Wolfdogs, for ill or for good, are big news. Loki the Wolfdog, Game of Thrones and their ‘dire wolves’, Liam Neeson’s film ‘The Grey’, the increased rise of ‘status dogs’ and general cool factor have all contributed. But, what does this mean? What actually are they? What is staggering in my experience is the sheer quantity of false information online presented as fact. Here’s a quick myth-buster, informed by my university studies of grey wolves in the US, living with a wonderful wolfdog cross for a time, and general experience with large, mostly northern dogs.
What are wolves and dogs?
Dogs are, by the classical definition of species (controversial nowadays but that’s another matter), the same species as wolves, Canis lupus.
The word hybrid is a complex one and can mislead. You can hybridise within a species, between subspecies, and also within a genus, between species. The less related two animals are genetically, the lower the chance of young being viable or fertile. They have to be very close, usually within a species.
Some biologists reject the concept of wide-branching subspecies (lumpers) and some love sub-categorisation (splitters). This is caused by the imperfect and out-dated concept of a ‘species’.
There are only three species of wolf by current studies – grey/gray wolf, Ethiopian wolf and red wolf. Coyotes and jackals are also related, but smaller and so usually not designated as a wolf.
Timber wolves, arctic wolves, Mexican wolves, Indian wolves and so on are all local, minor variations of grey wolves. They diverged naturally.
Dogs are variations on grey wolves too. They diverged artificially; as people selectively bred wolves with the characters they liked and needed.
Dogs have been bred over thousands of years to gain traits humans can use, and live with, and reduce the traits that would make wolves poor companions.
Dogs have been bred to be physically specialised for tasks, more obedient (NOT more intelligent, counter to the unhelpful Coren ranking), and gregarious with people. Intelligence can actually be characterised by independence of thought (mischievousness) and choosing what to do/not do. Obedience is actually, beyond a basic level, counter to this. They have been bred to be confident around humans and some to suppress a drive to hunt prey i.e. less wolf-like.
When you breed a wolf with a modern domestic dog, you don’t create a new species. You are simply breeding ancient, diverse wolf genes with modern, tailored and narrow wolf genes.
Wolves are in almost all cases frightened of humans and do not see them as a prey source. They would make utterly, totally unsuitable pets.
When you breed a wolf with a domestic dog (not an easy process in many cases), you create an offspring called an F1.
F1s are outlawed as pets by many countries. Scientist breeders of F1s have found that they express an overwhelming set of wolf traits and are in many cases indistinguishable from the wolf parent. This obviously depends on the dog breed used.
Common breeds of dog to be bred with wolves are German shepherds, huskies and malamutes.
As breeding then progresses through generations, you end up with an F2 (from two F1s), then F3, and so on.
The ‘F-number’ and the content of wolf in a wolfdog is not the same thing. If a dog is bred with an F1 wolfdog, its content reduces.
Low content is 1%-49%. 50-74% medium, and 75%+ is high content. Obviously, when you get down to low single digit content, you won’t really have wolfdog in practice.
Apart from random breeding, there are some established crosses. Both based around crossing European grey wolves and German shepherds, the Czechoslovakian wolfdog and the Saarloos wolfdog are two. The former is often courageous, the latter often shy and hard to socialise.
‘My mate says he’s got a wolf’
There are a number of ‘fake’ wolf-lookalike dogs that contain no more wolf genetic material than any other domestic dog. Examples are Northern Inuits, Tamaskans and Utonagans, often using arctic dog breeds and German shepherds. They are not wolfdogs.
It is common, due to the kudos of having a ‘wolf’, for owners of fake wolf lookalikes to name them ‘wolfie’ or similar, or to describe them as wolfdogs. This false-advertising often leads to dogs being put down unnecessarily and for misunderstanding of behaviour, as well as encouraging unwise adoptions by those unable to cope.
Wolfdogs have a number of behaviours that are not like domestic dogs: they can be predatory, fearless and stubborn.
A wolfdog will have high expectations of normal canine dominance behaviours. Dogs that due to inbreeding have lost some of the common types of body language can have problems communicating and establishing a stable hierarchy.
Interactions between wolfdogs and domestic dogs can be difficult through no fault of either dog. For example, a dominant wolfdog might take the confident stance, fixed upright ears or high-held tail of a dog breed as a sign of aggression or provocation. They display a wide, full range of dominance and submissive behaviours and expect the same from others.
It’s wrong to label wolfdogs as ‘dominant’, as is done by people with an incomplete understanding. They simply expect to slide into a pack or group environment at the appropriate level. A wolfdog will often dominate a small dog calmly without any aggression and then submit to a giant dog breed. Size is often an indicator, but not always.
Occasionally a brief tussle, between dogs or wolfdogs, is the only way to settle a questionable hierarchy, but these usually harmless scraps aren't acceptable to softened inner-city dog fanciers. Much 'playing' you see with adult dogs is in fact dominance behaviour, although in a modern, artificially skewed context.
In most cases, dominance/submissive behaviour acts to develop group harmony and avoid injury, not cause it.
Suddenly adding a wild predator bloodline into an inbred domestic animal lineage is always going to lead to unpredictable but strong results. Some are good (intelligence and fewer health problems due to genetic diversity) and some bad (prey drive and wild shyness).
And Loki? And are wolves like in that Liam Neeson film?
Media-driven/social media stereotypes are damaging. Wild wolves DO NOT hold grudges and attack through revenge, as in The Grey. They do not 'send in omegas as scouts to test human defences'. The Grey was for wolves what Jaws was for sharks - an abomination of miseducation.
Loki the Instagram ‘wolfdog’ has caused huge amateur debate online. Without a real analysis, it’s speculation, but there are clear Siberian husky and malamute visual traits like eyes, size and coat markings, and some wolf traits, especially head-shape. However, the claim of ‘arctic wolf’ won’t be accurate. It sounds impressive and social media fans lap it up – but any minor wolf content will be from a more southern grey wolf variety. The white-coated grey wolves from the Canadian Arctic are small, behave differently to many other wolves, and are very rare and located in the remote wilderness, far from breeders.
The dire wolves in Game of Thrones are not wolves or wolfdogs. They're trainable Northern Inuit dogs (a UK-bred German shepherd x husky cross).
Low or medium content wolfdogs make high-maintenance but charming domestic animals in the right environment, around other dogs that are trained to behave appropriately.
High content wolfdogs should be treated as you would trust a wild wolf – with caution and awareness of their nature.
Wolfdogs (although real ones are rare) are often abandoned and are hard to rehome. Given this, increasingly strict dog laws, and the wide range of fully domestic dog breeds and crosses available (I’m a strong advocate for the health/behaviour benefits of crosses and mutts), there is a case for allowing the current generations of wolfdogs to naturally pass away without further breeding.
I'd urge anyone to be realistic, to research, be honest about the dog you have, and NEVER to get a dog as a fashion accessory. They always lose out.