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America's Other Controversial Canine, the Wolf Hybrid


The issue of training is something which has been argued against by many people. Some wolfdog owners, even some breeders, feel that training is not possible. Some wildlife advocates also dictate that you can't train a wolf. Others may feel that training somehow takes away the animal's dignity and somehow diminishes the wolf.

     What these people fail to realize is that training does not make a wolf a dog, no more than it makes a killer whale a poodle, or a horse a chihuahua! Training is something that not only can be done with any animal with a backbone (and some without). It is part of the socialization process. It is something which is critically important in achieving and maintaining a strong and stable relationship in the animal/human equation.

     As for dignity? This is a Purely human perception and should not be considered relevant in a situation involving a privately owned animal. In a zoo setting one might argue that it is not appropriate to have a wolf jumping through a hoop, or even sitting on command, in front of the general public. This might give the perception the animal is exactly like a dog. Then again, does such training necessarily have to be done in front of the public? Or better yet, could one use such a situation to specifically be part of a lecture program to help educate the public about wolves and their direct connection with dogs? Animal/human demonstrations are very powerful tools in a zoo setting, especially in lecture programs directed at school children.

Are wolves and
wolfdog hybrids trainable?

     The answer to that is by all means YES! Wolves are trainable and socialized wolves show every indication that they enjoy training as much as any dog.

     Where people have failed to train wolves is when they attempt to use coercive techniques involving fear, aversive stimuli and force. You generally can't force a wolf to do anything, but you can encourage it to do everything, well everything with some restrictions. In other words, you can train a wolf to do anything it wants to do. The trick is finding ways to achieve the desire to complete a task set by a human.

     Training is something which starts as soon as possible. It is integrated with the socialization process and it will also greatly enhance the human/animal bond strengthening the relationship far more than anything else. It can be particularly useful in dealing with an aggressive animal, or an animal which shows tendencies to test the owner. With some animals, proper training is the only means of maintaining a safe relationship at all. In all cases it greatly enhances the quality of life for both the animal and the people who live with it.

     Wolves differ slightly from dogs in several important ways when it comes to training. Overall, wolves lack the same degree of tractability seen in dogs. With most wolves you need to put in far more work to get the same degree of reliability that you see in a dog. Although one can train a wolf to sit in one or two trials, faster, and with a quicker response that you would achieve in most dogs, with a wolf, once the behavior has been done a few times, it will often get bored and wander off. Keeping their interest, keeping them from being distracted and keeping the behavior reliable is far most difficult. With a dog, most will have the attitude of "Master said it. I will do it. Master said it. I will do it." over and over and over again.

     Dogs also accept negative reinforcement much better than wolves. Most dogs readily exhibit the complex of characteristics often described as a "desire to please." This behavior is probably a modified appeasement behavior seen in young and very low ranking wolves toward higher ranking pack members. In wolves, this behavior is generally not directed as strongly, or reliably toward people. You hit a dog, it wants to appease, you hit a wolf and it will either retreat in fear, or display aggression, but generally it will not show any appeasement for this action.

     Wolves need to be trained using methods of positive conditioning and rewards. Being more intelligent than most dogs also results in wolves and hybrids being somewhat more difficult to control, but also easier to teach, if the motivation to learn exists.
Figure 60
Figure 60

Figure 61
Figure 61

In figure 60, Tatanka learned to leap across the top of a long row of hay-bails in only three trials. Photos taken on his third attempt show that he had become quite proficient. However, this "trick" could only be safely done on-lead (figure 61). This may seem excessive until you know what the reward was. This particular task was achieved by simple lure training. Lure training is very simple, you lure the animal along with a reward, which can be a toy, food, anything the animal wants, usually held in the trainer's hand. The animal does what you want, and then you reward it by letting it have the reward. However in this case, Tatanka could not actually have the lure, for the lure was the a Nubian Goat which belonged to Wolf Park's Director. We would not want Tatanka to get the director's goat, would we....

     This brings up another point, one of safety. Under no circumstances should a wolf or hybrid be off-lead in an unsafe area. Even well trained animals can break their training if something motivates them highly enough. Wolves are very sensitive to their environment and most will ignore commands if something interesting distracts them.

     There have been situations where a wolf or wolfdog, off-lead, ran off after a deer or other prey animal. Of course this happens with dogs and better training could be argued at this point, but is the risk worth it?

     Another important consideration is the stigma that wolves and wolfdogs have attached to them. A well-trained animal off-lead is generally not seen as an achievement by many people, but as a potential threat if they are afraid of wolves. Most people are afraid of wolves.

     There is also the risk of another animal attacking. Your wolfdog, off-lead, is attacked by a free running dog. Which animal will be in greater trouble? Odds are it will be the animal which is part wolf. In one case in Arizona, such a situation did occur. Neither animal was injured in the fight, but with today's political climate the wolfdog owners almost lost the animal which was running off-lead. The owners also came close to loosing his companion which was not free.

     Even in cases where your animal is safe and on-lead you have to be cautious of bad owners and out-of-control dogs. A wolf which was used in education programs in schools to teach children about wildlife was at the beach so it could get some exercise and R&R. The wolf was on a leash. The beach was deserted so they felt it was safe. Suddenly a dog is running toward them. They see the owner in the distance and begin yelling to him to recall his dog. The wolf looked like he was going to make a snack of the dog which would not have been a good thing. The dog owner did not call back his dog. He instead yelled "Don't worry! My dog won't hurt your dog." Luckily for both wolf and dog, one of the handlers was able to catch the dog before he made a potentially fatale mistake.

     You can train a wolf to do a lot, but you can't teach them to ignore instincts. Wolves are very territorial animals. A wolf which is very submissive as a puppy, will at some point lose that submissive behavior toward other unfamiliar dogs. A wolfdog will be somewhere between a dogs tolerance, or intolerance depending on the individual, and a wolf who is almost always 100% intolerant of other adult canines of the same sex that it did not grow up with. This sometimes even includes canine members of the opposite sex. Constant socialization around a constantly changing mixture of strange dogs may help, but for most people that is difficult and with a pure wolf, or high content wolfdog, not reliable.

To see more on training, and a lot more training photos, check out Wolf Training & Socialization

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