Social Testing and Predation
Wolves are social hunters. They live in packs where rank order is paramount to function. Individual wolves, especially the younger wolves, are open to opportunities to test their superiors for vulnerability. Some are quick to take advantage of any situation which might enable them to become dominant over another pack member. This is something we have greatly modified in domesticating dogs. Once a dog has accepted its owner as clearly dominant, that position is almost never challenged. With a wolf, that position, no matter how apparently concrete, may still be up for debate. A hybrid is somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.
Popular accounts would have you believe that a pet hybrid will take the first opportunity to challenge, even attack its owner. The reality is much more complex than this. Although a wolf is open to challenging a dominant pack member, including a human “pack member,” this will generally only occur under certain circumstances such as:
- The animal is maturing sexually and is testing and achieving dominance over other canine pack members.
- The animal is fence-fighting with a non-pack member and, already highly aroused, redirects aggression on a person in the pen.
- The animal has a history of aggression and has learned to challenge people.
- The animal becomes overstimulated during an excited greeting and “boils-over” to an aggressive state.
- The animal is kept in an inadequately small pen leading to boredom and excitability, and/or is not worked with, socialized and trained adequately.
- The owner trips and falls and is suddenly and conspicuously vulnerable.
- The owner develops a fear of the animal and acts conspicuously vunerable or afraid.
- The owner rewards aggression in the animal or allows aggressive behaviors to continue unabated.
- The owner fails to understand and compensate for seasonal aggression. This is especially common for males (of both species).
- The owner triggers a critical reaction by trying to force the animal to do something, or puts the animal into a situation where the animal becomes defensive.
There are numerous other possible situations, but these seem the most common and most are based on a lack of understanding of the animal’s social needs and a lack of proper training. The privately owned animal in figure 46 was a yearling male “muzzle-greeting” a prone visitor. She was having fun and so was the young wolf. Although this was something that then was not really all that risky, it was very ill advised. Such interactions teach the animal very bad habits and later would no longer be safe at all when that the wolf fully matured. In fact, this individual wolf did become very aggressive by five years of age, even to the owners. This aggression was only exhibited during the winter months when hormones ran high. Removing those hormones for the most part solved the problem. Some residual aggression remained due to place conditioning to certain circumstances, but behavior modification on the owners’ part has resulted in the animal becoming much nicer and easier to work following being neutered.
In figure 47, two “wolfdogs” are greeting a teenager. Both animals were sold to the owner as having a similar wolf content, about ¾ wolf. However, the one on the right, their first animal, is most-likely a dog. Besides looking like a dog, she was a good house pet, was easy to train and did not test people.The other, younger female is over half wolf and is testing the teenager. Although it was not the case here, such “testing” is perceived by some owners as “play,” but it is not play; it is quite serious and can lead to a bite or even an attack if not suppressed through proper training. Although she took a lot of work and training, this animal continues to do well years later, but due to the heightened social aggression between female wolves, she is no longer living with any other female canines.
Even small pups can be seen to show increased testing over and above that seen in dogs. In figure 48, this 10-week-old pure wolf pup was not being overtly aggressive, which would be very unusual at this age, but he was incessantly jumping up on this child, pulling at his hair, his collar and his sleeves in an apparent attempt to pull him over. Although this pup was very submissive to adults, he would not submit to the child, and his testing was intense enough that after a few minutes the child had to be taken out of the pup’s reach.
Figures 49 and 50 show wolves hunting bison at Wolf Park. This demonstration is done to show the public how wolves hunt and how bison protect themselves. Bison are formidable enough prey that they are not in any danger and have never been injured during this demonstration. The wolves do not growl or raise their hackles, such behavior is social and not directed at prey. The wolves do stalk, chase, bow, and try to bite the bison.
Some people have been bitten by hybrids because they could not interpret the signals the animal gave them. It was not bowing and “playing,” it was quite serious and was looking for an opening to run in and bite. Like dogs, hybrids can also be dangerous to livestock. A strong prey drive, figure 51, can lead to injured and dead livestock, and a dead pet shot by an irate farmer.
Wolves, hybrids and children
A few wolves and wolfdogs can be safe around children, figure 52, but only under very controlled circumstances. Unlike with dogs, a wolf that is “safe” around children is “safe” because to that individual wolf, children are super-releasers for the care giving behavior shown to puppies. However, the wolf can very quickly change its mind if it sees children behave like prey.
Imbo, seen in figure 52 as a six-year-old adult, was very good with children up to this point. Notice he is submissive toward the children as he would be toward puppies. Although it can’t be seen in the photo, Imbo was also on a leash and had two handlers. Two months after this photo was taken he saw two children on separate occasions act like prey. One was a child with Tourette’s syndrome who was acting out and the other was a spoiled brat who threw a tantrum. Imbo was not very close to these children and had no opportunity to investigate further. He could only see and hear them. However, this was enough of a stimulus to cause him to regard children as prey rather than puppies. From that point on, it was obvious that he was no longer safe to have anywhere near kids.
Most wolves in zoos, like those in figure 53, where the animals have unrestricted access to viewing children, will show predatory behavior like this young black male is doing as he stalks a child. The same can easily happen in a pet situation.
What is also very interesting in figure 53 are the expressions of the people. Click on the image to get a larger version and you can see both parents and both children are very excited and happy. The mother is grinning ear to ear. It is very common for parents to be happy and excited when animals show an interest in their children. However, there have been cases where children have been seriously bitten by dogs and wolfdogs when such predatory behavior went unrecognized and there are no physical barriers separating the animal from the people.
