The wolf

Father and brother to the dog


It was a cold, crisp night in the Canadian wilderness. Snow blanketed the lake and misted eerily in the constant wind. Here and there among the birches at lakeside, eyes appeared, penetrating amber eyes surveying the stark landscape. Ghostlike shapes moved silently among the trees for several minutes; then the wolves headed out, moving effortlessly in that long, ground-eating lope.

Perhaps a caribou or moose would fall tonight, and the wolves would gorge.

Much ado has been made about the relationship between man's best friend and the wary, wild carnivore. Training methods are based on this relationship even though most breeds of dog bear little resemblance to Canis lupus.

The wolf is the quintessential wild animal. Considered brave, even fearless, by admirers; held up as a model of family efficiency and loyalty; feared by those who misunderstand his needs; loved by ecologists; and hated by cattlemen and sheepmen, this wild canid is imbedded deeply in man's cultural and natural history through fairy tales, folklore, and an ill-advised battle against natural predators. People are willing to believe that this creature is related to northern breeds of dogs, but not to their beloved Poodles, Beagles, or Labrador Retrievers.

Scientific research conducted over the past century has determined that dogs developed from several subspecies of wolves scattered throughout the world. Thousands of years ago, wolves probably became camp followers, taking advantage of the scraps around the fires and caves of prehistoric man. Perhaps man brought wolf cubs into the family to raise, and eventually began to take advantage of the wolf's ability to hunt and to guard the campsite. Down the millennia, through preference for wolves of certain physical and behavioral characteristics and through genetic mutation, Canis lupus changed shape, size, and color to become the wolf subspecies now known as Canis lupus familiaris.

Physical traits

Dogs and wolves have much in common. Northern breeds of dogs -- the Alaskan Malamute, Akita, Chow, Siberian Husky, and related breeds -- are closest to the wolf in appearance. These are double-coated dogs with plush undercoats for warmth and coarse outer coats for protection against wind, rain, and snow. Many of these breeds have "wild" coat coloring, with several distinct colors often appearing in each overcoat hair. They also tend to have broad heads with plenty of brain space, but their brain capacity, muzzle-length, and strength of jaw are less than that of their progenitors.

Wolves mature physically at a later age than dogs; females have their first estrus at two years of age or older, and they cycle only once each year, usually in late winter. Males mature at age three or later.

Dogs that developed from northern wolves tend to be substantial canines, well-muscled and well-suited for hunting large game (Akita), herding reindeer (Samoyed), and pulling sledges (Alaskan Malamute and Siberian Husky). Dogs that developed from wolves in temperate or more southern climates tend to have shorter coats and be more streamlined than their northern cousins. Sighthounds (Afghan Hounds, Salukis, Basenjis, and Greyhounds), dingoes, and pariah dogs fall into this group.

Mastiff-type dogs probably were developed as a result of gigantism originating in populations of a mountain wolf in northern India or Tibet. Most other breeds are presumed to have developed from crosses between the northern, dingo-pariah, and mastiff groups, some with an admixture of dwarfism genes.

Behavior traits

It is in behavior that the modern dog is said to most resemble his ancient ancestor. Behaviorists and trainers exhort dog owners to learn pack theory, to establish the alpha position in the man-dog relationship, and to mimic the wolf in administering discipline.

Wolves in the wild live in family packs, mostly consisting of three to a dozen members, usually related. Each pack has an alpha or top male and an equivalent female, and each top wolf keeps order among the pack members of its gender. Generally, only the top male and female mate, but occasionally the alpha male stands aside and allows the beta (second place) male to breed the alpha female.

Only one litter is born to the pack each year, and all the adult wolves assist in raising the cubs. One wolf remains at the den site with the cubs while the others go off to hunt. When the successful hunters return to the den, they regurgitate partially-digested food for the cubs. As the cubs grow and leave the den, the adults take turns cub-sitting, playing with the youngsters and keeping them out of harm's way.

