by Margaret A. Cleek, Ph.D
In the early 1990s the Alaskan Malamute Club of America was petrified that Malamutes would be included in bans of the then very popular wolf hybrid. To protect our breed, I developed an educational brochure for the Alaskan Malamute Club of America, which with only minor updates seems applicable as an addendum and commentary on the April 13, 2017 ANIMALS 24-7 report Child gives an arm to pet a wolf hybrid
Since the early 1990s, the estimated numbers of wolf hybrids have declined, and reclassification by the scientific community makes the animals known as wolf hybrids technically wolf/dog crosses rather than a true hybrid, but this has flipped around a few times over the years.
And of course more reliable DNA tests are now available to distinguish among authentic wolf hybrids, wolves, Malamutes, and other dogs of wolf-like appearance.
Code of Ethics
Otherwise, most of my thoughts then remain applicable now. The Alaskan Malamute Club of America was then and still is strongly opposed to breeding wolf-hybrids, remaining dedicated to the preservation and protection of the Alaskan Malamute as a pure breed of dog.
Furthermore, the AMCA Code of Ethics dictates that “No member shall be involved in the breeding or selling of wolf-hybrid dogs, and no member shall knowingly sell a Malamute or provide stud service to any person known to breed wolf-hybrids.”
What is a wolf-hybrid?
The wolf hybrid is an exotic wild/domestic cross. It is a mixture of one or more types of wolf, of which there are distinct North American, Asian, and European subspecies, with any combination of domestic dog. In the United States there is no recognized standard of type and temperament for wolf hybrids.
Dogs are domesticated animals whose genes for appearance, temperament and behavior have been manipulated through selective breeding by humans for tens of thousands of years.
Dogs are so far removed from their wild instincts that they have lost any instinctive fear of humans and are in fact no longer capable of existing without some degree of care and stewardship of human beings. Even where many and perhaps most dogs live mostly on the streets, with no specific caretaker, subsisting chiefly on refuse, dogs have been selected –– or self-selected –– for their ability to adapt to the demands of human society, and are able to cope with a wide range of living conditions.
Wolves are wild animals
Wolves are wild animals, products of natural selection for survival in harsh environments which are often so inhospitable to humans that few people dwell there. Wolves have an innate fear of humans and are cautious of all unfamiliar situations. Wolves hunt and fend for themselves without the intervention of humans. Wolves have a well-defined social order and behavioral pattern, and are rarely (if ever) adaptable to situations which deviate from this social order.
Wolf hybrids are crosses of domestic dogs, both morphologically and behaviorally perhaps the most diverse of all mammals, with wild wolves, and are thus a random blend of wild and domestic genes. There is no way to predict or manipulate how these diverse genes will combine to express themselves in terms of appearance or behavior. One wolf hybrid may look dog-like but be wolf in terms of behavior. The exact opposite may be true of another animal.
Since one cannot calculate how the genetic mix will express itself in a given animal, the terms 75% wolf, 50% wolf, etcetera, are meaningless. Some gene combinations are potentially dangerous: for example the predatory instincts of the wolf combined with the dog’s lack of fear of humans.
Unfortunately Alaskan Malamutes are among wolf hybrid breeders’ preferred choices for crossing with wolves, and it is often difficult for the non-expert to tell the difference between some wolf hybrids and some Alaskan Malamutes.
The Alaskan Malamute Club of America became concerned nearly 30 years ago that Malamutes are often implicated in incidents involving wolf hybrids. We remain concerned that legislation enacted to control wolf hybrids may include Alaskan Malamutes, if it is erroneously believed that Alaskan Malamutes are part wolf.
But aren’t Malamutes part wolf?
To the untrained eye the Alaskan Malamute may look like a wolf. This confusion is natural when one considers that Malamutes are often used in movies to play the part of a wolf. But the Malamute is not a wolf or even part wolf.