It is also important to point out that this behavior can generally be thought of as a product of captivity. Unhabituated to people, wolves in the wild do not think of children as anything more than something to be avoided — as they would avoid all mankind.
Mickey, figure 54, was a pet wolf in Michigan who killed a child. Mickey was kept chained in a back yard. When a three-year-old walked up to him, he knocked the child over and treated him like small prey. Mickey had reportedly been “good” with children up to this point.
Children less than five years old are particularly at risk around dogs of all kinds, especially large breeds, and are the most likely to be killed in a biting incident.
Dogs can also be dangerous and destructive
Figure 55 is a sheep that had its ears eaten off by a free-ranging dog, figure 56, that belonged to a neighbor. The dog was allowed to run free despite the fact that it would chase people on horseback and had harassed livestock before, because they were not willing to keep the dog on a cable and claimed they were unable to afford a secure enclosure. They denied that their sweet loving pet could ever harm anything because it was such a “good dog” at home. What they failed to realize was that friendly social behavior has nothing to do with predatory behavior.
In fact, predatory behavior can be quite varied depending on the circumstances. A dog which has been perfectly good with the house cat, may chase and even kill a cat outside. Sometimes that may even be the same cat it was good with when indoors.
It was not until the owners of the dog saw the blood on the dog and then were taken to see what had happened to the sheep that they realized that their dog was a dog, a predator capable of doing predatory things…
Although dogs, to varying degrees, will exhibit predatory behavior, with few exceptions, wolves have a lower triggering threshold for exhibiting predatory behavior. Also, when it is triggered, this behavior is much more intense, and much more likely to follow through the entire sequence of give eye, stalk, chase, catch, kill and eat. This sheep survived an attack by a dog, but it is unlikely that it would have survived one by a wolf. Again, a hybrid would have been somewhere in the middle, more likely to do damage than the average dog, less likely than most wolves.
Bux and McDowell (1992) report an estimated that between one and four million persons per year are bitten by dogs in the United States. Gershman, et. al. (1994) estimates 585,000 injuries result in the need for medical attention yearly and that children are the most frequent victims. Wright (1985) estimates that a risk of two fatalities per 1,000 reported dog bites may exist nationwide while a comprehensive survey by Sacks et al (1989) identified 157 fatalities attributed to dog bites from 1979 through 1988. In the latter, the authors report that the death rate for young children was almost 370 times that of adults 30 to 49 years of age and that 70% of the deaths occurred among children who were less than ten years of age. In the 101 cases where the breed of dog was reported, pit bull breeds were involved in 42 (41.6%) of the cases. Wolf hybrids were reported in only five cases. In a listing of newspaper accounts of attacks by dogs in Canada and the U.S. from 1982-1995 privately published by an organization called Animal People, wolf hybrids were listed as having attacked and done serious harm to 27 out of 210 (12.9%) listed cases. However, this was not a scientific study, only a listing of what was reported in the popular press. All accounts reporting dog bite statistics listed pit bull breeds in the majority.
Do bad dogs justify keeping pet wolves?
Does this all mean that dogs are even less desirable, and more dangerous, than pet wolves and wolfdogs? Does it mean that a wolf is a better pet? No. Not at all.
Wolves, and most high wolf-content hybrids are very curious, and on average much more destructive than dogs. Even under “controlled” circumstances, most wolves will get into things. In figure 57, Imbo, Wolf Park’s former alpha male, is led into the Visitor Center kitchen where he climbs up on a table and pulls things down to investigate them by pulling them apart (figure 58). If left to their own devices, wolves can be quite destructive; even the garden hose is not safe (figure 59).
So how to explain this discrepancy? How can it be that a wolf or a wolfdog hybrid is more difficult to keep than a dog, yet dogs are higher on the bite statistics lists? Studies have concluded that nothing can be definitively concluded regarding statistics on wolfdogs.
There are too many people who misrepresent their animals. There are too great a range of percentages and breeding combinations (due to the lack of any concise breeding program in the U.S. these animals are unfortunately the ultimate mutts). And, there is a strong tendency across the board — from research facilities to one time owners of a single animal — for people to lie about their animal, for example to claim that it is just a dog if it should ever get into trouble … and especially if it should ever bite someone. The fault here is a legitimately based fear that the animal will be immediately euthanized for rabies testing, an issue which will be addressed in a later section.
There is also the possibility that there may be a stronger statistical relationship between the quality of wolfdog owner and the result you see in the animal in comparison to that of a general dog owner and the resultant behavior in their dog. At least a bias may exist in the direction of the bad, ignorant of training and social requirements, or the neglectful owner.
There is such a narrow margin of error with most wolfdogs, relative to dogs, that in general a wolfdog owner who does not do a good job with their animal usually does not keep them very long relative to the same situation with the average dog. The reason being that a poorly socialized wolfdog will generally be much shier than the average dog making a less handleable and perhaps less desirable pet. A wolf or a high content wolfdog also requires much earlier socialization than a dog. Most wolfdogs and nearly all pure wolves will have a greater tendency to avoid people if free and away from their “territory” regardless of their socialization history. By default, this would result in the animal getting into less trouble if it avoided people.
Many owners also realize early on that they have an animal which will require more work. They will either they put in that extra work, or they put the animal in a situation where it will be less likely to get into trouble, or they may even put the animal down. The net result is that perhaps, just perhaps, wolfdogs are somewhat self regulating when put into a “pet” situation.