The image of a wolf often conjures up romantic ideas of the great American wilderness, a symbol of independence, fortitude and endurance. The advent of the wolf-dog hybrid has convinced many dog-lovers that they can own a superdog, capturing a little piece of romanticism and keeping it right in their own backyards.
But owning such dogs often turns disastrous – so much so that the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has called for the eradication of the hybrid.
"There is a mystique about the wolf and a desire to package that mystique in a more manageable animal," says Dr. Steve Zawistowski, vice-president of the ASPCA and an expert in behavioral genetics. "Unfortunately when you start doing these hybrids, you get strange distributions of genes and they can affect behavioral traits. You can get some pretty unpredictable combinations."
In recent years, the wolf-dog has become arguably the most controversial hybrid in America, its sale banned in at least 10 states. Last fall, Michigan lawmakers enacted a statute requiring wolf-dog owners to prove the hybrid has been sterilized, to keep the animal in a fenced area, and to display a sign reading: "A potentially dangerous wolf-dog cross is kept on this property." The law is being challenged by owners who say the restrictions make it virtually impossible to have the animals at all.
Opponents of the hybrid argue that it has no merits as a domestic animal and that people who buy one might think they are getting a family pet only to realize later that what they have is a wild animal. A study by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association found that wolf-dog hybrids are the fifth most dangerous dog in America, causing 14 fatalities between 1979 and 1998. While the study deems pit bulls and Rottweilers the most dangerous breeds, it bears noting that there are far fewer wolf-dog hybrids in America than there are Rottweilers and pit bulls.
Not People Pets
The problem, experts say, is that wolves are not "people pets."
"Wolves tend to be timid," says Zawistowski. But, he continues, "One of the strange things that will happen if you hybridize dogs and wolves is that you can get an animal that retains the highly aggressive predatory nature of wolves but they are not afraid of people. They will be predatory on children and they will be socially aggressive with adults," Zawistowski warns. "They play for keeps – they don't play games. It is very serious for them." Put simply, telling a wolf-dog to get off your bed can lead to a nasty territorial dispute.
Problems tend to emerge when the wolf-dog reaches maturity between two and three years old, the stage of life where a wolf would typically begin to jostle for prime position in the pack. "That is frequently when it becomes a problem for people who are trying to keep them as pets," Zawistowski explains. "They start challenging the owner for dominance and it requires the owner to be 'on' all the time."
The Way of the Wolf
Being aware is not enough. Owners must be attuned to the way of the wolf. Wolves communicate in signals – like the raising of a tail – and owners are seldom sufficiently aware of signals that might indicate a "challenge." Experts say that when a wolf challenges the dominant, or Alpha, wolf for leadership of the pack, the resulting battle is often intense and bloody. Given that the jaw pressure of a wolf is twice that of a dog – up to 1,500 pounds per square inch – a rumble with a human can be deadly.
While most dogs are bred for a clear functional purpose, it is not entirely obvious why the wolf-dog hybrid was created. Breeders claim they make good sledding dogs or watchdogs, a suggestion rejected by the ASPCA. "It is not selectively bred the way we bred Labradors to retrieve," Zawistowski says. "For the most part, the purpose of breeding wolf-dogs is that people want the panache." That panache can come at a high price: Adult wolf-dogs are available for sale on the Internet at prices up to $1,200.
Whatever aggressive tendencies the hybrid might exhibit, another major problem for potential owners is the space issue. Most hybrids are high-activity dogs and don't do well in confined areas. After all, wolves range over a huge area on a daily basis.
What to do with the hybrid is problematic. There are several shelters nationwide that take in problem wolf-dogs until the animal dies of natural causes, but all are reported at capacity. The ASPCA advocates simply discontinuing the hybrid. "We don't necessarily want folks to round up wolf-dogs in people's backyards. There is nowhere for them to go," Zawistowski says.