Growing up, I must have read Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George 100 times. I set my single-minded obsession on these majestic canines, as I was wont to do with various things over the years. But my reverence for wolves didn't really wane like other fleeting fascinations, and so I dreamed that one day I might be fortunate enough to have a wolf-dog hybrid.
Fast-forward to last year, when my husband and l decided to bring a dog into the fold of our family. With the help of our two ever-fickle children under the age of 6, we pored over pictures from rescues until we found a face that spoke to us: a white German shepherd, then named Tyson.
At 8 months old and around 65 pounds, the dog we now know and love as "Jaws" was obviously a large breed. At his first vet visit, we were told he was underweight and needed to pack on some pounds. Problem solved! At just over a year now, Jaws has filled out to 100 pounds and is still growing.
And every single time we go out in public with him, we get asked the same question: Is he part wolf?
While we've always answered no, the truth is at first we weren't so sure ourselves. I felt fairly confident that he was, in fact, simply a white German shepherd — but there was no denying this dog had a distinctive appearance. His light amber eye color, which is considered a fault in the GSD pedigree, seems to be the factor that throws people off the most.
So, naturally, we did some research. It was extremely enlightening, leading us to the conclusion that Jaws is not a hybrid... we think (more info below on why it's nearly impossible to say that with all certainty). But for anyone wondering whether a wolf-dog hybrid is right for them or whether the dog they just adopted may be one, there are some serious considerations that should be made.
What is a wolf-dog hybrid?
Yes, it is essentially exactly what it sounds like — a wolf-dog hybrid is an animal that is part wolf and part domestic dog, with German shepherds, Alaskan malamutes or Siberian huskies being the domestic dog breeds typically being crossed. Since wolves and dogs are "interfertile," the result of their breeding is viable offspring.
According to the International Wolf Center, though, such hybrids rarely occur in the wild due to the highly territorial nature of wolves. Also of note is that since modern domestic dogs descended from wolves, technically all dogs have wolf heritage. To be clear, a wolf-dog hybrid is defined as an animal with a pure wolf ancestor within the last five generations.
What kind of temperament do wolf-dog hybrids have?
As explained by Wolf Park, a highly respected not-for-profit, "It is very hard to write about wolf hybrids, because there really are no absolutes." Because the wolf content in a hybrid is difficult to determine, temperaments can range greatly. To determine how much content a wolf-dog hybrid has, one must rely on phenotyping — which basically amounts to an educated guess derived from the creature's physical and behavioral traits. Fun fact: Wolf-dogs from the same litter can act and look entirely differently, with some taking on the characteristics of a dog and others a wolf.
Low- and even mid-content wolf-dogs can be as easy to train as a standard domestic dog. However, the higher the wolf content in the hybrid, the more wild the animal is and therefore harder to handle. Since wolves are naturally timid around and mistrusting of humans, so are high content wolf-dogs. High content wolf-dogs are very wary of people, while low- and mid-content wolf-dogs may be more indiscriminately friendly like northern dog breeds such as the malamute.
Wolf-dog hybrids are powerful animals, which can be more territorial, predatory and aggressive than your average dog. At 14 or more years expectancy, they can also have longer life spans than your typical large-breed dog. They must be socialized early and with great care, and if they don't get enough physical and mental stimulation, they can become quite destructive. They tend to be "mouthy" and will chew on anything and everything if left to their own devices. Wolf-dog hybrids are agile and often can't be contained by a standard fence.
In short, wolf-dog hybrids are complex creatures. One wolf-dog hybrid could potentially turn out to be a perfectly docile pet (although that's very unlikely with a high content), while another could be unwieldy and aloof. Generally speaking, they are not for first-time dog owners or for the faint of heart. They need a strong handler who is patient and well aware of the unique challenges of owning such an animal.
What are some of the physical markers of wolf-dog hybrids?
Again, since wolf-dog hybrids can exhibit physical characteristics of either dog or wolf, there are few categorical answers here — there is no single trait that can help you conclusively tell if your dog is a wolf hybrid. There are some comparisons that can be helpful in determining if a dog is a wolf hybrid.
Wolf-dog hybrids generally have longer legs and much larger feet than a domestic dog. Their chests are narrow. A wolf-dog hybrid's head is relatively large in proportion to its body, and its face markings are often more blended than a dog's. Ears are typically erect, rounded and furry, while the snout is long and pointed with a low forehead or little to no "stop."
A wolf-dog hybrid's eyes are usually light in color, ranging from amber to yellow. A wolf-dog's nose will be black, and its teeth may be longer and with a more pronounced curve than an average dog. It may have a thick ruff of fur around the neck and shoulder area, and its tail will often be straight and bushy with a black spot (the precaudal gland) on top of the tail base.
Is it legal to own a wolf-dog hybrid?
Regulation of ownership for wolf-dog hybrids varies by state, county and even city. Since roughly a dozen states have legislation regarding these animals, you'll need to check with your local municipalities to see if owning a wolf-dog hybrid is even an option where you live. Regardless of whether it is legal, it remains one of the most controversial topics in the canine pet world — expect further rules and regulations as the popularity of wolf-dog hybrids grows.
I want one; what now?
If you are dead set on getting a wolf-dog hybrid, the best thing you can do is educate yourself. Research, research, research is required with this animal. Many wolf-dog experts recommend spending time volunteering at a wolf-dog hybrid or wolf rescue to orient yourself to the unique nature of these creatures.
Again, early socialization is imperative. Specialized training will likely be necessary with high-content wolf-dog hybrids, which for the record may never be the giant snuggly and sociable dog you've been dreaming of. Wolf-dog hybrids require a secure space to run and exercise with a 7- or 8-foot fence at minimum — they are consummate escape artists. They can be terribly tricky to housebreak. Also, a wolf-dog hybrid should never be left alone with a child due to their natural predatory instincts.
Should you decide to pursue ownership of a wolf-dog hybrid, it's crucial to seek out a reputable breeder or preferably rescue organization. Misrepresentation runs amok in the wolf-dog hybrid world, with certain sellers claiming pups with no wolf content are high-content (and charging an arm and a leg for them).