(Portions of the text below are reprinted with permission from Pack West Wolfdog Rescue)
Wolf-dogs, also (incorrectly*) referred to as wolf hybrids, are unique animals. They are not a breed of dog but are a domestic animal containing a mix of wolf genes and dog genes. Many people wish to own them as a means of bringing a “piece of the wild” into their homes. They are beautiful, intelligent, and fascinating animals. But, unfortunately, there is much more misinformation about the wolf-dog available to the general public than there is fact-based scientifically-supported information. As a result, not many people have a proper understanding of what wolf-dogs truly are.
Experts estimate that as many as 75% of all claimed "wolf-dogs" in the USA aren't actually wolf-dogs at all, but are instead misrepresented and mislabeled mixed-breed domestic dogs.
So, what makes a wolf-dog?
In the most basic sense of the term, a wolf-dog is a dog with recent wolf ancestry, and which shows physical, biological, and behavioral traits of the lupine heritage (for more information on identifying these traits, click here). They are often created using one of three common domestic dog breeds: German shepherds, huskies, malamutes, or mixes thereof. It is highly uncommon for wolf-dogs to be crossed with any other breed. This is because part of the point of breeding wolf-dogs is to accentuate their primitive and wild looks. Crossing wolf-dogs to huskies, malamutes, and German shepherds helps to increase the looks-to-behavior ratio. When selectively bred, even a low-content animal can look quite wolfy to the general public, but still behave primarily dog-like.
Wolf-dogs are also rarely created from crossing a pure wolf to a domestic dog; instead, most wolf-dogs are created from crossing wolf-dogs to wolf-dogs, or wolf-dogs to dogs. Very few individuals in the USA actually own pure wolves for breeding purposes. Those who do rarely breed outside of select lines.
How Much Wolf?
The amount of wolf in a wolf-dog is described in terms of content (not in percentages or fractions) and is broken down into several different levels. Low-content wolf-dogs (which are significantly more dog than wolf); mid-content wolf-dogs (which are about equal parts wolf and dog); and high-content wolf-dogs (which are significantly more wolf than dog).
The amount of wolf in a wolf-dog cannot accurately be determined by a DNA test, nor are there any reputable breed registries for wolf-dogs available. Currently, DNA tests, even those offered through veterinary offices, remain inaccurate, likely due to the fact that wolves and dogs are so closely-related that false positives and false negatives are very common. Embark DNA tests are considered the most reliable (although still not 100% accurate) out of all the DNA tests for canines currently on the market.
On a similar note, breed registries like the Continental Kennel Club (also known as the CKC) are infamously well-known for registering just about any dog as a purebred this-or-that on the condition that the breeders send them money, even if the animal is not what it's claimed to be. As a result, it is just as easy for a breeder to register a black lab/shepherd mix as a purebred Groenendael as it is to register a husky/malamute mix as a wolf-dog. Paperwork does not prove wolf content. Buyer beware!
Vets, too, are not always a reliable source of information when it comes to determining whether or not a particular dog is "part wolf"; as vets are not currently taught to identify wolf traits by means of phenotyping at any point during their training. As such, it is disappointingly common for vets to assume an animal has wolf content based on misinformation.
Wolf-dogs typically weigh between 70 to 100 pounds. Claims of animals significantly larger than that are usually flights of fancy. While wolves up to 140+ pounds have been recorded in the wild, these animals are very few and far between, and are considered an abnormal occurrence. Wolf-dogs, even those mixed with large breeds like Malamute and German shepherd, rarely reach more than 120 pounds in weight.
Wolfdogs, depending on content, and the breed(s) they are mixed with, have a rather varied appearance. But since they are mixed with husky, malamute, or German shepherd, it's uncommon to find animals of any content that display traits such as floppy ears, brindle or merle markings, wiry coats, or brachycephalic facial structure.
Instead, wolf-dogs are quite literally defined by their lupine attributes, and that typically means a long pointed muzzle, upright ears, a long body, and lanky build. They have double coats comprised of dense under-fur with a top layer of glossy guard hairs scattered throughout, and range in color from black to white, but seem to be most commonly found in a gray/cream hue known as agouti.
Depending on the wolf content, the temperament of a particular animal varies; generally-speaking, though, higher-content animals are more prone to exhibit intense "primitive" behaviors, such as escape artist tendencies, high prey drive, destructive curiosity, excessive mouthiness, skittishness in new places and situations, and a propensity to be more independent and "stubborn".
Wolf-dogs are escape artists! So proper containment is an absolute necessity. If something is worth doing, it is worth doing it right, as the old adage goes. All of our enclosures are 8' high with barbed wire lean-in at the top to prevent escape (yes, wolf-dogs can jump over an 8' fence in a single bound!), 4' fencing buried around interior perimeter as a dig guard, with double-gated entryways to further prevent escape. We are fortunate that none of our residents have ever tried to escape to the outside world - they are living the high life as far as wolf-dogs go and they know it! We provide them with ponds and pools for swimming, logs and boulders to climb on, luxury sleeping accommodations with a lookout on the roof, and daily meals consisting of raw meat mixed with grain-free kibble. All of our enclosures are a minimum of 1/2 acre each which is sufficiently large to allow them to run freely and get their daily dose of exercise and play.
*NOTE: Wolf PAWS prefers to use the spelling 'wolf-dog' which carries the same meaning as 'wolfdog' but puts more emphasis on the combination of wolf & dog genes present in the animal, and intentionally omits the term 'hybrid' which is considered to be outdated and incorrect - the domestic dog Canis Lupus Familiaris is actually a sub-species of the gray wolf Canis Lupus, and therefore the interbreeding of the two does not constitute a hyrbridization of separate species.