Even though we aren’t successful at mimicking the ritualized behaviors we still need to have a thorough understanding of what the wolfdog is saying. Our lack of attention or misinterpretation of a behavior can lead to breaking the wolf’s rules and can subject us to retaliation in the form of tests, challenges or worse. As we have explained, wolfdogs have their own set rules that they live by, but they also have to live within our rules and routines when they live with us. When we live within the rules and routines everything typically works well. When we vary the routine it can lead to some turmoil. Wolfdogs are very sensitive and reactive creatures and don’t react well to changes. If they do not feel they are receiving the right kind of guidance they can become more disobedient, and you may have a problem on your hands.
Many wolfdogs mature to a greater degree than your average dog breed. As this happens we often see changes in them. An adolescent wolfdog is much different than an adolescent dog. Much like a human teenager, an adolescent wolfdog will begin exploratory behaviors. They like to test the limits of our patience to see what they can get away with. It may be as simple as ignoring us or being stubborn and disobedient or maybe a bit more independent than usual. Some of the testing behaviors can almost seem like they are playing with us. They may find ways to bother, tease and harass others whether they are 2 or 4 legged. This can be in the form of crowding you, hip bumps or slams or it can be slightly more forceful with pulling at clothing or a ponytail or a nip from behind as they dart in and out. It is important to understand that not every wolfdog will utilize every test in the book. But the higher contents do tend to throw quite a few tests at their owners.
It is crucial for the wolfdog owner to answer the test in the appropriate manner or the tests can accelerate to a challenge. Most tests are fairly subtle and more or less done to get a reaction or to warn you that you have somehow annoyed the animal. If you think about it, wild wolves will often test their prey as the size them up before embarking on the hunt. They can be provoked by anything from simply walking too close to a piece of cached food or a prized bone to taking a treasured toy or food away or simply being in his space. Most often we see a very normal, mild behavior become a test when the wolfdog becomes overly stimulated or excited to the point that he loses a bit of control and acts out. A test can be due to a pain-related issue or resource guarding. For the typical wolfdog owner who becomes someone complacent and so trusting of his companion these tests come out of the blue and can escalate to a somewhat dangerous situation.
Here are some examples of behaviors that can be precursors to tests or threats:
Agnostic Pucker: This is a big term for a warning snarl. The look is not pretty. Basically the teeth are bared, the skin just above the nose is wrinkled and the lips & flew are drawn forward.
Barrier (Fence) Frustration: When a wolfdog is held in a kennel or in a yard and becomes frustrated by something on the other side of the barrier such as another dog running the fence line. The frustration can build to a level of aggression if he cannot get to the source of his frustration. When this happens he can displace his aggression on another dog or a person that he can reach. This can also be seen when the wolfdog is on a leash and held back from a situation.
Bump: A mild test happens when the wolfdog walks or trots into a person with his side or chest. This is most often seen in puppy’s play but occasionally and adolescent will use the bump for a test to gauge your reaction.
Charge: This is a fast approach toward the target person from a distance of 10-15 feet or more. This can be done in play, however when it is coupled with other signs such as hackles up, ears forward, or a direct stare it would be considered a threat display.
Circling: The wolfdog will move in a circle around a person he wishes to threaten. He will keep constant eye contact, hold his ears high and forward and usually will carry his tail up high.
Crowding: This is a less severe test where the wolfdog will move close to you or lean against you and try to push you or guide you away or into something with some force. They are typically looking for a reaction. Crowding can also be perceived as a play behavior so you need to pay attention to the rest of the body. The ears are held very erect and forward and the tail will also be up in the case of a test. If you move the wolfdog will often move with you in an attempt to keep close. This can often be a precursor to bumps, hip slams, shoulder checking and jaw punches.
Growl: Not every growl is a test, but some wolfdogs will emit a low, guttural growl as part of a test. They typically save a low growl with no teeth showing to tell you they are annoyed such as when you are grooming them and they want you to stop what you are doing. As the intensity of the test increases he may bare his teeth showing either the upper front teeth and the canines or the full set of pearly whites. If the behavior builds in intensity the growl and teeth display may be joined by a hard eyed stare.
