Socialization and Medical Care
Wolves at Wolf Park are socialized for a number of reasons. They make better display animals because they are not afraid of the public and will interact in front of visitors. They are better research animals because their behavior is not interrupted by the presence of researchers and students. General maintenance and medical care is not only easier and simpler to perform, but it can be made interesting, even pleasurable for the animals. We can also enrich the lives of captive wolves in ways which would otherwise not be possible, like the simple task of taking a wolf out for a walk, or allowing some of them to run in the bison field.
Pups are bottle raised from a very early age by both men and women (figure 62). Exposure to adult canines is kept to a minimum (a mistake made by many hybrid owners is to allow the adult animals in the family to raise the pups; the pups bond to the canines, and grow up fearful of people). Detailed notes are taken of the pups development to help assess their growth and health (figure 63). Subtle changes in amount of formula consumed or weight gain can be a guide to impending illness. The wolves are trained to accept restraint for medical situations such as drawing blood (figure 64). The pups are also introduced to the vet (figure 65) so they are comfortable with him as adults.
The whole process is started when the pups are only 12-14 days old. There is a critical period for socialization which is closed in wolves by about 21 days. Pups who have not been isolated from adult wolves by that age will almost never allow themselves to be freely handled. Pups taken before about 12 days of age do not seem to benefits from this extra early socialization, and the stress on the mother can be increased dramatically. By about two weeks, most socialized female wolves are not obviously stressed by the removal of the pups from the den, especially if she can still detect their presence nearby.
The process of socialization is a 24 hour a day task. It involves both men and woman and visits from adult wolves. If the pups are only given exposure to a few people, or just men or just women, as they mature, they will develop fear of what they have not experienced early on. The more people who visit them also increases the degree of socialization. Training is started from a very early age as well. Not chewing on people is one of the first things they are taught. Consistency is extremely important so all people who even just visit the pups for a brief time are instructed and supervised so they do not teach the pups any bad habits (like chewing off shoelaces).
The pups environment early on is kept very stable. People come to them, the pups are not brought to people. The pups are slowly introduced to new things a few at a time. Some people have made the mistake of forcing a pup to experience situations which were fearful. The result often creates shyness and fear for that situation, person, place, etc.
Most wolf pups also go through a series of shy stages. This has also been documented in dogs. When a pup is in a shy stage, the best way to handle it is to give the pup a place to retreat, not force anything new on it, and heavily reward any interaction or positive response. In one case at Wolf Park, two shy puppies were trained using a dog, that they liked a lot, to run up to the fence whenever they saw a school buss load of children. Within a few days, the pups had associated children with the dog well enough that they would run up to the fence and greet even if the dog was not present.
It is critical from an early age to get them well accustomed to people. It is also very important to give them plenty of exposure and social contact with people through their first year. However, any time that the social contact with new people is curtailed, a wolf may quickly lose it’s ability to accept strangers. Many either become shy or even aggressive if the constant exposure to new people is not maintained. With some animals, no matter what you do, you end up fighting a loosing battle and must be resigned to having an animal which can have only very limited contact with people.
With wolves, socialization and training are fully integrated for wolves are constantly training people and modifying their behavior as well as yours. Socialization and training are something which never stops.
The issue of training is something which has been argued against by many people. Some wolfdog owners, even some breeders, feel that training is not possible. Some wildlife advocates also dictate that you can’t train a wolf. Others may feel that training somehow takes away the animal’s dignity and somehow diminishes the wolf.
What these people fail to realize is that training does not make a wolf a dog, no more than it makes a killer whale a poodle, or a horse a chihuahua! Training is something that not only can be done with any animal with a backbone (and some without). It is part of the socialization process. It is something which is critically important in achieving and maintaining a strong and stable relationship in the animal/human equation.
As for dignity? This is a purely human perception and should not be considered relevant in a situation involving a privately owned animal. In a zoo setting one might argue that it is not appropriate to have a wolf jumping through a hoop, or even sitting on command, in front of the general public. This might give the perception the animal is exactly like a dog. Then again, does such training necessarily have to be done in front of the public? Or better yet, could one use such a situation to specifically be part of a lecture program to help educate the public about wolves and their direct connection with dogs? Animal/human demonstrations are very powerful tools in a zoo setting, especially in lecture programs directed at school children.
Are wolves and wolfdog hybrids trainable?
The answer to that is by all means YES! Wolves are trainable and socialized wolves show every indication that they enjoy training as much as any dog.
Where people have failed to train wolves is when they attempt to use coercive techniques involving fear, aversive stimuli and force. You generally can’t force a wolf to do anything, but you can encourage it to do everything, well everything with some restrictions. In other words, you can train a wolf to do anything it wants to do. The trick is finding ways to achieve the desire, in the wolf, to complete a task set by a human.
