A wolfdog (also called a wolf–dog hybrid or wolf hybrid) is a canid hybrid resulting from the mating of a wolf (various Canis lupus subspecies) and a dog (Canis lupus familiaris). The term “wolfdog” is preferred by most of the animals’ proponents and breeders because the domestic dog recently was taxonomically recategorized as a subspecies of the gray wolf. The American Veterinary Medical Association and the United States Department of Agriculture refer to the animals as wolf–dog hybrids. Rescue organizations consider any dog with wolf heritage within the last five generations to be a wolfdog, including some established wolfdog breeds.
In 1998, the USDA estimated an approximate population of 300,000 wolfdogs in the United States (the highest of any country world-wide), with some other sources giving a population possibly as high as 500,000. In first generation hybrids, gray wolves are most often crossed with wolf-like dogs (such as German Shepherds, Siberian Huskies, and Alaskan Malamutes) for an appearance most appealing to owners desiring to own an exotic pet.
North American mammoth hunting wolfdogs
Wolfdogs, as illustrated in The Menageries: Quadrupeds Described and Drawn from Living Subjects by W. Ogilby, 1829
Evidence for prehistoric domesticated wolfdogs in the Americas dates back at least 10,000 years while fossil evidence in Europe points to their use in hunting mammoths.
In 2010, experts announced that they had found the remains of many wolf-dogs that had been kept by the warrior class of the Teotihuacan civilization in Mexico’s central valley about two thousands years ago, and that, in light of this evidence, the animal commonly found depicted in the art of that culture and which had been thought to be a strange dog or coyote were likely instead wolf-dogs.
The first record of wolfdog breeding in Great Britain comes from the year 1766 when what is thought was a male wolf had mated with a Pomeranian, which resulted in a litter of nine pups. Wolfdogs were occasionally purchased by English noblemen, who viewed them as a scientific curiosity. Wolfdogs were popular exhibits in British menageries and zoos.
In 1899, Max von Stephanitz, an ex-cavalry captain and former student of the Berlin Veterinary College, was attending a dog show when he was shown a dog named Hektor Linksrhein who was allegedly 1/4 wolf. Renamed Horand von Grafrath he and his progeny were used to create the Alsatian Wolf Dog, currently known as the German Shepherd Dog. Horand became the centre-point of the breeding programs and was bred with dogs belonging to other society members that displayed desirable traits. Although fathering many pups, Horand’s most successful was Hektor von Schwaben. Hektor was line bred with another of Horand’s offspring and produced Beowulf, who later fathered a total of eighty-four pups, mostly through being line bred with Hektor’s other offspring. In the original German Shepherd studbook, Zuchtbuch fur Deutsche Schaferhunde (SZ), within the 2 pages of entries from SZ #41 to SZ #76, there are 4 Wolf Crosses. This is the first documented use of pure wolf genes to create a domestic dog breed, the German Shepherd Dog, which is historically the first intentionally bred wolfdog.
In 1921, Dutch breeder Leendert Saarloos started crossbreeding a German Shepherd Dog male to a female Mackenzie Valley Wolf (Canis lupus occidentalis). He aimed for an improved version of the German Shepherd Dog which would be immune to distemper, and succeeded insofar that the Saarlooswolfdog we know is a strong imposing dog, but it kept its wolflike characteristics; it is cautious, reserved and lacks the ferocity to attack; it is not the dog that Leendert Saarloos hoped to get. His theory was also proven wrong, as nearly all the first generation hybrids succumbed to distemper. Until Leendert Saarloos died in 1969, he was in full control over the breeding of his “European wolfdog”. The Dutch Kennel Club recognized the breed in 1975. To honor its creator they changed the name to “Saarlooswolfdog”. In 1981 the breed was recognized by the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI). In the past, some Saarlooswolfdogs were trained as guide dogs for the blind and as rescue dogs.
New World Black Wolves
Genetic research from the Stanford University School of Medicine and the University of California, Los Angeles revealed that wolves with black pelts owe their distinctive coloration to a mutation that first arose in domestic dogs.
