|Figures 1 and 2. Socrates, a young male wolf at Wolf Park. Notice that his head is relatively large, the markings on his face are well blended, he has small well-furred ears, and light colored eyes.||Figures 3 and 4. Tatanka, a young male wolf hybrid who is about 30% wolf on paper. The rest is malamute. Notice that his head is somewhat smaller than that of the wolf. His ears are also larger, pointier, and lack the dense fur commonly seen in wolf ears. His markings are also very distinctive and not well blended. His eyes are light, but this characteristic can also be seen in some dogs.|
Establishing the identification of an unknown animal continues to be a difficult and controversial subject. Genetic research may someday solve this problem, but for now, an animal’s identity is often based on what the owner claims the animal to be, or on what testimony by an expert witness may determine. Checklists and other similar methods to assess an animal’s “wolf-content” have failed to be reliable. Skull measurements as described by Iljin (1941) are only reliable with rendered skulls.
No single physical or behavioral trait can lead one to a certain conclusion as to whether an animal has “wolf” in its recent ancestry. However, an assessment of the animal as made by someone with adequate experience is possible, using “gestalt perception” where you assess the totality of the physical and behavioral characteristics seen in an animal, and compare them to your past experiences.
Head Shape and Ears
This high-content female wolf hybrid in figures 5 and 6 is very wolf-like in every respect except for her head. Most notably, her ears are much larger than those of a wolf.
Compare the ears of this hybrid with those of a pure wolf at Wolf Park, figure 7.
Black Wolves May Fade
In black canines, fading patterns might be a factor in assessing older animals. Figure 8 is a photo of Kiri, a wolf at Wolf Park, taken at one year of age. Figure 9 is Kiri one year later.
Figure 10 is a hybrid who is about half wolf. Although he is an older animal, about 8 years of age, he has held his black pigment much like many black dogs.
Parents and Offspring
Although the animal in figure 11 gave the outward appearance of being a dog, he was in fact a wolfdog hybrid, reportedly 50% wolf. When bred to a pure wolf, figure 12, he fathered a litter of pups. (The ears of the figure 12 wolf were damaged while wrestling as a pup with some lower content wolfdogs.)
Figures 13a (male) and 13b (female) are two of the pups from this breeding. All the pups in this litter were very wolf-like in all respects. This is not something which you would expect to see if one of the parents was a pure dog.
One of these offspring (figure 13b) “accidentally” bred with her father. The owner of the animals had read in the popular literature that female wolves do not go into heat until their second year. This is not always true with pure wolves. It is certainly not the case with all wolfdogs.
The resulting offspring (Figure 14) were all white and resembled dogs, much like their father. In general, if one parent is a pure wolf, the offspring should all show clearly identifiable wolf-like characteristics, even when bred to a dog. If one parent gives the appearance of being a wolf, but when bred to a predominantly dog-like animal produces “dog-like” offspring, the “wolf” in question might in actuality be a high wolf-content hybrid, and not a pure wolf. If the animal looks like a dog, but produces very wolf-like offspring when bred to a wolf, then the “dog” might very well be a hybrid.
Are percentages of wolf meaningful?
A wolfdog, like any animal, will be the product of its parents. However, genetics will result in a certain amount of variation around a given norm. A hybrid’s pedigree is nothing more than a probability figure as to what can be expected. It is not an accurate assessment of how an individual will turn out, but is a general guideline. However, a hybrid out of a pure wolf should be considered more difficult to work with.
Most “first generation” animals are generally less suited as a good pet by most people’s standards and expectations. These “poorer pet-quality” animals often do not “work out,” for such hybrids generally exceed the ability of most people to socialize, contain, and generally provide a safe home. The same can be said of hybrids whose pedigrees indicate a wolf-content somewhere above 50% wolf. This is of course assuming that the pedigree is accurate and does not misrepresent the wolf-content. Although percentages are nothing more than a general guideline, they will be used for the sake of simplicity in descriptions of animals in this presentation.
Figure 15: This animal’s pedigree indicated that she was 50% wolf. A pure wolf was several generations in her background. She was good in the house, was well trained and about as tractable as many northern-breed dogs. Her markings were also typical of many northern-breed dogs and overall she was a good “pet.”
Figure 16: This animal’s pedigree also indicated that he was 50% wolf. A pure wolf was several generations in his background. He was not good in the house, he was very shy and was not very tractable. Overall his markings and build are those of a wolf. The only clear indication that he is part dog are his large pointed ears and relatively small head.