Unity in the pack is maintained by complex use of facial expressions and body language that establish relationships between individual wolves that benefit the pack. Alpha wolves may place their head or paw on the shoulders of subordinates or grasp the inferior's muzzle in his jaws in play, just a reminder that he is boss. Or he may stare at boisterous subordinates in a C. lupus version of "Knock it off!"

Position of the ears, tail, and lips are important in wolf communication. A relaxed but alert wolf or a dominant-aggressive wolf carries his ears up; a submissive or fearful wolf pins them back against the skull. An aggressive wolf carries his tail straight behind, a submissive one tucks his tail between his legs. A wolf ready to fight curls his lips back fully, bares his teeth, stares intently, and raises his hackles. He may growl or not.

Submissive wolves avoid eye contact with dominant members of the pack and may turn away from their betters. Many inferior wolves grovel to their superiors, mimicking the cub behavior of soliciting food by licking at the muzzle of the dominant animal. Sometimes, they lie on the ground and expose their bellies to the alpha wolf, and they may urinate to further state their acknowledgement that the alpha is truly the top wolf.

With the cubs, however, all bets are off. All adults accept the attentions, including the sharp teeth, of the cubs. The youngsters are allowed to practice adult behaviors with forbearance, although a particularly painful nip might be followed by a big paw pinning a hapless cub to the ground. Mother may grab a cub by the scruff of the neck and shake him for wandering off, or she may cuff several cubs that refuse to stop roughhousing, but these are manifestations of firmness, designed to keep the cubs safe and teach them manners.

The purpose of this social order is to increase hunting prowess and ensure the survival of the pack and therefore the species. Wolves cooperate when they hunt. In some cases, a couple of wolves will watch over the potential prey animal while the rest of the pack relaxes and plays. Then, when the hunt resumes, some wolves may leave the pack and circle ahead of the moose or elk, ready to ambush it. Sometimes wolves encircle a prey animal floundering in deep snow and simply wait for it to tire and collapse.

There is a tendency to judge their behavior as cruel or as gentle and loving, but wolves are simply animals that are equipped to survive in a harsh environment. Ascribing human emotions or characteristics to their behavior is inappropriate. To search for vestiges of that behavior in their descendants and attempt to comprehend it can enhance understanding of wolves and of the dogs that share man's home and hearth.

Wolf behavior and dogs

When puppies are born, mother dog behaves much like mother wolf. She tries to find a private place to give birth. She tries to clean up the afterbirth to keep her "den" clean. She stimulates the pups to urinate and defecate by licking their tummies and cleans the puppies to remove waste materials.

As the puppies grow, she disciplines with stares, wuffs, growls, and, if these don't work, by scruff shakes and cuffing.

Puppies practice dominance and submission within the litter from the fifth to the eighth week, which makes it important for them to remain with mom for at least seven weeks.

Once the puppies are weaned, the similarities with wolves are not as obvious. Some puppies will approach adult dogs and solicit food in the manner of wolf cubs, and some adult dogs will regurgitate in response, but unless the pup goes into a home with another dog, much of the wolf-like behavior is muted.

However, owners can use the principles of pack behavior to train their dogs. Crates are simulated dens, and puppies will seldom foul their den, so crates can be used as housetraining aids. A den is also a safe place, and the crate can be the dog's safe place in the home. [More on Crates]

Establishment of the humans in the family as alpha is important in training the dog. Alpha is achieved by wise use of power, not by punishment; it is earned when the pup learns to respect limits imposed on its activities, not by bribing the pup to be "good." Wolves tolerate no deviation from behavior that will ensure survival of the pack and their justice is swift. Human dog owners must be just as quick to deal with transgressions with a response that is as firm as necessary.

The wolf today

Today wolves are endangered species wherever they live, except perhaps in Alaska and the Canadian Arctic and subarctic, where they appear to flourish in the midst of the herds of hundreds of thousands of caribou. Attempts are being made to reintroduce wolves to their former territory to serve as natural predators for deer, elk, and other hoofed animals with burgeoning populations.