Cases of accidental breeding of wolfdogs are known (though this is very rare), where a domestic dog female on oestrus strays and is mated by a male wild wolf.
The wolfdog hybrid has been the center of much controversy for much of its history, and most breed-specific legislation is either the result of the animal’s perceived danger or a categorization as protected native wildlife. The Humane Society of the United States, the RSPCA, Ottawa Humane Society, the Dogs Trust and the Wolf Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission consider wolfdogs to be wild animals and therefore unsuitable as pets, and support an international ban on the private possession, breeding and sales of wolfdogs.
According to the National Wolfdog Alliance, 40 U.S. states effectively forbid the ownership, breeding and importation of wolfdogs, while others impose some form of regulation upon ownership. In Canada, Alberta, Manitoba, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island prohibit wolfdogs as pets. Most European nations either outlaw the animal entirely or put restrictions on ownership. Wolfdogs were among the breeds banned from the U.S. Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton and elsewhere after a fatal dog attack by a pit bull on a child.
Wolfdogs in the wild
Hybridization in the wild usually occurs near human habitations where wolf density is low and dogs are common. However, there were several reported cases of wolfdogs in areas with normal wolf densities in the former Soviet Union. Wild wolfdogs were occasionally hunted by European aristocracy, and were termed lycisca to distinguish them from common wolves. Noted historic cases (such as the Beast of Gévaudan) of large wolves that were abnormally aggressive toward humans, may be attributable to wolf-dog mating. In Europe, unintentional matings of dogs and wild wolves have been confirmed in some populations through genetic testing. As the survival of some Continental European wolf packs is severely threatened, scientists fear that the creation of wolfdog populations in the wild is a threat to the continued existence of European wolf populations. However, extensive wolf–dog hybridization is not supported by morphological evidence, and analyses of mtDNA sequences have revealed that such matings are rare. However, since mtDNA is mainly maternally inherited and most cases of hybridization in the wild seem to occur between a female wolf and a male domestic dog, these results may not be reliable. In 1997, during the Mexican Wolf Arizona Reintroduction, controversy arose when a captive pack at Carlsbad designated for release was found to be largely composed of wolfdogs by Roy McBride, who had captured many wolves for the recovery programme in the 1970s. Though staff initially argued that the animals’ odd appearance was due to captivity and diet, it was later decided to euthanise them.
Genetic research has shown that wolves with black pelts owe their coloration to a mutation that first arose in domestic dogs
Skeleton of a wolf-dog hybrid from the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle
The physical characteristics of an animal created by breeding a wolf to a dog are not predictable, similar to that of mixed-breed dogs. Genetic research shows that wolf and dog populations initially diverged approximately 14,000 years ago and have interbred only occasionally since; thus imbuing the dissimilarity between dogs and wolves in behavior and appearance. In many cases the resulting adult wolfdog may be larger than either of its parents due to the genetic phenomenon of heterosis (commonly known as hybrid vigor). Breeding experiments in Germany with poodles and wolves, and later on with the resulting wolfdogs showed unrestricted fertility, mating via free choice and no significant problems of communication (even after a few generations). The offspring of poodles with either coyotes and jackals however all showed a decrease in fertility, significant communication problems as well as an increase of genetic diseases after three generations of interbreeding between the hybrids. The researchers therefore concluded that domestic dogs and wolves are the same species.