Training is something which starts as soon as possible. It is integrated with the socialization process and it will also greatly enhance the human/animal bond strengthening the relationship far more than anything else. It can be particularly useful in dealing with an aggressive animal, or an animal which shows tendencies to test the owner. With some animals, proper training is the only means of maintaining a safe relationship at all. In all cases it greatly enhances the quality of life for both the animal and the people who live with it.
Wolves differ slightly from dogs in several important ways when it comes to training. Overall, wolves lack the same degree of tractability seen in dogs. With most wolves you need to put in far more work to get the same degree of reliability that you see in a dog. Although one can train a wolf to sit in one or two trials, faster, and with a quicker response that you would achieve in most dogs, with a wolf, once the behavior has been done a few times, it will often get bored and wander off. Keeping their interest, keeping them from being distracted and keeping the behavior reliable is far most difficult. With a dog, most will have the attitude of “Master said it. I will do it. Master said it. I will do it.” over and over and over again.
Dogs also accept negative reinforcement much better than wolves. Most dogs readily exhibit the complex of characteristics often described as a “desire to please.” This behavior is probably a modified appeasement behavior seen in young and very low ranking wolves toward higher ranking pack members. In wolves, this behavior is generally not directed as strongly, or reliably toward people. You hit a dog, it wants to appease, you hit a wolf and it will either retreat in fear, or display aggression, but generally it will not show any appeasement for this action.
Wolves need to be trained using methods of positive conditioning and rewards. Being more intelligent than most dogs also results in wolves and hybrids being somewhat more difficult to control, but also easier to teach, if the motivation to learn exists.
In figure 60, Tatanka learned to leap across the top of a long row of hay-bales in only three trials. Photos taken on his third attempt show that he had become quite proficient. However, this “trick” could only be safely done on-lead (figure 61). This may seem excessive until you know what the reward was. This particular task was achieved by simple lure training. Lure training is very simple, you lure the animal along with a reward, which can be a toy, food, anything the animal wants, usually held in the trainer’s hand. The animal does what you want, and then you reward it by letting it have the reward. However in this case, Tatanka could not actually have the lure, for the lure was the a Nubian goat which belonged to Wolf Park’s director. We would not want Tatanka to get the director’s goat, would we….
This brings up another point, one of safety. Under no circumstances should a wolf or hybrid be off-lead in an unsafe area. Even well trained animals can break their training if something motivates them highly enough. Wolves are very sensitive to their environment and most will ignore commands if something interesting distracts them.
There have been situations where a wolf or wolfdog, off-lead, ran off after a deer or other prey animal. Of course this happens with dogs and better training could be argued at this point, but is the risk worth it?
Another important consideration is the stigma that wolves and wolfdogs have attached to them. A well-trained animal off-lead is generally not seen as an achievement by many people, but as a potential threat if they are afraid of wolves. Most people are afraid of wolves.
There is also the risk of another animal attacking. Your wolfdog, off-lead, is attacked by a free running dog. Which animal will be in greater trouble? Odds are it will be the animal which is part wolf. In one case in Arizona, such a situation did occur. Neither animal was injured in the fight, but with today’s political climate the wolfdog owners almost lost the animal which was running off-lead. The owners also came close to loosing his companion which was not free.
Even in cases where your animal is safe and on-lead you have to be cautious of bad owners and out-of-control dogs. A wolf which was used in education programs in schools to teach children about wildlife was at the beach so it could get some exercise and R&R. The wolf was on a leash. The beach was deserted so they felt it was safe. Suddenly a dog is running toward them. They see the owner in the distance and begin yelling to him to recall his dog. The wolf looked like he was going to make a snack of the dog which would not have been a good thing. The dog owner did not call back his dog. He instead yelled “Don’t worry! My dog won’t hurt your dog.” Luckily for both wolf and dog, one of the handlers was able to catch the dog before he made a potentially fatal mistake.
You can train a wolf to do a lot, but you can’t teach them to ignore instincts. Wolves are very territorial animals. A wolf which is very submissive as a puppy, will at some point lose that submissive behavior toward other unfamiliar dogs. A wolfdog will be somewhere between a dog’s tolerance (or intolerance depending on the individual), and that of a wolf, who is almost always 100% intolerant of other adult canines of the same sex that it did not grow up with. This sometimes even includes canine members of the opposite sex. Constant socialization around a constantly changing mixture of strange dogs may help, but for most people that is difficult and with a pure wolf, or high content wolfdog, not reliable.
Quality of Life
Social Testing & Predation
|Socialization & Medical Care
Are Wolves and Hybrids Trainable?
Legislation & Health Care
Why Have A Wolf or Wolfdog?