Some unreliable sources report that the Inuit of the Far North, also called Eskimos, routinely crossed their dogs with wolves. Given that they had to trust their dogs with their very lives, and that crosses were known to be unreliable and untrainable, this is highly unlikely. The Inuit a.k.a. Eskimos knew to avoid hybridizing, still do, and so should we.
Malamutes may seem to some to have wolf-like behavior. As a “natural dog,” meaning a dog whose distinctive characteristics evolved mostly in response to habitat, and were defined long before the advent of formal breed classification and selective breeding, barely two centuries ago, Alaskan Malamutes tend to be more in tune with pack behavior than some other breeds, and have a well-developed hunting instinct. Alaskan Malamutes also tend to howl and “woo-woo” rather than bark.
Domesticated working dogs
But Alaskan Malamutes have been domesticated working dogs for thousands of years, kept apart from wolves to the extent that their handlers have been able to do so, both for the safety of remote Inuit (or Eskimo) communities and for the dogs’ own safety: wolf packs will kill and consume Malamutes when they can.
Alaskan Malamutes are a breed recognized by the American Kennel Club, the United Kennel Club, and other registries, with a recognized standard for type and temperament. Reputable breeders strive to maintain this standard.
Alaskan Malamute take their name from the Malhemut, an Alaskan Inuit tribe. Bone and walrus ivory carvings, among other archaeological artifacts, indicate that the Malhemut had already relied upon their dogs for survival for 20,000 years or more before they had any contact with European explorers, who first described their dogs in a written language and clearly distinguished them from wolves.
The Alaskan Malamute dog is independent, yet loyal and hard working, responsive to discipline and direction from people, and highly trainable. Since the Malhemut and other Inuit tribes using dogs shared dog teams among members of their villages, Alaskan Malamutes did not develop as one-person dogs.
Never a successful guard or fighting dog
Friendly toward most people, Alaskan Malamutes are unsuitable for guard work, have never been incorporated into any successful line of fighting dogs, are very stable in stressful situations, and adapt easily to changes in routine and living conditions.
Alaskan Malamutes are generally good with children and are excellent family companions. According to the ANIMALS 24-7 log of fatal and disfiguring dog attacks, at least 21 other dog breeds have killed or injured more people since 1982. Relative to their numbers, pit bulls are 32 times more dangerous; Malamutes rate about the same as Labrador retrievers.
Because of their size, a Malamute may be a handful as a pup, but with consistent kindness and discipline a Malamute can become a model citizen upon maturity.
Yet a Malamute is not for everyone. Reputable breeders screen potential puppy buyers to make sure that they can provide the proper care and training that the Malamute requires.
No “typical” wolf hybrid
Conversely, because there is no standard for wolf hybrids, and because both the wolf and the dog components vary from animal to animal, with some so-called “hybrids” being actually 100% dogs, it is difficult to discuss the “typical” wolf hybrid.
In general, though, wolf hybrids represent attempts to step backward 20,000 years or more in the evolution of canine companions to humans. Wolf hybrids are genetic and behavioral unknowns, whose wild and domestic nature are always at odds. Wolf hybrids have a limited capacity to bond with humans, and are often not able to transfer that bond to a new owner.
A wolf hybrid operates under wolf rules and will not accept discipline from humans. Wolf hybrids tend to be extremely intelligent, but do not accept direction, and are therefore difficult to train.
A wolf hybrid is not equipped to handle the stresses of life in the company of humans and suffers from a vast array of emotional and behavioral problems.
Wolf hybrid behavior is unpredictable. A wolf hybrid may appear to domesticated, yet something may spontaneously trigger throw-back wild behavior.
Unstable characteristics of wolf hybrids include hyperactivity, compulsive pacing, chewing, scent marking, digging and climbing, howling, fear of strange people and objects, fear-biting and diarrhea when stressed, and extreme aggression toward other canines.
All of these wolf hybrid traits, interestingly enough, are also common among pit bulls, which otherwise have little in common with wolf hybrids except that pit bulls have in effect been back-bred to lose the normal instinct of domestic dogs to avoid conflict.