Hybrids display a wide variety of appearances, ranging from a resemblance to dogs without wolf blood to animals that are often mistaken for full-blooded wolves. A lengthy study by DEFRA and the RSPCA found several examples of misrepresentation by breeders and indeterminate levels of actual wolf pedigree in many animals sold as wolfdogs. The report noted that uneducated citizens misidentify dogs with wolf-like appearance as wolfdogs. Wolfdogs tend to have somewhat smaller heads than pure wolves, with larger, pointier ears which lack the dense fur commonly seen in those of wolves. Fur markings also tend to be very distinctive and not well blended. Black coloured hybrids tend to retain black pigment longer as they age, compared to black wolves. In some cases, the presence of dewclaws on the hind feet is considered a useful, but not absolute indicator of dog gene contamination in wild wolves. Dewclaws are the vestigial first toes, which are common on the hind legs of domestic dogs but thought absent from pure wolves, which only have four hind toes. Observations on wild wolf hybrids in the former Soviet Union indicate that wolf hybrids in a wild state may form larger packs than pure wolves, and have greater endurance when chasing prey. High content hybrids typically have longer canine teeth than dogs of comparable size, with some officers in the South African Defence Force commenting that the animals are capable of biting through the toughest padding “like a knife through butter”. Their sense of smell apparently rivals that of most established scenthounds. Tests undertaken in the Perm Institute of Interior Forces in Russia demonstrated that high content hybrids took 15–20 seconds to track down a target in training sessions, whereas ordinary police dogs took 3–4 minutes.
Wolf-dog hybrids are generally said to be naturally healthy animals, and are affected by fewer inherited diseases than most breeds of dog. Wolfdogs are usually healthier than either parent due to heterosis. Some of the established breeds of wolfdog that exist today were bred specifically to improve the health and vigor of working dogs.
There is some controversy over the effectiveness of the standard dog/cat rabies vaccine on a wolfdog. The USDA has not to date approved any rabies vaccine for use in wolf-dog hybrids, though they do recommend an extra-label use of the vaccine. Wolfdog owners and breeders purport that the lack of official approval is a political move to prevent condoning wolfdog ownership.
Temperament and behavior
Wolf-dog hybrids are a mixture of genetic traits, which results in less predictable behavior patterns compared to either the wolf or dog. The adult behavior of hybrid pups also cannot be predicted with comparable certainty to dog pups, even in third-generation pups produced by wolfdog matings with dogs or from the behavior of the parent animals. Thus, though the behavior of a single individual wolf hybrid may be predictable, the behavior of the type as a whole is not. The majority of high wolf-content hybrids are very curious and are generally no more destructive than any other curious or active dogs.
A wolf’s behavior is typically more socially shy and timid toward humans than that of a dog. Whether a wolf-dog cross should be considered more dangerous than a dog depends on behavior specific to the individual alone and not to wolfdogs as a group. Implanted behavior can effect innate behavior. The socialization of each individual is affected by training methods. The risk to the public safety is affected by the socialization of each individual wolf-dog cross. There is no conclusive evidence to show that wolf-dogs are more aggressive toward humans than other big dogs (e.g., Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Chows, and Pit Bulls). The behavior of a wolf-dog is not directly proportional to its percentage of wolf content, in that a high percentage wolf-dog cross may have behavior more typical of a dog. Conversely, a low percentage wolf-dog cross could behave more like a wolf. The behavior of a wolf-dog is not determined by its genotype or phenotype. The innate behavior of a specific animal can be anywhere within the broad spectrum of its genetic background. There is no scientific, peer reviewed statistical evidence that suggests wolf-dogs pose any greater threat to humans, animals and property than other domestic breeds of the canine family. Most incidents of canine attacks involve irresponsible ownership, such as the lack of proper containment, or unsupervised contact or contact with the wolfdog without the owners knowledge or consent.
The view that aggressive characteristics are inherently a part of wolfdog temperament has been contested in recent years by wolfdog breeders and other advocates of wolfdogs as pets. Proponents of wolfdogs as pets say that the higher content animals are naturally timid and fearful of humans, but that with proper human association, training, and responsible ownership nearly all wolfdogs can become good companions, especially if their association and training begins at an early age. Even in cases of wolfdogs displaying consistently dog-like behavior, they may occasionally retain some wolf-like behavior such as digging dens, chewing up household items, climbing fences and, to varying degrees, display some difficulty in housebreaking in relation to how high their wolf genetic content is. Low content wolfdogs rarely have these problems any more strongly or significantly than any other large breed dog.