captive exotic animal.
The domestic dog is technically a sub-species of the wolf, so the extent to which a dog is a “wolf dog” (also called hybrids) is a matter of degree. And a certain amount of of cross breeding has occurred throughout history. These days wolf dog crosses are normally made with dogs of a similar body type such as Malamutes, Huskies, and German Shepherds. This is despite the fact that ancient dog breeds like the Shar-Pei and Basenji are actually genetically closer to the ancestral wolf.
Many shelters and experts consider dogs with a pure wolf ancestor within the last five generations to be a wolf dog. Given that capture of wolves is illegal and few wolf owners breed them with dogs, very few deliberately bred American wolf dogs are recent crosses. Wolf dog breeders tend to describe wolf dogs as low, medium, or high content depending on the proportion of wolf ancestry (sometimes creatively calculated).
So if, for example, you breed two wolf dogs, each with one pure wolf parent (50 percent), their offspring would also be counted as 50 percent, and any similarly bred offspring, even five or ten generation after the initial outcross to the wolf. However, later generation animals may be very different due to the arbitrary redistribution of genes and unavoidable selection for dogs more adapted to domestic settings. On the open market, high-content puppies are more valuable and many pure dogs are fraudulently sold as wolf dogs.
Wolf dog breeds have been established at various periods in history: the Saarloos hound in the 1920s, as well as a wolf dog breed established in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s and Italy in the 1960s. The breeds are considered to now be domesticated breeds of dog and not, despite their names, hybrids.
On the other hand, wolf genes are sporadically reintroduced because first generation wolf dogs are still accidentally produced when a female dog in heat strays and encounters a male wolf. Owners suspecting such a cross can use a genetic test offered by UC Davis to detect wolf genetics in the puppies. The test is not reliable beyond three generations of descent from the wolf. The information may be important as wolf dogs may need to be kept more like captive exotic animals than docile pets once they start to mature, and owners for these demanding first generation hybrids must be selected with care.
Ownership of wolf dogs is illegal or highly restricted in most states as they are considered potentially dangerous. Nevertheless it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of wolf dogs are kept in the United States. As such, many veterinarians cannot legally treat a dog they know to be a wolf dog and owners often misrepresent the breed of their animal. (Especially as it is official policy that that rabies vaccine is not effective with wolf dogs, though that is a decision that many consider to be more a matter of policy than science).
Wolf dogs show variable level of “domesticated” behavior, which becomes clear as they outgrow puppyhood. Many need to be kept in a highly secure outdoor enclosure suitable for a wild animals rather than in the home.
Wolf dogs being kept in substandard housing, or that end up in rescues and sanctuaries, has become a problem. Most shelters will not adopt known wolf dogs due to a high profile case in the 1980s, when a recently adopted wolf dog escaped and killed a child.
Many breeders currently operating make blanket claims that wolf dogs are “not aggressive.” The reality is more complex. Wolf dogs inherit an arbitrary amount of wolf genotype and phenotype. There are accounts online of two wolf dogs from the same litter raised in the same home where one was a dog-like pet and the other would not tolerate human contact and was euthanized for fear aggression.
It is hard to judge the range of temperament found in the current population of American wolf dogs, as breeders and owners tend to want to downplay the stigma but also emphasize the “wild” mystique of these hybrids — and very little reliable data is available, especially in states where ownership is illegal.
Given that wolf dog behavior will vary on a continuum from domesticated to wild, it is understandable that the authorities do not want to open the door to unlimited breeding and ownership of wolf hybrids. The trend nationwide is towards restricting ownership of exotic animals and by extension crossbreeds of these species.
In states where ownership is illegal I think that to own a wolf dog is to place your animal at risk of seizure and potentially euthanasia. And a large population of these animals represent a higher risk of escape and interbreeding with wolves than domestic dogs. In general, the existence of the hybrid risks introducing negative traits back into both parent populations, and the hybrids themselves are highly challenging animals to care for, with an elevated chance of being neglected or maltreated.
So what is the justification for breeding these animals? Basically people think they are cool; sometimes for deep spiritual reasons, but often for shallow macho reasons. It seems to me that if people like a wolfish look or temperament in their dogs, there are breeds with a history of backcrossing, where many generations of selective breeding have established all the necessary features of domestication, such as readily bonding with humans and reduced emotional reactivity (for example, fear and aggression).
As an individual I can understand being fascinated with wolf dogs. I personally have often pondered the possibilities of owning exotic pets like the Russian strain of domesticated foxes or the world largest rodent, the capybara. It is certainly possible to be a responsible owner of any of these animals.
I oppose discrimination against breeds, but it is my opinion that wolf dogs should not be deliberately bred. Responsible dog owners who understand the special responsibility of caring for a wolf dog, and who live in a state where ownership is legal, should seek out animals in need of rescue or rehoming — and be prepared to house them in an enriched outdoor enclosure if necessary.
There is a reason our bond with the wolf ultimately created the dog. Because dogs are safer choices for us, and they have more fun living with us than animals who still carry an instinct to fear humans, which they might never fully overcome.
What do you think? Should people breed or buy wolf dogs? Let us know in the comments!
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About the author: Emily Kane is a New Zealand-born animal behaviorist of the throw-back radical behaviorist type, albeit with a holistic-yuppie-feminist-slacker twist. She spent many years as an animal behavior researcher and is now more of an indoor paper-pushing researcher. Her early dog-related education came from Jess the Afghan Hound and Border Collies Bandit and Tam. It is now being continued by her own dogs and extended dog family and some cats (and her three aquatic snails Gala, Granny, and Pippin — they think of themselves as dog-esque).