Have you ever thought about a wolf, or wolf/dog hybrid as a pet? Certainly, they are very popular, but how big is the divide between our domesticated friends and their wild ancestors? Are these animals the wonderful pets their owners claim they are, or the unstable menaces their detractors would have you believe?
Although they obviously have a great deal of genetic material in common, there are very real differences between wolves and dogs. In fact, these differences are so significant that the US Fish and Wildlife Service states unequivocally that wolves do not make good pets. They also advise against wolf/dog hybrids.
On the other side of the debate, wildlife biologist Pat Tucker and writer Bruce Weide, co-directors of Wild Sentry (a non-profit group that produces educational materials) take a more balanced approach. While not condemning outright the practice of keeping wolves and hybrids as pets, they do advise proceeding with caution, and knowing exactly what you’re getting into. After all, that cute little wolf pup is going to grow up to be an adult wolf, with a personality and temperament quite different from that of a domestic dog. And with hybrids (which often contain a very high percentage of wolf), the more wolf in the animal, the more wolf-like the behavior will be.
Once you understand the differences between wolves and dogs, and we put to rest some of the common misconceptions about pet wolves and hybrids, you can make the decision that is right for you and your family.
Aren’t Wolves and Dogs Basically the Same?
They are very similar in many ways, but they are not the same. Wolves, of course, are the common ancestors of all breeds of domestic dogs. Their genetic makeup is very close, but the slight differences in the gene structures stimulate hormonal activity that results in significantly different behaviors. You can never, no matter how much love and training you provide to a wolf or hybrid, expect one to be like a dog.
You could think of it this way – an adult dog is a lot like a wolf that never grew up. Dogs behave much like young wolves in that they are playful and easily directed. As they move out of adolescence, though, wolves will become more territorial, and even predatory. This is why they can be difficult to handle, and dangerous in the wrong hands.
Pointing to similar genetic material is not really helpful when we are considering the differences between dogs and wolves. After all, we have more than 98% of our DNA in common with chimpanzees, but you could hardly argue that we are very much like them.
What Are Hybrids?
Hybrids are not necessarily cross-breeds (half wolf and half dog), although a wolf/dog cross can correctly be termed a hybrid. A hybrid is any combination of wolf and dog. If you can find a wolf ancestor, even several generations back, then the animal can be termed a hybrid. When breeders and owners use the term, though, it is usually to identify an animal that has a high percentage of wolf. Hybrids are also typically referred to as wolf dogs.
What About Physical Differences?
Indisputably, some dogs bear a great resemblance to wolves. However, wolves are typically narrower through the chest than dogs, and their tails never curl. The inside of a wolf’s ears is heavily furred, and their eyes are narrower than those of a dog. Additionally, dogs are capable of breeding twice a year, and can deliver a litter at any time of the year. Wolves breed only once per year, and have their litters in the spring or early summer. A high-percentage hybrid is often indistinguishable from a pure wolf.
How Can I Tell if I’m Looking at a Wolf Dog?
Physical appearances aside, you probably can’t. Most people who purchase this type of animal aren’t going to have genetic testing done, and they’re relying on the word of the breeder as to how much wolf is really in the animal. If you meet an animal, and the owner says it’s a wolf dog, the fact that you even met in public is probably a tip-off that there is far more dog than wolf in the animal. Most people who own wolves or high-percentage hybrids do not take them out in public, for reasons that will become clear in the next section.
What Types of Behavior Do Wolves and Hybrids Exhibit that Differ From Those of Dogs?
Good behavior in wolves, and good behavior in dogs, are not the same. Wolves have certain behaviors hard-wired into them, and it is those behaviors that have allowed them to survive as a species for millions of years. These behaviors are healthy and normal, but they do not translate well into captivity, and you can’t train them away. Dogs, on the other hand, have been domesticated for so long that the behaviors of their wolf ancestors have been largely suppressed.
There are four behaviors entrenched in wolf mentality that can be problematic.
In the wild, wolves do not welcome other wolves into their existing pack. They protect their territory so that they do not have to compete for food. Accordingly, wolves and hybrids can be aggressive with other dogs, and because they are usually much larger and more powerful, there is a risk of serious injury or death to any dog they may encounter.
A wolf’s thought processes go something like this: “If I have it, or if I can get it, then it is mine, and I will mark it accordingly.” What this means is that you will probably never be able to take anything away from a wolf or a hybrid, or train them to let go the way you can with a dog. You may believe that your wolf or hybrid loves you (and maybe he does) and would never hurt you, but you would be running a serious risk if you put it to the test by trying to take something away from him. He will almost certainly fight you for it, and you will almost certainly be bitten.