Hard Eyed Stare: This indicates the threat is pretty serious when they stare at you with a wide eyed look that includes dilated pupils. If they add raised hackles, bared teeth and a growl they mean business. If the tail is wagging back and forth in a slow deliberate pattern or in a circular motion this points to a very highly aroused, excited animal and aggression towards you is very likely.
Hackles Up: When all the hairs from the neck down the back to the tail are in full piloerection in conjunction with other behaviors such as the hard eyed stare there is a strong possibility of an aggressive threat following. When only the shoulders and/or croup go up it generally points to more of a fearful reaction to something in its environment.
Hip slam: These are forceful hits performed by a wolfdog when they pivot on their forepaws and strike into the person with their hind end. Like the bump it is geared to gauge your reaction.
Hit or Open Mouth Hit: This behavior is typically seen in conjunction with the circle or as a drive by while on the run. He will open his mouth wide and hit a person’s arm or leg with his big canines as he runs by. It is not considered a bite, but it is done with enough force to be painful and bruise skin. It may or may not be in conjunction with a vocalization, but some have been seen whining as they hit.
Inhibited Bite: Wolfdogs have a huge amount of control over how hard they bite and how much damage they inflict. When testing or threatening people they will often use an inhibited bite, meaning the bite lacks the pressure to puncture or tear skin.
Jaw punch: This is a hard punch with the muzzle. The wolfdog will keep his mouth closed while performing the punch, but it can precede an inhibited bite and is used to intimidate a person. When used in conjunction with a hard eyed stare the wolfdog means business.
Line of Sight: This happens when the human steps in the direct line of sight between a breeding pair, or paired animals whether they are intact or not. When this occurs the wolfdog will generally stalk or stalk with a stiff legged walk and a very hard eyed stare. This behavior can quickly rise to a challenge if the animal becomes aroused.
Leap: Wolfdogs are athletic animals who love to leap onto and at things in play, but the leap is used to signify an attack in other cases. When a wolfdog begins leaping at your face pay close attention to the rest of the body language. Is this all in fun or does he mean business. This is another behavior we try to thwart.
Lunge: This will sometimes be seen in conjunction with circling. The wolfdog will leap from a short distance away from the person with an agonistic pucker, hackles up and the tail help high. It may or may not be coupled with guttural growling.
Intense Sniff & Snorkel: This is one of those behaviors that can be play with your companion, but it can easily escalate. The wolfdog will be intensely sniffing a shirt or jacket and quickly stick their muzzle or entire head up piece of clothing. This can simply mean the wolfdog is curious about a smell he picks up, but if he becomes over-excited it can escalate. When they begin to root the snorkeling usually precedes a hard inhibited bite.
Measure: This behavior is often seen in play, but can escalate out of excitement. It can also be used to test people. The wolfdog will use his massive jaws to measure a person’s body parts such as a hand, arm or even a head. He will gently place his teeth on the body to gauge size and then stop, or he may measure the part several times or move slightly to measure a different body part. If they begin to get excited they may pinch skin. Wolfdogs will measure one anothers backs and it can be a precursor to back biting. We discourage the behavior whenever possible. Fortunately, simply standing up or moving away will generally stop the behavior.
Nip: Wolfdogs are famous for their nibble grooming which is considered to be a friendly behavior where they use the little incisors (front teeth) as a rapid fire comb. It doesn’t always tickle, but it is different than a nip. A nip is used to throw a small test your way and gauge your reaction. The maneuver includes grasping skin or clothes with the incisors. They will most often nip and run from behind with ankles or pants legs as a favorite target. If the behavior isn’t thwarted it will generally lead to butt biting.
Nose jab: This test is much like the jaw punch, but isn’t quite as forceful. The wolfdog will poke you with his nose and it is usually directed at the back. It is another intimidation tool that they use when they are stressed, but doesn’t usually precede a bite.
Paw Thwack: Wolfdogs love to use their paws and most of the time it is all in fun, but once in a while it is used as an offensive threat to provoke a response.
Play Escalation: Occassionally the wolfdog will become so excited during extreme roughhousing that regular jaw sparing, play fighting and wrestling can lead to an inhibited bite or some other sort of test.
