Recently we've seen a number of 'Wolfdog' references pop up (mostly from Instagram influencers). But, are they really wolfdogs, or are they just huskies, who happen to look a little like our canine ancestors? Are wolfdogs even legal? We set out to do the research and figure out what was up with wolfdogs.
The Wolf + the Dog
15,000 to 40,000 years ago, a few friendly wolves left the snow-covered woods and joined humans at their campfire to ultimately evolve into a brand-new species, dogs. Since then, humans and dogs have been inseparable. Not all wolves chose not to join the humans at the campfire though. Some chose a life of braving fierce winters and hunger over the humans’ warm fire and stored meat. As humans, we are drawn to the wolf’s strength, ferocity, and independence. Humans often idealize and long to own a wolf, but federal law does not allow people to possess pureblood wolves, and this leads to wolf enthusiasts seeking out the next best thing - wolfdogs.
(↑ not a wolf)
What is a Wolfdog
A wolfdog is quite simply, the offspring of a wolf and a dog. Wolfdogs have been around for centuries and humans have always been fascinated with them. The star of Jack London’s iconic novel, White Fang is a wolfdog. The main character of the animated children’s film series Balto is also a wolfdog. In the last decade, wolfdogs have seen a resurgence of popularity, which is partly due to the Game of Thrones direwolves. People seek out wolfdog puppies in hopes of finding a companion with the beauty of a wolf and the friendly disposition of a domestic dog. Instead, what they often find is a behavioral nightmare.
What is the Difference Between Dogs and Wolves?
Historically, wolves and dogs were considered two separate species: canis lupus and canis familiaris. Newer research though points to them both actually being sub-species of canis lupus.
Visually, dogs can look like wolves! All dog breeds today are roughly the same number of ancestors away from wolves, whether you have a husky or a chihuahua. Genetics can be funny!
One way you can always tell the difference between dogs and wolves is their eye color - dogs' eyes range from blue to dark brown, almost black. Wolves however, always have yellow or amber colored eyes - not brown.
Wolves tend to have larger heads, atop leaner, and more narrow bodies. They have longer legs and bigger paws. Their teeth are also bigger than dogs.
Dangers of Owning a Wolfdog
Wolfdogs do not make ideal household pets. While wolves raised by humans can become attached to that human, wolves can never be 100% domesticated. The wolf’s instinctual wariness around humans has kept both populations separate for centuries. Many owners purchase a wolfdog puppy without doing adequate research on the breed. Ill-prepared owners keep the wolfdogs in suburban yards and dog food diets, but wolfdogs can easily leap suburbia’s tallest fences. After the wolfdog gets out the first time, there is often no stopping them - neighbor's cats, dogs, kids.. etc. The wolfdog owner is often forced to call the authorities— who put their own safety at risk to track down the dog. Sadly, if the wolfdog is showing signs for aggression, it will most likely be euthanized.
Legality of Owning a Wolfdog
In the United States it is illegal to own a pureblood wolf. However, there are no federal laws concerning wolfdogs. States are free to set their own regulations. Many states including Arkansas, Hawaii, and Georgia have made it illegal to own any type of wolf offspring. In California, it is illegal to own a first-generation wolfdog. Yet second and third generation wolfdog puppies are legal to possess and do not require any special permits. Other states such as Utah and Oregon leave wolfdog regulation up to their counties. In all fifty states, wildlife specialists have had difficulty enforcing wolfdog regulations. And it is near impossible for authorities to genetically determine what percentage of wolf a wolfdog puppy is. An additional danger of wolfdog ownership is that there is no accepted wolfdog rabies vaccination. The rabies vaccine used for dogs has not been scientifically proven to work on wolfdogs.
Wolfdog Sanctuaries and Rescues
Traditional animal shelters will not have the time, room, or the resources to take in a wolfdog. Wolf rescue organizations often reject wolfdogs due to their mixed heritage. The only places that take in abandoned wolfdogs are wolfdog sanctuaries and rescues. Wolfdog sanctuaries will often rescue wolfdogs from all over the country and bring them together to form a pack. For this reason, wolfdog sanctuaries are located on large parcels of land in remote areas. Behind the gates of sanctuaries, wolfdogs can return to their wolf ancestry without threatening the public. Since good sanctuaries will spay and neuter every animal, the pack is entirely made up of rescues. Wolfdog rescues differ slightly from sanctuaries. Instead of forming a pack, wolfdog rescues place wolfdogs in highly-vetted homes. Some organizations are a combination of rescue and sanctuary. They keep some wolfdogs on their property to form a pack while placing other dogs with families. But it is important to note that the terms “sanctuary” and “rescue” are often used interchangeably.
Placing Wolfdogs in a Home
There is a debate in the wolfdog rescue world on whether wolfdogs should be adopted out to humans. Some wolfdog rescue organizations like the Lockwood Animal Rescue Center in California refuse to adopt out wolfdogs. Other organizations adopt out wolfdogs if a potential adopter meets a set of rigid requirements. For example, Lake Tahoe Wolf Rescue to follow their own set of guidelines which includes having no children or small animals, a stable home with lots of space, wolfdog experience, and an agreement to walk the animal at least twice per day. The rescue also has strict rules regarding fencing and requires all wolfdog owners to have an eight-to-ten-foot chain-link fencing with lean-ins and a dig guard. Wolfdog rescues would not place an animal with any individual that did not understand a wolfdog’s temperament and care requirements.
The Sad Fate of Wolfdogs
The wolf and dog mixes are majestic creatures, but unfortunately, most do not have the protection they need to live long happy lives. According to a 2018 Colorado Public Radio Article by Rachel Ramberg, around 200,000 wolfdogs are euthanized each year. Wolfdog sanctuaries and rescues are only able to save a small percentage of wolfdogs.
Call to Action
As dog-lovers it is our responsibility to protect dogs of every background. I would like to give a special thanks to Lake Tahoe Wolf Rescue for answering my many questions and assisting me with my research.
Ramberg, Rachel. “When Unprepared Owners Abandon Wolf-Dogs, This Sanctuary Takes Them In.” Colorado Public Radio, 1 May 2021, Web Accessed. 7 Aug. 2021. https://www.cpr.org/2018/05/01/when-unprepared-owners-abandon-wolf-dogs-this-sanctuary-takes-them-in/
Emily Negus is a freelance writer, and avid trail runner. She currently resides in Northern California with her two troublesome German Shepherds, Pippin and Chancey