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Canine Trauma

Crying Wolf

Written by: Tracy Vogel, Staff Writer -

Like the lion has come to stand for the jungle, the wolf personifies the idea of wilderness.

Wolves allure and repel. People fear them, but love their strength, power and wildness.

But for some, it’s not enough to view these creatures from a distance. You can have more, they say. You can own the wolf or at least a portion of it.

They’re called wolf dogs, or wolf-dog hybrids either the direct offspring or descendents of a wolf and dog mating. The Humane Society estimates that there are about 100,000 to 300,000 in the United States. That’s 100,000 to 300,000 points of controversy, central to a raging argument over the definition of domestication and the inevitability of genetically programmed behavior.

Darlene Kobobel wasn’t a wolf fan growing up. "My biggest fear as a little girl was wolves," she said, recalling tales of Little Red Riding Hood, and Peter and the Wolf. "You know how something as a child can make an impression on you."

"You’re not going to change a wolf into a dog it’s taken selective breeding through centuries and a lot of dogs still have wolf behaviors," said Darlene Kobobel, who runs a hybrid rescue.

Even as an adult, when she thought of moving near the woods, one of her first thoughts was whether there would be wolves out there, lurking and watching from behind trees. It wasn’t an appealing idea.

Then, one day at an animal shelter where she volunteered, she met Chinook. "She was just beautiful," Ms. Kobobel recalled. "Majestic looking I think it’s what a lot of people see, and why they want these animals. I looked at her and she looked at me like: ‘Oh, please get me out of here.’"

Ms. Kobobel asked about the dog. The shelter official told her it was a wolf-dog hybrid, and it was due to be destroyed in a few hours.

"Oh, no," she told him. "You can’t."

The shelter wasn’t supposed to adopt out the dog most shelters have a policy of euthanizing wolf hybrids after the required waiting period for their owners to claim them. But they knew Ms. Kobobel from her work with them, and she managed to argue them into giving her the dog.

That was the start. Today Ms. Kobobel runs the Wolf Rescue Center in Lake George, Colo., a sanctuary for wolves and wolf dogs. She has 11 of the animals on an enclosed eight acres of land.

But the work hasn’t converted her to the ownership of wolf dogs. It’s accomplished the opposite.

The first week Ms. Kobobel opened the doors of her rescue center running an ad in the newspaper to advertise she wound up with 17 animals.

Ms. Prendergast devotes three-quarters of an acre to her animals, Timer, Pepper, Rachel, and Adolph. "I’ve had dogs, too, at the same time, and they drove me crazy because they were so dumb," she said. "A German shepherd can be very well trained, but that doesn’t mean he has brains."

For almost a year afterwards, she received 15 to 20 phone calls a day from people wanting to get rid of their hybrids. Today, she still receives about 300 phone calls a year.

"It ultimately comes down to the wolf as a predator," she said. "You’re not going to change a wolf into a dog it’s taken selective breeding through centuries and a lot of dogs still have wolf behaviors."

Chinook became her "ambassador wolf." Ms. Kobobel takes her to schools and educational venues, to teach people about wolves and wolf dogs, and why they don’t make good pets.

"We believe very strongly that wolves should be wolves, and dogs should be dogs," she said. "Wolves are beautiful, intelligent creatures and they belong in the wild."

On the other side of the spectrum is Dorothy Prendergast, executive director of the Wildlife Education and Research Foundation, which works for the approval of a rabies vaccine for wolves and wolf hybrids.

She’s owned wolf dogs for more than 20 years ranging from a few to 19 at one time. "They are so much more intelligent and inquisitive than a plain dog," she said. "They’re devilish at times, but that has to do with their intelligence and inquisitiveness."

Ms. Prendergast devotes three-quarters of an acre to her animals, Timer, Pepper, Rachel, and Adolph. "I’ve had dogs, too, at the same time, and they drove me crazy because they were so dumb," she said. "A German shepherd can be very well trained, but that doesn’t mean he has brains."

She recalled one wolf dog that loved to steal her daughter’s toys. The hybrid would take them outside and bury them, always with part sticking up above the ground, so they could be found.

The family finally gave him his own teddy bear. He carried it around everywhere for a while even when out on a lead then decided one day that he didn’t need it, ripped it to shreds, and never stole another toy.