Wolves are also far more likely than dogs to use urine to mark things that they identify as theirs. If you are determined to have a pet wolf or hybrid, you would be well advised to stock up on upholstery cleaner.
A wolf or hybrid puppy will accept you as the alpha and not challenge your dominance. When he reaches sexual maturity, though, he may very well decide that he would prefer to be the alpha. If you are considering a wolf or a hybrid, you have to be prepared for this, and you can never, ever back down when challenged.
That’s not to say that domestic dogs never challenge their owners. In fact, I know a woman who once found herself in a dominance battle with a Boxer/Doberman mix. Essentially, she was holding one end of the leash while the dog tried to bite its way toward her. It took 45 minutes, but she finally made the dog submit and was never challenged again.
Now, imagine a 45-minute dominance battle with a wolf. Sound like fun? I didn’t think so. But if you are considering this type of pet, this will be your reality, and it may take more than one go-round.
Dominance battles can also take place with other animals in the household, and even with children. For this reason, wolves and hybrids are not good family pets, and should not be kept along with other animals.
The prey drive is very strong in wolves and hybrids. One of the biggest problems with this type of pet is that the prey drive, once activated, is often impossible to stop. You could have a wolf dog who has always seemed to be great with kids, and then one of them starts running and screaming. The prey drive is almost certain to be triggered, and that animal may never again perceive a child as anything other than prey. So, as previously suggested, if you have children, then this type of animal is not for you.
This is not to say that you can never condition a wolf or a hybrid to become a good pet for an adult, but you will have to have a very strong personality, and always be ready for the unexpected. No matter how much you love your pet, you are never going to completely suppress the behaviors that have evolved over millennia.
How Trainable Are Wolves and Hybrids?
Not very. Have you ever tried to train a cat to obey commands? How did that work out for you? It’s not that cats can’t learn – in fact, some animal behaviorists theorize that cats are actually more intelligent than dogs. It’s more that they just don’t recognize your authority. Wolf and hybrid puppies will defer to your dominance, but once they grow up they will be less inclined to obey you. This goes back to millions of years of survival again – to be safe, it is important for wolf puppies to listen to their elders. As they grow older, their survival becomes more tied to being independent. When you try to train a wolf or a wolf dog, you are fighting hard-wired behavior.
If I Work Really Hard with My Wolf or Hybrid, Won’t He Be a Good Pet?
You may know someone who has a wolf dog, and insists that it’s perfectly gentle, and great with kids and other animals. And maybe it is, but usually this is the case only at a young age. More often, the story is likely to be “He was the ideal pet until he attacked the neighbor’s kid,” or “We never had a problem with him until the day he ate my sister’s Chihuahua.” If the animal is, in fact, great with kids or other animals, chances are that there is far more dog in it than there is wolf. Wolves and high-percentage hybrids are, for reasons previously stated, very unlikely to be good family pets no matter how much you work with them.
Also, past good behavior is no reliable indicator of future good behavior. Wolves and hybrids reach full maturity around the age of three, and at that point, may undergo a radical personality change. Sadly, when this happens and the animal becomes more difficult to control, people often have them euthanized.
What About Bite Statistics?
I talked about the unreliability of dog bite statistics attributed to certain breeds in The Truth About Dog Bite Statistics. Often, bites are attributed to a certain breed of dog when the breed has actually not been correctly identified. When talking about dog bites in general, and in comparison with wolf bites, though, the numbers are verifiable and sobering.
According to Tucker and Weide, there were approximately 300,000 captive wolves and wolf hybrids in the US from 1986 to 1994, and they were responsible for the deaths of ten people during that period (about 1.25 people per year). By way of contrast, there were 50,000,000 dogs in America during that same period, and they were responsible for 20 deaths per year (0.11 people per 300,000 dogs).
In other words, based on the statistics, you are 11 times more likely to be killed by a wolf or a wolf hybrid than you are to be killed by a dog. Take this also in the context that we have already talked about the fact that many hybrids have little wolf in them. If we could break down the statistics so that they included only wolves and high-percentage hybrids, the fatality rate attributable to this type of animal would be considerably higher.
If Wolves and Hybrids Are So Likely to Bite, Wouldn’t They Be Good Guard Animals?
The reality is that you would not want a wolf that would make a good guard animal. This is because he would be an alpha – in the wild, the alphas handle threatening situations. A non-alpha is simply going to hang back and let you handle any potential threats. And we’ve already talked about why, in any relationship with a wolf or wolf dog, it is essential that you be the alpha. If you’re looking for a good guard animal, get a dog.