Variation within a litter can be striking
Figures 17-19 are five-month-old litter mates out of mid-content hybrids. Figure 17 is a male, who, for the most, part looked and acted much like a dog. Figure 18 is his sister who was more wolf-like in both appearance and behavior. While both are restrained by the owner in figure 19, she can be seen to fuss and resent the restraint. While her brother was tractable and easy to train, she required much more intensive handling and care.
There are no hard and fast rules with hybrids. Being fully interfertile, and back-crossing being a rule, rather than an exception, one cannot even assign a specific “percent” criteria for suitability as pets, as has been done in some legislation.
However, one can make the general statement that often, low-content hybrids will work out as “pets.” This is especially true of hybrids which are the product of breeding a mid-wolf-content animal to a dog. Many such “low-content” hybrids even fall well within the general expectations for dogs. This of course does not make them “absolutely safe,” for any canine can be dangerous under the right (or perhaps it should be said, wrong) circumstances.
It can also be said that the higher wolf-content animals are generally more difficult to work with. The more wolf that the animal has in its pedigree, the more wolf-like characteristics are being exhibited, and, in general, the more work it will take for a person to get results equivalent to those one might expect in a dog. In very high wolf-content animals, you often cannot achieve the same goals, especially with reliability, as you could achieve with a dog. There are exceptions to this, but exceptions should never be taken as the norm, made into an excuse for irresponsible ownership, or made into an example as what can be expected of every animal in every situation.
The problem many face is that of assessing a wolfdog in both its pedigree and its behavior. Even taking into account the unreliability of numbers due to fraud, and the uncertainties due to genetics, you will often find many exceptions to any rule developed. Ideally, the concept of “what an animal is supposed to be” should be discarded. Assessment should be made primarily on the animal’s behavior and how suitable it is in the environment that it is being kept. Only then can you can begin to ascertain what should be expected of the animal. Of course that does not help the lay person, or most “professionals” who have to deal with various situations involving hybrids, for experience with many hybrids of known background is necessary before such assessments can be made.
To further complicate the issue, the higher content animals are not necessarily the ones to bite someone or otherwise cause an “incident.” The biggest problem with high wolf-content animals is that they are more likely to have a miserable life. Many are shy and afraid of people. Far too many are stuck in small pens with little or no mental stimulation for their entire life.
Low wolf-content hybrids
Figure 20: This animal is a “25%” wolf P1 backcross. His parents were a malamute and a F1 wolf x malamute. Nothing about this animal is overtly “wolf-like” however; he was very intense in his behavior, more so than most dogs, and this made him a difficult animal to work with. No animal should ever be taken for granted and it cannot be stressed enough that each animal has to be analyzed as an individual, regardless of what it is “supposed” to be. Just because an animal is “25%” wolf, does not make it safe. Just because an animal is 0% wolf does not make it safe.
Figure 21: These two animals are also two generations removed from a pure wolf. Their pedigree indicated that they are 25% wolf, 25% malamute, 50% German Shepherd. Nothing about these animals was overtly wolf-like. Such animals would be impossible to clearly identify as hybrids based solely on their phenotype.
Figure 22: This animal is a malamute. In comparison to the animals in figure 21, this animal appears more “wolf-like,” yet it is a dog. The similarity and apparent complete overlap in general characteristics between many low wolf-content hybrids and some dogs make clear identification based on phenotype virtually impossible with many hybrids.
High wolf-content hybrids
Figures 23 and 24 are both animals on display at wildlife facilities. The animals’ genetic backgrounds are very questionable. The animal in Figure 23 was acquired as a young pup from a hybrid “rescue” operation and was claimed to be a pure wolf. However, when traced, it was discovered this animal may have come from a breeder where the animals are misrepresented as pure wolves when in reality they are most likely hybrids.
The animal in Figure 24 was caught in the greater Los Angeles, California area. The animal’s owner was known, and he claimed it was a pure arctic wolf. The animal eventually ended up at a wolf facility. Again, a back ground check traced the animal to a breeder who produced only hybrids. Although this animal gives every outward appearance of being a wolf, it may in fact be 1/8 Great Pyrenees!
Figure 25 is a known hybrid whose pedigree indicates “20%” dog. Like the animals in figures 23 and 24, this animal shows no outward appearance of being part dog. In this case, both parents were hybrids.
Identification based on phenotype of pure wolves from high wolf-content hybrids can also be difficult or impossible.
Quality of Life
Social Testing & Predation
|Socialization & Medical Care
Are Wolves and Hybrids Trainable?
Legislation & Health Care
Why Have A Wolf or Wolfdog?