Two biologists spent months observing a pack of wolves on Ellesmere Island in Canada's Northwest Territories, and each wrote a book about his observations and experiences. Several older books celebrate the relationship between man and wolves, including by Barry LoOf Wolves and Menpez and The Wolf, A Species in Danger by Erik Zimen. Several videotapes are available about wolves, and the canid remains a favorite subject of wildlife photographers and writers.

Hybrids need experienced owners

Three canids -- dogs, wolves, and coyotes -- seem to crossbreed rather freely. Unfortunately, it has become somewhat popular for these crossbreds and their offspring to be kept as pets.

Since the wolf -- Canis lupus -- is an endangered species, it is illegal to capture a wild wolf for any purpose. However, some folks established colonies of wolves before this status was granted, and they have used these animals to produce wolf hybrids. Most hybrids are crossbred on large breeds of dogs, especially German Shepherd, Chow, Akita, and Alaskan Malamute, and they often combine the worst characteristics of the wolf and the dog breed.

The wolf is basically a shy animal, instilled with a fierce need to fit into a pack hierarchy and depending on nuances in body language and facial expression and on hunting skill to survive. A stare is considered a direct challenge and can bring an attack if the animal cannot flee. Wolf jaws are much stronger than those of a dog and are often used to exert dominance.

The breeds of dog frequently used to produce the hybrid tend to be dominant, fairly independent, and even aloof. They are difficult to train for inexperienced owners and can be aggressive to other dogs and dangerous to cats and other small mammals. This combination of wolf temperament and breed characters can be dangerous in inexperienced hands.

Although the lure to own an exotic pet is strong, families who would like a wolf-like animal that is good with children should opt for a well-tempered German Shepherd, a Keeshond, or a Samoyed. More experienced dog owners might consider a Siberian Husky, Alaskan Malamute, Chow, or Akita. Only those folks who have previously trained a tough northern breed of dog should even consider a hybrid.

A wolf hybrid should never be left alone with small children, for children stare, scream, and move quickly. Stares are challenges, and the baby will lose every time. Screams, cries, and quick movements are prey characteristics, and the hybrid may consider the child fair game.

A hybrid must always know who is top dog, and this alpha status must be earned and maintained with firmness, not punishment.

Obedience training is a must.

There's no way to predict whether a hybrid will display wolf behavior or dog behavior or something in between. Therefore, hybrid owners should read as much about wolves as possible so they can recognize and deal with the various manifestations of body language, facial expressions and dominant or submissive behaviors they may encounter. A hybrid should always be spayed or neutered to prevent breeding.

The responsibility of placing hybrid pups in appropriate homes is far greater than the responsibility of placing any other pup.

A hybrid is not a guard dog. Since there are far more subordinate wolves than alpha wolves, and since most wolves don't bark much, a hybrid with wolf behavior is likely to flee rather than guard.

Female hybrids are less likely to get along with female dogs or hybrids, and male hybrids are unlikely to get along with male dogs or hybrids.

The caveats regarding wolf-dog hybrids carries over to coydogs, the coyote-dog hybrids that are becoming more common as coyotes spread throughout the country. Since coyotes are solitary animals not attuned to pack living, the problems encountered with these hybrids may be even greater than those of wolf-dogs.

There's no doubt that a hybrid wolf or coyote can be a fine companion for those who understand their wild core. But the thrill of living with such a magnificent creature must be tempered by the knowledge that the animal will forever be unpredictable, that mistakes in training may never be forgiven, and that alpha status must always be reinforced. The average pet-owning family is much better off with "just" a dog.

Norma Bennett Woolf

This page is a part of the Dog Owner's Guide internet website and is copyright 2021 by Canis Major Publications. You may print or download this material for non-commercial personal or school educational use. All other rights reserved. If you, your organization or business would like to reprint our articles in a newsletter or distribute them free of charge as an educational handout please see our reprint policy.

We will be modifying the Dog Owner's Guide site with new and updated articles in 2021 as well as new booklists so check back often to see what's new!

Contact us