The hybrids like to sneak away with things you value, she said they’ll steal glasses, or a checkbook, and hide them.

But not all wolf dog behavior is so harmless, according to opponents. They say the difficulty with hybrids is that they have split personalities.

Wolves are shy creatures by nature they will avoid people whenever possible. There has never been a documented case of a healthy wolf killing a human in North America, said Stephen Zawistowski, senior vice president and science advisor for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to animals.

Dogs, on the other hand, have been bred as companions to humans to approach them, to enjoy their presence. When wolf behavior starts to take place among humans, it causes massive and sometimes tragic problems.

On the small scale, there’s the destructiveness. Wolves dig tremendous holes in yards, they tear apart homes out of sheer curiosity, they mark their territory with foul-smelling urine, and they’re smart enough that a fence may not hold them in a yard.

At worst, there’s the aggression. "Unpredictable" is the word that opponents use, again and again. Wolves are animals that hunt for food. A running child, a sudden wrong movement on the part of the owner can trigger that predatory impulse. Wolf society is based on dominance and constant testing if you back down, the wolf has moved up in rank. The alpha wolf is constantly being tested by the second-ranking wolf. It’s a constant, instinctive jockeying for position.

"Unpredictable" is the word that opponents use, again and again. Wolves are animals that hunt for food. A running child, a sudden wrong movement on the part of the owner can trigger that predatory impulse.

"The drive for all wolves is to place some kind of dominant role in the social family," said Jeremy Heft, pack manager and staff biologist for the Wolf Education and Research Center in Winchester, Idaho, an organization that tends to a captive wolf pack and promotes wolf recovery.

"When they’re in the wild, that plays out among wolves. In a domestic situation, they view the human family as their pack, and show this perfectly natural behavior of dominance. When you have a situation like that biting, growling, pinning and individual humans in the mix, humans get hurt."

One of Ms. Kobobel’s animals was acting normally with her one day and then suddenly rushed at her, snapping. She realized too late that she’d stepped too near a piece of meat. The hybrid was defending its meal.

She wasn’t in a position to stand her ground, and she backed down so now she needs to be extremely careful around that animal. It has asserted its dominance, and she fell in rank.

According to a report published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, wolf-dog hybrids were involved in 14 human fatalities from 1979 to 1998. In comparison, pit bulls were involved in 66, rottweilers in 39, and German shepherds in 17.

But wolf dog proponents reject the dangerous dominance argument. It boils down to an argument over genetics wolf dog proponents say that breeding and training make the animals acceptable pets. Opponents say you can’t breed and train these animals enough to truly fit them into a human family.

"My response would be, ‘What is a "wild gene?’" said Michael Jordison, executive director of the Utah-based Wolfdog Education Network. "My personal opinion is that wolf dogs have been around since the beginning of man. Today’s domestic dog could be a variation of wolf and coyote mix, or numerous other mixes. Every behavior you find in a pure wolf can be found in a domestic dog."

As with dogs, wolf dog hybrids have been selectively bred for certain characteristics, proponents say. And while there are irresponsible breeders out there that will throw a dog and wolf together, and sell off whatever they get, the true devotees are breeding selectively for appearance and temperament, Mr. Jordison said. "Something that resembles a wolf with the behavior and temperament of most northern breed dogs."

In most cases, the breeding has been going on for 40 to 60 years, Mr. Jordison said. Wolf dogs generally aren’t the immediate offspring of dogs and wolves they’re the descendents.

John Davis, president of the United States American Wolf Dog Association, also points to genetic information. "The German shepherd is a wolf dog," he said. "All dogs are wolves, so I have a hard time with people making a distinction between dogs and wolves."

Mr. Davis owns four wolf dogs, which added that he does not breed. But ask him what a wolf dog is, and he asks what a German shepherd is, or a malamute, or a husky. "It’s a dog. There’s wolf in all dogs."

Proponents, including Mr. Davis and Mr. Jordison, argue that wolves and dogs are literally are the same species scientists can not distinguish wolf genes from dog genes. The distinctions people make between the two animals are false, they say. Genetically, they’re the same.

And Mr. Heft said that’s true. "I totally agree biologically they are the same animals," he said. "We can not separate the DNA from a wolf, a dog, and a hybrid."

