Northern Breed Dogs and WolfDogs – How do you know the difference?

A couple years ago when I was bidding on a bird cage listed on eBay. I asked the seller a question. When I replied to her answer the email went through my normal program and added my signature, which included the URL to my old site. The eBay seller was curious because of the web site name and read all about Petie, who at the time I was still calling a WolfDog. I had actually come across something that made me unsure of his wolf heritage, but I hadn’t changed the information on my site. The eBay seller sent me and email and very politely said,

“O.k., don’t shoot me :-) because I’m not attacking … just curious …I checked out your website – very impressively done!! And I REALLY REALLY appreciate the info you give on things like responsible breeding, etc. But are you SURE your dogs are “wolf”? If so, why do you think so?…”

I nearly fell out of my chair laughing at how she tip toed to the subject, but I do understand since so many “WolfDog” owners seem to need their exotic trophy dog to be different in order to be special. In her email she gave her credentials, “I’m involved in malamutes, and very involved in local rescue, and so have gone through the distinction process for ‘borderline’ dogs (mal rescue, as I’m sure you understand, cannot be responsible for wolf-dog placements … but we do call in rescue groups that deal specifically with these mixes when appropriate).” She said that Petie in her opinion looked just like a Malamute and that the behaviors I described on the site also sounded all Malamute. She admitted that she “disagrees with the general keeping of wolf mixes”, but towards the end of the email said,

“…clearly are a responsible person, and are NOT one of the people looking to ‘make a buck’ of the glamour of the wolf or wolf-mix … I love to see stuff on the web like you include in your site, about responsible breeding, responsible ownership, etc.etc. … it’s right on!”

That last part made me very happy, which is why I’ve kept her emails for two years.

I sent an email back that listed the few odd things that Petie does, all of which were on the site, that still made me think that *maybe* he was part wolf. I also listed all of the professionals that deal with dogs who “could just tell” that Petie was a wolf hybrid and either gave advise or grief.

The first obedience trainer I took Petie to was the one that told me that Petie was Malamute and Wolf. He said he didn’t see an ounce of German shepherd in Petie, which is what the breeder had said he was crossed with. (Petie was four months old when he started training and six months old when finished.)

Once I took him to a dog groomer (I wanted to make him pretty for pictures). I asked if they can bathe large dogs that dislike water very much. They said yes, without saying anything about his breed I brought Petie in. The people there told me to leave, and that they cannot bathe “wolf-hybrids” due to legal reasons yada yada and if my dog should bite any of their employees yada yada yada.

When Petie was three years old I took him to a new vet she made house calls and I had told her that Petie was a Malamute. She took one look at him and told me she couldn’t give him shots because it was illegal (she apparently didn’t know her Washington state laws very well, but I didn’t want to have her giving him shots if she was afraid).

Of course got the same reactions to Chelan when I took her to an obedience class, this trainer said that Chelan is so shy and submissive that she may have a bit of wolf in her. And there was the time that the shelter I got her from was having a “Santa Paws” Christmas pet picture fund raiser. I took both dogs in and the shelter manager looked and Chelan and insisted that she was part wolf…he stopped insisting after I told him I had adopted Chelan from that very shelter and still had the adoption papers.

I received this response from the eBay seller,

“You know, it’s been interesting – so many things that people attribute to wolves (not just talking about what you’re sharing :) just a general observation …) are actually very normal malamute (& other northern breed) behaviors. I think it’s because they are still a so-called ‘primitive’ breed – much more attuned to pack status, pack language & posturing, and other ‘primitive’ instincts. My boy does what yours does on the trail – almost freaked me out the first time, he swung over to hang his rear over the CLIFF! Fully-loaded pack and all! Just so he could poop off the trail … at least I didn’t need a pooper scooper *g*I’m also surprised (and saddened) by how many people – even dog people, though clearly not familiar with northern breeds – are SURE just by “looking” at my dogs that they are at least part wolf. I’ve heard of trainers claiming that a client’s dog was a wolf when they would perform the usual malamute ‘selective hearing’ *g* or from the dog-to-dog posturing that is normal for the breed. They ARE a stubborn breed! And it’s sad to see how many trainers think they’re ‘too wild’ to train – poppycock!! They’re just SMART! so you can’t ask them to fetch 100 times over like a Border Collie or Golden Retriever :) they just get bored so you have to keep it interesting … and have a sense of humor *g* especially when you compete in the obedience ring with all the ‘serious’ obedience breeds (it’s also fun when you kick their ass *G*)

It’s so odd to me, as after you get past the superficial differences there’s quite a bit of difference … of course, when you start talking crosses, the line is blurred … and, malamutes have been used so often to portray wolves in film, I think they have become part of the public ‘image’ of a wolf. But I’ve had more people than I care to think about INSIST that my malamute is a wolf despite being told they are a registered purebred … sigh …”

Through our many emails my new email pen pal had convinced me that she clearly knew about northern breed dogs, specifically Malamutes. She mentioned a couple times that she had some training in order to tell the difference between a Malamute and possible wolf-mix for the dog rescue she dealt with, so I had to ask… So what are the differences between a WolfDog and Malamute, as far as the way they act? Is it just higher prey instinct? To my surprise she referred me to a person who had years of experience in a wolf park and had owned rescued wolf crosses, and this was the answer:

In a word, INTENSITY! Not just in prey drive, but every little aspect. It’s something that is hard to really convey with words. If you live with real, pure wolves for a long time, you will know exactly what I mean. If you spend time even watching pure wolves for a long time, you’ll see it. But if you live and work hands on day after day for years, you will never, ever confuse an intense dog and even a low content wolfdog. *grin* Even a wolfdog that really and truly is part wolf, even lower content like under half wolf, is typically far more intense than a dog. They spook easier, they are harder to contain or restrain, they have a prey drive that is more easy to stimulate and harder to raise in a way to make them safe with prey animals, they have a much more developed urge to dominate and take rank order more seriously. They need to be handled and socialized starting far earlier, far more carefully and more intensely. They aren’t good pets, are harder to housetrain, leash train, people train, etc. You have much less margin for error in handling, and if you make a mistake in how you raise or train, you may have “ruined” the animal in that area. The more wolf in the animal the more likely these things will be true.

I raised some Inuit dogs. Both had issues, some very serious (one was VERY shy and both were spooky about many things) but it was different. A shy/spooked Inuit dog didn’t panic and eat your hand off. A wolf will. I could grab or tightly hold a scared Inuit dog and they didn’t even think of biting (not that some won’t) but a wolf will.

Wolves just view the world in a far different manner than dogs do. Reading Ray Coppinger’s book was so fun for me, after spending so many years with wolves. And it makes me wish I could somehow bottle my experiences with wolves and give you a drop, so you would really “know” what I am talking about. You can have all the head knowledge, read all the books, read my writings endlessly and still not “know” it – as in “own” it as a part of you.

I hope that makes sense. I guess it would be like reading about owning a malamute but until you live day in and day out with one, you only have head knowledge. But a wolf is so much more intense than a malamute, that I giggle when I hear people say how similar they or any dog is to a wolf. Yes, just a *little* in looks, but not in intensity!

If only I could convey that to all the wannebe wolfdog people, well, I would be satisfied! ;-) All those so called high content animals that sleep on the bed, lived in the house, were good with cats, etc. It’s just not truth. Sometimes when I see photos of so called high content animals, I just can’t bring myself to say all I see is dog, as the person has such a NEED to believe it’s a wolfdog that I don’t want to be the one to burst their bubble. But the part of me that likes truth has a hard time being quiet.