By Dr. Sophia Yin
(based on an article that originally appeared in The Bark Magazine)
In the classic novel, White Fang, Jack London tells the tale of an abused half wolf-half dog who finds safety and companionship in a kind, benevolent master. The wolf-dog returns the kindness with an unerring devotion and loyalty, even offering his life to protect his new-found savior from harm. For years, I thought about what it might be like to own a wolf-dog like White Fang. London's hybrid between nature and the common dog proved one magnificent animal—smarter, stronger, and more loyal than any ordinary dog. He was a superdog, the ideal companion.
In modern day, the wolf-dog or wolf hybrid has produced a very different picture. There have been many truths and myths spread about them. Do they turn unexpectedly on their owners or are they the fiercely loyal companions of the Jack London novel? Well, it turns out, both and neither. To understand why, you first have to look at the dog and the wolf separately.
Is a dog a degenerate wolf?
I used to secretly think that the dog was an inferior animal. Something less than a wolf. This idea reached its pinnacle shortly after I adopted a Scottish Terrier named Meggie. Meggie's a perfect 10 on the cuteness scale, but she's not exactly the most self-sufficient dog ever invented. She needs regular hair trimming to prevent uncomfortable mats, regular brushing to get rid of burrs, and regular lifting to get into the truck. Sometimes when I performed these simple tasks, I'd say to her, “Meggie, you'd never survive in the wild,” as if a “real dog” should be able to survive in the wild on its own.
This attitude changed when I took a college course on domestic animal behavior and discovered the meaning of domestication. Domestication is the process by which animals adapt to life with humans. Unlike taming, which occurs within an individual animal's life time, domestication occurs over many generations. It's the process where the genetic composition of the species changes to make the species more able to survive with us. A domestic dog is adapted to living with people, sometimes in closed areas such as apartments. Wolves, on the other hand, are adapted to living in the wild on vast expanses of land as far out of human sight as possible. Meggie can't run like the wind or hunt for her food, but she's perfectly suited for life in a small house with several other dogs and an occasional cat.
One consequence of domestication is that while domestic animals retain all of the same behaviors as their ancestors, the extent to which they show the behavior varies. For instance, wolves and dogs have prey drive (which is why dogs chase cats) but the prey drive has been tempered or modified in domestic dogs. So while tripping and squealing in the presence of a wolf could trigger the prey drive resulting in a fatal bite, the same in the presence of most dogs is more likely to just result in a startled dog. On the other hand, prey drive in the domestic dogs has been refined so that dogs can work with humans—such as by by herding sheep or retrieving hunted birds.
If you raise a wolf like a dog will it grow up to be like a dog?
Some wild animals, such as birds, become tame and dependable when raised by hand. Why not wolves too? Wolves, in fact, can be tamed and are regularly tamed at Wolf Park, a facility for studying the behavior of captive bred wolves in a semi-natural habitat in Indiana. Since wolves are extremely fearful of people, they are seldom visible in the wild, making it difficult to study them. At Wolf Park, the wolves are tamed so that they can live happily in captivity and so that they will exhibit their normal social behavior in the presence of the human observers. There's a huge difference between taming a dog and taming a wolf though. While dogs are easily socialized to humans if exposed between three and twelve weeks of age, wolf puppies must be taken from their mothers and from the pack before three weeks of age and then hand raised by humans through four months of age. If left with the pack and just exposed to close interaction with humans during this period, they develop an intense fear of humans, even if the mother and pack members are tame.
Furthermore, in a study where wolf cubs and dog puppies were raised in an identical way – hand-raised by humans – there were many social and behavioral differences between the two. For instance, even at 3-5 weeks, the dogs were more interactive with humans. They would vocalize towards, wag their tails and gaze at the human’s face. They were also less aggressive than wolves and less fearful or avoidant. The hand-raised wolves did prefer to be near their human caregiver compared to being near another human, but they did not show attachment behavior to humans. The dog puppies, on the other hand, tended to follow humans, gaze at their face, and seek human attention.
If you visit a zoo or park, such as Wolf Park where wolves have been hand-raised, you may find that the wolves are so well-adjusted to being around humans that they may come running from across the field to greet the staff and solicit petting and, under supervision, they sometimes greet visitors both on the property and in other educational events. Even in this setting though, it’s clear that they are far from domestic dogs. With their strong prey drive, they hone in on infants, children, and other squealing or erratically moving objects. They show this interest with a smile and a dog-like wag which fools many observers into thinking they're friendly with children when it's actually lunch that they're happy about.
Wolves in captivity are also different from those in the wild in that they are not in family units, where the parents are the highest ranked because they are the most experienced and their offspring just defer to them. So, in captivity, the desire to be high ranked in a mixed pack is quite high and wolves are frequently looking for opportunities to overthrow those who are ranked above them. In fact, taking a high ranked wolf out of the group for a prolonged period (such as a day or two) can lead to increased fighting amongst the others and possibly fighting when when the wolf is reintroduced. The wolves are also less accepting of other individuals and even more likely to be reactive if an individual they know acts oddly. As a result, even veteran wolf-handlers have to be careful around the wolves. At Wolf Park, even routine interaction with the wolves requires two people present for safety reasons. Additionally, when sick or on medications, handlers do not go in with the wolves. Even a wolf's favorite person can be the object of aggression if he is sick.
Wolves are also more curious and interested in problem solving than dogs, which sounds good at first, but while the combination of the two is good for survival in the wild, it just leads to mischief in the home. Wolves explore everything with their teeth like little children explore with their hands. Everything they're interested in they rip to shreds, even if it's the couch, the wall, or a table. So a wolf in a house tends to lead to a demolished house. And a wolf in a house isn't there for long since their persistance makes them wonderful escape artists. Most wolves must be kept in a fenced area with 6 foot fencing and a wire overhang, plus a double door.
So how about the wolf hybrid?
So how about the wolf hybrid? Shouldn't a hybrid between a wolf and dog get the best of both worlds? Maybe theoretically, but not realistically. While some hybrids—the ones with the most dog-like characteristics—can sometimes make great family pets, others—the more wolf-like ones— are a big risk. The behavior doesn't necessarily depend on the percent wolf in the hybrid. Two hybrids from the same litter can be the same percent wolf on paper but can inherit a different combination of genes so that one is high in wolf content and the other is very dog-like. This is similar to how a litter of puppies with a beagle father and a basenji mother may have some puppies that look and act very basenji-like or very beagle-like rather than a split between the two. A further confounding factor is that because adding the words “wolf hybrid” increases the value of a dog, a huge percentage of the wolf hybrids out there are actually just mixed breeds.
Of course, there are some exceptions where wolves and high content hybrids are great with children and their owners, especially when they are young. Prey drive may not start to develop until the wolf is 6 months old, and social awareness and the use of aggression to attain high rank in order to have priority access to resources does not mature until two years of age. The instincts can suddently “awaken” giving the owner the impression that the hybrid is suddently acting out of character when it's just finally maturing.
London was right on in his novel. White Fang, the wolf and high content hybrids are magnificent animals perfectly suited for life in the wild. But for life with humans, thousands of years of domestication make the dog a better choice.