If I Neuter My Wolf or Hybrid, Will He Be More Docile?
All that neutering is going to do is remove the urge to compete for breeding rights, so during breeding season, a neutered wolf or hybrid will be less likely to attack another animal than if it is left intact. This applies only to breeding, though. Neutering does nothing to change the basic personality of the animal.
What If Wolves Were Selectively Bred for Temperament? Would They Be Good Pets?
Well, you could undertake a breeding program, if you had a hundreds of wolves, and could select only the most docile ones to breed, and then bred the best-behaved of their offspring, and the best offspring off those offspring. You would need to cull ruthlessly, though.
You would also have to be a highly competent animal behaviorist and geneticist, and be willing to be in it for a very long time. In about 40 generations (and remember, wolves breed only once a year), you would probably end up with animals that would make good pets. In other words, you would have made dogs!
Obviously, selective breeding of wolves in order to create dogs makes no sense. There are already many, many dogs who need homes. Also, even if you had all the time, money, knowledge and other resources to undertake such a project, why would you want to re-invent the wheel, and in the process condemn many perfectly good wolves to euthanasia because of the need to cull out undesirables?
What Do Breeders Mean When They Say That Wolves and Hybrids Are Friends, Not Pets?
No responsible breeder of wolves and wolf dogs is ever going to tell you that these animals are perfect family pets. What they are trying to tell you is that you cannot expect dog-like behavior from a wolf or hybrid – you can’t expect them to want to obey you, so the relationship is not going to be one of pet and master. They also want you to know that your wolf or hybrid friend may not be receptive to socializing with your human friends, and that they cannot be trusted with children.
How Should I Behave Around My Neighbor’s Wolf or Hybrid?
Much of your behavior will be the same as with any other canine. Common sense would suggest that you should never approach any kind of canine unless their owner tells you that it is safe. You should also never allow your children to interact with strange animals unless the owner is present, and this goes double for wolves and hybrids – they should be approached only under the very close supervision of a qualified handler.
If you feel threatened by any type of canine, follow these steps to reduce the likelihood of an attack:
- Don’t run – you will never outrun a canine, and if you try, you could trigger the prey drive.
- Speak softly, slowly, and confidently.
- Back away slowly.
- Do not make direct eye contact.
- Cover your throat with your hands, and keep your arms close to your sides.
If the animal does attack, continue to protect your throat, keep moving away toward a safe location, and do everything you can to avoid falling.
Can I Legally Own a Wolf or Hybrid?
Under federal law, you can own a wolf or hybrid as long as you obtain it legally (meaning that you cannot remove a wolf from the wild) and you are not exhibiting the animal. You should, however, check into local and state laws regarding the ownership and care of such animals.
What If I Understand the Risks, and I Still Want to Get a Wolf or Hybrid?
Don’t let me stop you. But really, you should get two. They do much better in companionship with others of their kind. The best match is a male and a female, because two of the same sex will often fight, sometimes to the death. Spaying or neutering can reduce the likelihood of this happening if you do choose to have two animals of the same sex.
You should also make sure that you have a veterinarian who has experience with wolves and hybrids, or at least one who is willing to learn about them. Part of your support system should also include another person who has experience with wolves or hybrids so that they can fill in for you if you need to be away.
That brings me to another point – you will not be able to travel with your animal. This is because in order to travel outside the country, and sometimes even from one state to another, your pet needs to have rabies shots. There are no such shots that will work on wolves and hybrids, so you can’t take them with you.
Also, in the absence of a rabies vaccine, if your pet should happen to bite someone, the law requires that he be euthanized. There is no course of appeal.
Keep in mind, too, that you will be acquiring an animal with a much greater potential to bite than virtually any domesticated dog. You should make sure that you have adequate liability insurance. Don’t be surprised, though, if you find that many insurance companies will either refuse coverage outright, or demand a very high premium.
If you have any doubts about your ability to control a wolf or hybrid, or if you are not willing to invest the time and effort needed to ensure the safety of those around you, then please, do not get a wolf or a hybrid.
I’m Okay with All That – Anything Else I Should Do?
Yes. Think very carefully about your motivations for wanting to own a wolf or hybrid, and be ready to accept any and all potential consequences. Ask yourself the following questions.
1. Can I Contain My Pet?
This is very, very important. If you are going to bring a wolf or hybrid into your life, you have to be absolutely certain that they can never, not even once, leave your property unattended. You are going to have to make sure that when you close your doors, they are really, truly closed. You need to ensure that your yard is properly fenced, ideally with an inner fence and a higher outer fence. You might even want to consider stringing a length of electrified wire along the lower part of the inner fence. You will also have to ensure that the gate to your yard cannot be opened from the outside. This kind of setup could be costly, but it is essential.
