In one corner are the folks who say that crossbreeding dogs and wolves creates hybrids so dangerous and untrustworthy around people that the practice should be outlawed. In the other are those who claim that careful breeding can produce loyal companion and working animals who are smarter, stronger and healthier than domestic dogs. Plenty of evidence exists to support both positions.
Norma Bennett Woolf, editor for National Animal Interest Alliance, says a wolfdog may be the offspring of a wolf and dog, the offspring of a wolf and a wolfdog, or the offspring of two wolfdogs. Dog breeds commonly bred with wolves to produce hybrids include German shepherds, Siberian huskies and Alaskan malamutes. Wolves used for breeding are captive-bred, not wild.
When hybrid owners discover that they can't manage their pets and so get rid of them, few shelters will risk placing them in another home for fear of liability. Consequently, many hybrids are euthanized every year. Since rabies vaccines have never been tested on wolves, some states forbid vets to administer them to wolfdogs. Others demand it, and still others require owners to sign a release. Some don't address the issue at all.
Each state drafts its own legislation regarding hybrid and exotic animals, but further laws may also be enacted by municipalities, counties, townships and residential communities. Wolfdogs, like pit bulls and some other breeds, are often subject to special ordinances.
Accounts give differing numbers of people killed by one, possibly two, massive wolflike creatures in south central France between 1764 and 1767, but one account claimed 113 deaths and many more injured. The mystery of "the Beast of Gevaudan" has never been conclusively solved, but a leading theory holds that these hybrids were the weapons of preference for a serial killer.
In 1988, after a Florida animal welfare society named a wolfdog its pet of the week, it went to an adoptive home. Two hours after arriving, the hybrid escaped from a fenced yard and killed a 4-year-old boy. Two other child fatalities reported by the "Spokesman Review" newspaper of Sprague, Washington, include a 2-year-old New Jersey tot killed and partly eaten by the family wolfdog, and a 4-week-old Anchorage baby who died after a pet hybrid grabbed his head.
In 1921, a Dutch man by the name of Leendert Saarloos decided to create a new breed of dog by crossing a female European wolf with a male German shepherd. After decades of careful selective breeding, the Saarloos wolfdog was perfected. The Dutch Kennel Club recognized the breed in 1975; in 1981, the Fédération Cynologique Internationale, also known as the World Canine Organization, followed suit.
In the late 1960s, dog trainer Frank Catania, hoping to produce an ideal dog for use in combat zones, began a breeding program to cross European wolves with military-bred German shepherds. By some accounts, the main reason why the armed forces abandoned his program despite initially supporting it was that Catania's wolfdogs simply weren't aggressive enough. Nonetheless, breeding continued and has been refined to the point where American tundra shepherd dogs are now a consistent type.
The lupo Italiano, or Italian wolf, isn't for sale at any price -- but is given away free by the Italian government to people or organizations committed to using this hybrid's special skills in the public interest. The prototype, created in 1966, was the product of a female wolf and a male German shepherd. Only a few hundred of these wolfdogs exist, but their exceptional sense of smell is greatly prized in disaster relief and emergency situations.
- The Bark: Do Wolfdogs Make Good Pets?
- Endangered Wolf Center: Wolf Hybrid Information
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: Animal Welfare Information Center: The Wolf-Dog Hybrid: An Overview of a Controversial Animal
- History Today: Sherlock Holmes and the Beast of Gevaudan
- Dog Breeds of the World: Shepherd Dogs and Wolf-Like Dogs
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Compendium of Animal Rabies Prevention and Control, 2011
- Hybrid Law: Select a State
- Molosser Dogs: Description: American Tundra Shepherd Dog
- National Animal Interest Alliance: Wolf Hybrid Owners Face Double Whammy
- The Spokesman-Review: Dog Owners: City Cries Wolf Battle Over Viciousness of Hybrids Leads to Tough New Restrictions in Sprague
- Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images