While a test or a threat is normally nothing more than an argument or an
attention getter a challenge is a very focused aggressive display. The wolf-
dog has something important to say and you are going to listen. Fortunately,
outside of the hormonally driven challenges (see Winter Wolf) these displays
are not frequent and the owner should not feel like the wolfdog is “turning on
them”. The wolfdog is a sensitive animal and tends to pick up on our emotions
and feelings. When they become over stimulated and excited by something
that is going on with you or in their environment it can cause an emotional
response very quickly. If this is not handled correctly it can lead to some of the
more serious behaviors that can get you hurt. It is best to stay observant and
attentive at all times so you can visually see the intensity amping up so you can
redirect it before it becomes something serious. The challenge usually starts
with some sort of test or threat that intensifies. One second they are stalking,
circling or stiff leg walking and the next thing you know the wolfdog has lunged
at you and is now standing on its hind legs, grabbing your shoulders with his
paws and illustrating to you just what their dew claws are for. He is glaring right
through you with a very determined, hard-eyed stare. If that shark-eyed look
isn’t enough to scare you the snapping of his big white teeth and the deep,
guttural growling that seems to be emitting from his tail end certainly will. His
tail may be up, but you typically won’t notice that as you are too concerned
about the teeth clanking inches from your nose. The hackles are usually up, the
ears are just about as pricked as they can get and set very forward on the
head. The nose is wrinkled, the nostrils are flared, the eyebrow moves forward, there is facial tension around the eyes and the whiskers and lips are all moving forward.
It seems to go on forever, but in reality they generally don’t last that long and the good news is that from this pose it is very difficult for the wolfdog to do a lot of damage to you. It is very much like the behavior that you see when two wolves ride up on their rear legs and duke it out in ritualized aggression threats. It is a lot of noise and teeth flashing but not much harm. But it is still enough to scare you to death. A challenge is very different from a full on attack, but if you don’t handle yourself properly the challenge can become an attack. So what do you need to do?
While challenges can happen anytime of the year wolfdog tempers seem to flare from November through March. During these times of the year some wolfdogs tend to be a little grumpier and you need to be hyper-vigilant whenever you are with your wolfdog. Simply waking them up suddenly from a nap in the warm sun or getting too close to their mate or a cached bone can get them going. We’ve had it happen when one particularly sensitive male didn’t want two of us to leave his enclosure.
If your wolfdog does challenge you the best thing for both of you is to stay calm, cool and collected while the teeth are snapping all around you. Piece of cake, right? But the more emotion you give him the more confidence he will gain and if you show him you are agitated he may think you are threatening him back. It is very important to remember that no matter how strong or fast you are, how much weight you can press at the gym or how quickly you can do the 40 yard dash you are not going to win in a wolfdog fight. They are faster, stronger and much better at this than you could ever dream of being. A domestic dog can bite you 4 times in 2/10 of a second. Can you respond that fast?
The best thing to do when challenged is to have another person distract them by calling them, or with a loud noise or by throwing something. Because the wolfdog is so focused during a challenge it is rare that simply calling them will distract them, but it is always worth a try. This intense focus also keeps the wolfdog from redirecting the aggression on another person in most cases.
If you don’t have another person to help the next best thing is to utilize cutoff or calming signals to cool the situation down. They are a form of body language that all dogs use to interrupt a behavior they aren’t comfortable with or to sort of calm a situation down and we can use them to get the same messages across. To defuse the tension you can utilize some of the signals, but you won’t want to use all of them for fear that he will try to bully you all the more. Start by turning your head and body slightly sideways to make yourself look a little less imposing. With is paws on your shoulders this slight twist of the body will cause him to readjust and sometimes it is enough to get them to drop down on all 4s again. SO that you avoid any risk of looking threatening it helps if you narrow and avert your eyes but keep him in full view.
If he doesn’t stop the challenge after these techniques it is best to start moving toward the gate. This may or may not make him get down and stop. If all else fails, as you get close to the gate push him backward with every ounce of strength you have and get out. Now I know that sounds like you have lost the battle, but if you stop and talk calmly to another wolfdog in the yard through the fence and completely ignore him and continue to shun him for a while he won’t feel like he won.