2. Would I Be Better off With a Harley?
Everyone wants to look cool, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you’re getting a wolf or a hybrid because you think it gives you street cred, that’s not a good reason. You are about to make a huge emotional commitment, and assume a great responsibility. If you want something to make you look cool, get a Harley instead. If you tire of it, you can sell it as opposed to having it euthanized.
3. Am I Okay with People Being Afraid of My Pet?
Not everyone is going to enthusiastically accept your new buddy. In fact, most people are going to be afraid of him. And you are going to have to accept that your pet may actually enjoy their fear, and want to assert his dominance. This could be not just uncomfortable for the people you encounter – it could be dangerous if you are not in complete control of the animal.
4. Am I Prepared for a Confrontation?
As previously stated, when wolves and wolf dogs reach maturity, there is a very good chance that they will attempt to challenge their owners. Are you sure that you can come out on top? If you don’t, what will you do then?
5. Am I Prepared for the Expense?
In many areas, there are “dangerous dog” bylaws in place, and your pet is definitely going to fit the category. It could cost you up to a thousand dollars a year just to keep your pet. You may also have to carry at least $50,000 in liability insurance.
Unless you are a skilled trainer, you may also need professional training to help you keep control of your canine. This goes well beyond basic obedience training, like the kind you get from the AKC, and it can be quite costly.
6. Am I in It for the Long Haul?
If it doesn’t work out, you can’t just find another home for your pet. He needs special handling. Most of the time, if things go sour, euthanasia is the only option, and this is just unfair – the animal did not ask to be born, and he certainly would not ask to be killed. Again, and I can’t say it often enough, if you’re not 100% certain that you can give a wolf or hybrid a good life, get a dog instead!
So, how did you do? Still think a wolf or a hybrid is right for you?
Um… Me Again… I Got a Hybrid, and I Think I’ve Made a Mistake. What Now?
Most people who have read everything that has gone before in this article will not make a mistake. But it is easy to be blinded by the overwhelming desire to own a particular type of pet, and to gloss over any potential issues. Then you can end up in way over your head.
The one thing you should never do is pass your problem onto someone else. “Free to good home” doesn’t cut it, and besides, if something goes horribly wrong and you didn’t fully disclose all the problems you were having with your animal, you could end up being sued.
There are rescue facilities for wolves and hybrids, but often it’s hard to get an opening. There are more wolves and hybrids who need rescuing than there are places for them. If you are able to get an opening, make sure that you visit the facility to make sure that it will provide your animal with a good quality of life.
Do not even think of releasing your pet into the wild. He will never survive, because he has been conditioned to look to humans for food. Also, he will not be accepted by a wolf pack – in fact, he is more likely to be killed.
The sad fact of the matter is that if you are no longer able to keep your wolf or hybrid, the most humane solution is to have him euthanized.
Are There Any Benefits to Keeping Wolves or Hybrids in Captivity?
For the animals, there really is not. Sometimes, well-meaning people think that by owning a wolf they are keeping desirable material in the gene pool. The fact is, though, that keeping wolves in captivity does nothing to enhance the population in the wild. And there is no benefit to the individual animal.
If you love wolves, and want to ensure that they are around for future generations, rather than keeping one in captivity you would be better off to write to your Congressman and ask him or her what is being done to protect their natural habitat. Work for organizations that are dedicated to preserving wolves in the wild. You don’t have to own a wolf or a hybrid to care about them and work for their benefit.
The Final Word
If you think it sounds like I’m not all that convinced that wolves and hybrids should be considered as family pets, you’re right. Sometimes people dive headlong into very troubled waters for all the wrong reasons. A pure, honest love for wolves can still be a really bad reason for keeping one. Other times, people want something unusual, and they think a wolf or a hybrid is just the ticket.
It takes a very special breed of human to properly care for this type of animal. You have to be incredibly strong-willed, and never even think of backing down in the face of a confrontation. You have to be willing to structure your entire life around your pet. You have to accept that children cannot be a part of your life or your social circle for as long as you have the animal. If this sounds like you, though, maybe a wolf or a hybrid can fit your life. You have to be absolutely sure, though.
A good start might be to learn more about the nature of wolves. Jim and Jamie Dutcher have written a very good book, The Hidden Life of Wolves. The publisher’s price is $25.00, but you can buy it new at Amazon for as little as $11.30, and used for as little as $6.45. It should get you started, and once you know more about these wonderful creatures, you can make a more informed decision as to whether a wolf or hybrid is right for you.