Experts in animal care are virtually unanimous in their recommendation to stick to domesticated animals when choosing a pet. Although wild animals may be cute and cuddly in the early months of life, they tend to become less and less suitable as human companions as they mature. The characteristics that have helped their species survive over the millennia are rarely compatible for life in captivity.
In no instance is this more poignant than with wolves and wolf-dog hybrids. Although wolf-dog hybrids have long been common among Native Alaskan sled dog teams, it's only been in the past decade or so that the practice of breeding dogs with wolves has spread to other parts of the country.
“Some people think that these are going to be some kind of cool, macho watchdog, which is totally wrong,” says Randall Lockwood, an animal behaviorist and vice president for training initiatives of the Humane Society of the United States. “Then there are the wolf groupies, who see owning a wolf or hybrid almost as part of a spiritual or religious quest, as their link to the wild. They have their wolf art-work and medallions, and while they may see something in the animal on a spiritual level, they often are ill-equipped to meet the animal's basic biological needs.”
Many of those needs are quite different from a dog's. “We spent at least 12,000 years turning a wild animal - the wolf - into an animal that can fit well into human society,” says Lockwood. “We've taken one of the most powerful predators on the planet and through thousands of generations of selection produced animals that for the most part can live in our homes without hurting or eating us.”
Even the biggest dogs have smaller teeth than wolves, and they tend to look to a person - not another dog - as their pack leader, or master. While wolves roam vast territories in search of food, dogs have been bred to stay much closer to home. But in addition to breeding some of the characteristics of wolves out of their dogs, people have also bred into domestic dogs a kind of territorial aggressiveness needed to make good watchdogs that is absent in their wild cousins.
Wolf hybrids contain an unpredictable mix of these features. “Usually you have an animal that's quite a bit larger than either wolves or dogs, that is naturally selected for traveling miles and miles every day, that's now essentially relegated to living on a chain in someone's back yard or pickup truck,” Lockwood says. “It still has the predatory instincts of the wolf and yet at the same time might have some heightened aggression that we've bred for in dogs.”
Lockwood, who has studied problems related to wolf hybrids around the country, says these animals are less apt to become vicious toward people than they are to cause other problems that often land them in local animal shelters. “They get bored, and because they're very strong, they almost always escape, injuring themselves or others in the process,” he says. “They go after neighbors' dogs, they jump fences and get hit by cars, they jump out of windows, they eat your house.”
This destructive behavior typically lasts longer than the normal “adolescent” phase in dogs because it takes two or three years for wolves to mature, at least twice as long as dogs. “Many people get these animals naively, thinking they are cute or will make interesting and different pets,” Lockwood says. “Then they call us when they realize that what they have is something they can't control. They don't realize that this is essentially a wild animal that is further hampered by having lost some of the instinctive controls on aggressions that are there in the wolf. Instead of having the best of both worlds, often hybrids have the worst.”
If wolf hybrids often turn out to be a disappointment for their owners, they pose a real threat to the wild wolf population. Exterminated throughout most of the country decades ago, wolves are just beginning to make a comeback, thanks to the determined efforts of wildlife groups and a gradual shifting of public opinion in favor of restoring natural habitats. Small numbers of wolves have migrated from Canada to remote areas of Minnesota and Montana, and a controversial reintroduction effort has restored healthy wolf populations to remote areas in Idaho and near Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and Montana.
The most vocal opponents of wolf reintroduction projects are ranchers, who fear the wolves will kill their livestock. Free-roaming dog packs have long been a nuisance to ranchers in the West, so much so that ranchers maintain the right to shoot on sight dogs they find on their land. Wolves tend to favor their natural prey - deer, elk and smaller mammals - to sheep or cattle. “We have plenty of instances of dogs and wolf-dog hybrids that have attacked livestock,” Lockwood says. “Often it's the local coyote and recovering wolf populations that get blamed.”
For anyone who yearns to own a piece of the wild, Lockwood has simple advice: “If you want to get a wolf hybrid or a wolf because you want to help the wolves, save the $15,000 you'll spend buying the animal and a high fence and give it to one of the groups that are working for wolf recovery.”