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Challenging Life with Wolfdogs

Every dog breed has been created by man’s artificial selection of traits –both physical and behavioral.  Not every breed of dog is perfect for everyone.    A super hyper Jack Russell terrier might be the right pet for one person, while Labrador retriever might be a better choice for someone else.  Wolfdogs are no different.  People need to research and investigate what pet is right for their lifestyle and their skill set with canine behavior.  Before bringing home a cute, fuzzy puppy they need to have a clear understanding of the needs of the animal and how to be ready for the good, the bad and the sometimes ugly parts of wolfdog ownership.  Wolfdogs aren’t for everyone, but for those that are ready for the whole canine package they can be fun companions.

Social Hierarchy

In the 1940s scientist began to observe wolves in sterile, captive situations that led them to believe that wolves had a rigid social structure that was maintained by aggression. This was the beginning of the belief that a wolf pack’s social structure was a linear dominance hierarchy that had the “alpha” wolf as the dictator of the pack, trying to control resources such as food and breeding.   In the 1970’s L. David Mech was still using the same alpha dominant structure in his book The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species which became the Bible to wolfdog owners and wolf enthusiasts. Since then it has become clear through research of wild wolves and wolves held in captivity that those early assumptions by scientists were very flawed and we learn more everyday about how wolves and wolfdogs learn and find new and improved ways to maximize our relationships with our companions.  


We now know that wild wolves live in organized, cooperative family groups of a breeding pair (the parents) and their offspring with very little aggression.  These family packs are very individualized.  Some have strong family structures while others are very weak or non-existent. The wolf maintains social order through complex rules and ritualized behaviors that reduce conflicts rather than using violence and aggression towards one another. These ritualized behaviors are clearly communicated using body language involving the ears, eyes, muzzle, tail, and body posture.  


To hear Dr. Mech’s explanation please visit his site at


In the 1970s Erik Zimen assessed over 300 different behaviors in the wolf, the poodle and several generations of wolf-poodle crosses.  In his study he found a high degree of similarity between the poodle and the wolf behavior.  While we have changed some of the motor patterns through artificial selection we still maintain many of the behaviors.  


Why is this important?

For many years wolfdog owners believed that they needed to follow the early dominance hierarchy philosophy which lead many owners to use harsh, dominant methods to keep their wolfdogs in their place.  It was not out of the norm for these people to manhandle their animals; to pin them; cuff them on the nose; flood them with things they were fearful of; to helicopter them or alpha roll them until they displayed subordinate or submissive behavior.  What these owners did was set up their companion to fail and become quite aggressive…and usually get them bitten.  The later observations and studies have shown us that these aversive methods have nothing to do with our wolfdog’s social behaviors and our dogs don’t recognize them.  


It is our opinion that it is not possible for a human to be the “alpha”, “Pack Leader” or “dominate” a wolfdog through ritualized behaviors because we do not have the capability to move, look or act like a dog. We don’t have tails to tuck or hold high; our faces don’t resemble muzzles, and we can’t move our ears to show dominance or submission.  Instead, we feel that wolfdogs need responsible owners willing to build a relationship with their companions. These owners need to guide them using sensible rules, routines and training using positive reinforcement methods.  If you think about it, wolves and wolfdogs are social animals that thrive on relationships and a huge part of building that human-animal bond is to step back and look through the wolfdog’s eyes.  It is important to understand that they see the world very differently than we do and we must respect their view of the world rather than define it in ways that makes sense to us.  Living with a wolfdog often means catering your world to theirs and treating them with love, dignity and respect.


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