Proximity Sensitivity: In the case of a wolfdog that has not received the proper socialization a person can simply approach the wolfdog too closely and set off a display of threats. Most often you will see growling or snarling and snapping behaviors to tell you to back away. As you retreat from that invisible fear circle the threats subside.
Shoulder slam: These are forceful hits performed by a wolfdog when they pivot on their hindquarters and strike with their shoulder. Like the bump or the hip slam it is geared to gauge your reaction.
Snap: The wolfdog will get fairly close to the person, make direct eye contact and make several hurried bite movements aimed at the person but does not make contact. The snap of the teeth causes a loud sound as the jaws clank together. This is often done close to a person to warn them of the wolfdog’s displeasure.
Snarl: The wolfdog will crinkle his upper lip and expose his front teeth and canines. Depending on the arousal and intensity you may see both the top & bottom teeth or just the top set of pearly whites. This can be a sign of annoyance or it could be an offensive or defensive threat.
Stalk: This behavior is another one often seen in play, but can become serious as well. The wolfdog will crouch low to the ground yet keep a level back with its head lowered slightly. You know they mean business when they lock on with an intense wide-eyed stare and pricked ears.
Stand On: Wolfdogs just love to stand on people and in most cases it is no big deal. However, when you try to remove them from stomping on your body it can sometimes cause an escalation and can lead to some aggressive behavior.
Stand over or Stand Tall: This happens when a person is on the ground or lower than wolfdog. Most often this is play or the human & wolfdog is simply communicating. But it can be a testing behavior when they stand over you to get a reaction.
Stand Tall: This can be used as an intimidation tactic by some wolfdogs. They will draw their body up to look like he is standing tall and stiff legged crossways over the person’s legs. Their neck is usually arched and the may begin to growl while the ears move forward and into an erect position and the tail rises.
Stiff Walk: It is important to understand what is a normal gait and what is not, as some indicate a threat is coming. When a wolfdog walks very slowly and deliberately right at the person or just past the person with a stiff legged gait this is usually a precursor to some sort of test. An intent stare, some or all the hackles up, ears up and forward, tail up coupled with slight hesitation between steps indicates a test or threat is coming in the form of a lunge or a charge.
Handling Tests and Threats
Have you heard the phrase “Don’t Poke the Bear”? The best way to handle any kind of test is to avoid doing something that might provoke the wolfdog. Preferably you want to control the wolfdog’s environment in such a way that it prevents any kind of aggression. This can be done by steering clear of anything that might cause him to over-react or intensify his reactions or the situation. But we don’t live in a perfect world and complete avoidance is a pretty tall order. With some minor testing behavior all that is needed is a loud cutoff signal such as “AhhAhh” or “Stop”. The word doesn’t matter, it just needs to be short and abrupt to interrupt the behavior. For other minor tests a hand gently placed on the head/muzzle region will stop the behavior or redirecting the behavior into something safer.
When you are faced with some sort of aggression from a wolfdog it is best to greet him in a calm, friendly manner. Speak to him without too much excitement in your voice and with soft eyes and slight smile. You want to be ready to avert your eyes and make sure you aren’t giving him a big toothy grin that looks more like a wolf’s agnostic pucker than a smile. Afterall, you want to lessen the aggression not escalate it. You also want to refrain from making a lot of movements with your arms.
There are two schools of thought on the best way to handle yourself when a wolfdog acts aggressively towards you. We believe that it is best to gently extricate yourself from the scene even though some say this only reinforces the behavior. Our rational is that when we allow the aggression to continue it will do more harm than good. So we begin to slowly move in an arc rather than a straight line towards the gate and remove ourselves. As we do this we turn slightly to the side and keep our eye on the wolfdog at all times – just not a hard eyed stare. This does two things. First it breaks the wolfdogs concentration with us, which is clearly stimulating the aggression and second, wolfdogs hate to be ignored or shunned. By leaving we are ignoring them.
Unless you really do want to “poke the bear” don’t growl back at a wolfdog as this will only heighten the arousal. You don’t want to scold, correct or yell at him. Refrain from cornering him in any way and be careful how you move within his habitat. You certainly do not want to greet his aggression with more aggression so by all means do not hit or grab at the wolfdog for any reason. Lastly, don’t take it personally. The wolfdog doesn’t hold grudges or take things personally and you shouldn’t either.