(See Why pit bulls will break your heart, by Beth Clifton, and Speaking out against blind & frivolous pit bull advocacy, by Ashton Blackwell.)
The wild instincts of a wolf hybrid, coupled with domesticated characteristics, make for extremely unpredictable and sometimes dangerous behavior. A wolf hybrid is almost impossible to kennel and may become highly destructive. As with many wild animal “pets,” a wolf hybrid may be appealing as an immature animal, but becomes increasingly difficult to control and unappealing as the animal reaches maturity.
Of course there are people who will claim to have a friend who has a 78% timber wolf puppy and is a great pet.
Several issues may come into play here. Some so-called wolf hybrid owners have good pets because their pets are not wolf hybrids at all, but are pure dog. There is no way for a wolf hybrid purchaser to tell what he or she is getting. Many unscrupulous people sell mongrel pups as wolf cubs. Experts estimated when the U.S. wolf hybrid population peaked at circa 500,000, 200,000 were not actually wolf mixes.
Wolf hybrid behavior differs greatly depending on the percentage of wolf, the types of dog who have been cross-bred with wolf ancestry, how their genes have combined, the age of the animal, and the conditions under which the animal is kept. One wolf hybrid may be capable of limited adaptability as a pet, while a litter mate may be totally unsuitable.
Even if someone does have a wolf hybrid who appears to be a “great pet,” until something goes grievously wrong, the exception never proves the rule.
For reasons including maladaptation to stress, escape and subsequent accidental death, and destruction because of the owner’s inability to handle a sexually mature animal, 90% of wolf hybrids do not survive until their third birthday.
The Alaskan Malamute Club of America wishes anyone who acquires a dog, of any type, to consider carefully the duties and obligations required of any pet keeper. Responsible petkeeping means providing a healthy and safe living environment, adequate socialization and training, and a lifetime of care and love.
All pet dogs should be neutered or spayed.
(See “Build s/n services, not more shelters!”, by Margaret Anne Cleek & Ruth Steinberger)
Breeding is a lifetime commitment to the welfare of all animals produced, and should only be undertaken by those willing to assume this responsibility.
Keeping an exotic or wild animal carries obligations far in excess of those of the domestic pet owner. The owner of an exotic has to understand and cope with wild instincts and dispositions. Potential liability is great and the hybrid owner has an obligation to protect the public from a potentially dangerous animal.
The romantic appeal of the wolf hybrid is undeniable; to control and be loved by the wild and uncontrollable has a real appeal to some people. But the reality is that wolf hybrids are nothing like the romantic fantasies sold with them. Both legitimate sanctuaries and roadside zoos receive frequent desperate calls from people trying to unload animals who have proved to be nothing like their fantasies.
Hybridizing dogs with wolves ranks among the worst of a long list of abuses that humans have inflicted on wolves, and has not been kind to dogs, either.
My neighbor’s daughter who was about 3 at the time was bitten in the face by a wolf hybrid while she was playing on the sidewalk in front of her home. The wolf hybrid got out of his owner’s home because a construction crew left a gate open.
Very informative. Thank you.
Jeri Ryan, Ph.D. (Geraldine E. Ryan) says
Thank you very much, Margaret Anne Cleek, for this beautiful and thorough description of the difference between domesticated and wild animals, and of the uncertainty of the genetic composition of wold hybrids and thus their behavior. I very much appreciate this thorough description and explanation.
I have read the most idiotic commentary on news articles about wolf hybrids. The most common argument is along the lines of “well, dogs descended from wolves so if you raise a wolf as a dog it’ll be a dog”–dunderheaded stuff like that. Tens of thousands of years of domestication between wild and domestic canines means nothing to them. I also once had a guy tell me with a straight face that “there’s no difference between your cat and a Bengal tiger, the tiger’s just bigger” when we were discussing people keeping lions and tigers as pets.
I think some general literacy about animals is a worthwhile thing to pursue in our society. When people are ignorant of even basic facts, they develop some pretty wild ideas of their own. These type of people then go and buy wolf-dogs and tiger cubs as pets.