But there is a big "however" to that point, he said. "Dogs have been selectively bred for 10,000 to 12,000 years from wolves. For us to think that we can cross a wolf and a dog and train it in one generation is naïve."

Basically, wolves and dogs are two different animals within the same species, Mr. Heft said. The classification system just isn’t designed to recognize that difference. "Dominant and predatory behavior can not be suppressed within one generation or a few generations it takes thousands of years to do that."

One of the misperceptions people have is that genes become diluted through breeding as though you were adding milk to coffee, Mr. Zawistowski said. Add wolf to dog, and you come up with something that’s half-wolf, half-dog. That’s not the case the genes don’t go away.

And what genes the pups receive is random you may get a pup with more wolf behavior and one with more dog-like behavior in the same litter, Ms. Kobobel said.

Over thousands of years, people have managed to curb dog behavior to put holds on the natural aggression. Take herding dogs, for example, Mr. Zawistowski said. "We’ve taken the hunting and chasing ability and put a genetic punctuation point at the end of that they don’t go in for the kill. The aggression we see in dogs generally has some controls on it."

But Mr. Jordison said that bad behavior and aggressive tendencies in wolf dogs can be curbed with proper training.

Often the dogs are aggressive toward others of the same sex get them spayed and neutered, and the problem is solved. If you find the dog unpredictable, that isn’t the dog’s fault it’s yours, he said. You aren’t understanding the body language, and you have to do more work and research.

"I have not seen an animal of northern breed which to me includes wolf dogs that did not give you the correct signals," he said. "Some people believe they’re more predictable than dogs."

In contrast, he recalled a rottweiler he encountered once at a veterinarian’s office, where he did volunteer work. The dog gave off friendly signals, but when he reached out to pet it, it lunged for him. "I have seen a pure wolf act like a golden retriever," he said. "I’ve seen nasty golden retrievers that would tear your arm off."

Wolf dogs need to be socialized, exposed to different situations and people and if they’re too shy, you don’t push them, Ms. Prendergast said. "It’s a matter of common sense. The incidents I have seen or read about generally involved a solitary animal, with no companion, that is chained bored, no exercise, no attention. That’s the fault of the owner, not the animal."

Mr. Jordison once obtained a bad-tempered hybrid from a deceptive breeder. "If you make your bed, you sleep on it," he said. "We stuck it out with that animal. I spent pretty close to a year doing everything I could to modify her temper and do everything I could to correct her behavior problems. I succeeded."

But most people aren’t willing to go that distance. "If there are so many responsible owners out there, how come every single rescue center is full?" Ms. Kobobel said. "How many responsible owners can take care of a dog let alone one with predatory instincts?"

Wolf dog hybrids can be trained, Mr. Heft said. He has friends who own hybrids and care for them well. But people are safe around them because the owners know enough about wolves and dogs to make sure of that.

Most people can predict what the animal will do as far as the dog part of it is concerned, he said. But very few know enough about wolves to predict what that portion will do. Not even behaviorists know everything yet about wolf behavior. "You’re missing the other side of the equation."

And the question remains, opponents say is this fair to the animal?

The Humane Society of the United States and the ASPCA have essentially the same views on wolf dogs. They shouldn’t be euthanized outright, but they shouldn’t be bred and they shouldn’t be kept as pets. The ones out there should be allowed to live out their lives as best they can, and no more should be produced.

"There’s a mistaken romanticism about it," Mr. Zawistowski said. "Everyone wants to be Jeremiah Johnson and live with a wolf as a companion. Which you could do if you were living in the Rocky Mountains and foraging for your food."

But more likely you’re keeping your animal on an eight-foot chain in the backyard, or in a cage, because you can’t control it and can’t predict its behavior, opponents said.

It’s kind of like the proverbial captured butterfly, Mr. Zawistowski said. You hold it too tight, and you end up crushing it.

If you really want to experience a wolf, he said, go to Yellowstone National Park. Listen to them howl at night. See if you can catch a glimpse of them in the wild.

But as companions, they don’t make good pets, and yet they aren’t really suited for the wild, he said.

"They really have no place in the world," he said. "We try to capture something we shouldn’t, and we end up destroying the essence of what we wanted."

Article republished here with permission from
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