Wolfdog Sanctuaries Are Stressed · The Wildest

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Wolfdog Sanctuaries Are Stressed

Ownership of wolf-dogs is on the rise putting animals are in danger.

by Chelsea Tyler
Updated November 30, 2021
Hybrid Czechoslovakian Wolfdog rescue sanctuary
claupad / iStock

Call it the Game of Thrones effect. In early 2015, GoT (and the Stark family’s fiercely loyal direwolves) was blamed for encouraging wolf dog ownership. Apparently, people trying to replicate a fictional experience at home were seeking out dogs with wolf DNA running in their blood. Too late, many of these people learned that caring for a wolf-dog hybrid is nothing like living with a domesticated dog.

Wolf dogs come from mating any domestic dog with one of the four wolf subspecies: Gray, Eastern Timber, Red, or Ethiopian. Those crossed with a Gray wolf are the most common. While many states, such as California, have banned ownership of first-generation wolf dogs, others, such as Maine, allow it as long as the owner obtains proper wildlife permits. Regardless of its legality, many new owners are finding wolf dogs to be too much work and responsibility to handle. The result: The number of wolf dogs being abandoned (or forced into) shelters and sanctuaries is on the rise.

Certified dog trainer Nicole Wilde, CPDT-KA, has been working with and caring for wolves and wolf dogs for nearly 20 years. The author of Living with Wolfdogs and several other helpful texts detailing dog ownership and training, Wilde says she understands the enthusiast’s attraction to these animals. “For some, it’s a pure love of wolves — they simply want to be close to these magnificent animals,” she says. “But for others, it’s the lure of owning something wild or exotic.”

Christie Guidry, manager of Saint Francis Wolf Sanctuary in Montgomery, TX, says she hesitates to believe that wolf-dog adopters are simply seeking a family animal: “We find that the idea of having exotic wild animals as pets is usually about someone wanting to be able to claim that they have tamed the wild, or because a domestic dog is too mainstream for them. It’s often about ego or status or because it’s cool.”

The Drawbacks of Keeping Wolf Dogs as Pets

Unlike most family pups, having a wolf dog in the house can put stress on your family life. Cindy Matthews of Virginia has owned wolf dogs for nearly 10 years and knows the toll it can take on a family. “My sons, who were raised with them, will never [have] a wolf dog when they get older, as they’ve seen how much hard work it is to care for one,” she says. “They can’t be kept like an indoor dog.”

Forget dropping your wolf dog off at a kennel. Few have the capacity to contain them, since they require eight-foot-high fences as well as guards dug along the base of their enclosures to prevent escape. And because they’re naturally wary of strangers, it’s unlikely that friends or neighbors would be able or willing to look after the animal when you go out of town for a week. “Don’t plan on taking any vacations,” adds Matthews.

What Happens When Owners Give Up

With the rise in wolf-dog ownership comes the inevitable rise in abandonment and returns as those who buy them realize that they either can’t or don’t want to provide the resources and attention the canines require.

While breeding facilities profit from mating and selling wolf dogs, sanctuaries suffer from a lack of resources, which prevents them from accepting the large number of hybrids who are surrendered. Most wolfdog sanctuaries, which are usually operated as nonprofits, are almost entirely funded by private donations. Guidry works tirelessly to ensure care for all of the abandoned wolf dogs who come to Saint Francis Wolf Sanctuary, but there is only so much space available.

“On average, we get about three requests a week to rescue wolves and wolf dogs from pet situations,” says Guidry. “Since wolves are born in the spring, we do not get as many requests that time of year. People keep them when they are cute, cuddly pups [but] as soon as they reach adulthood, they can no longer handle them.” Crowded wolfdog sanctuaries are a widespread trend, adds Wilde: “Wolf-dog rescue centers are perpetually full, and an unwanted wolf dog’s options are extremely limited.”

Michael Hodanish, president of the Howling Woods Farm, has noticed the same upward trend at his sanctuary, which is located in Jackson, NJ. He doesn’t have the funding to accept all the animals he receives rescue requests for, and says it’s the biggest challenge facing Howling Woods Farm today. He’s had to go beyond donations and relies on his full-time job to help fund a significant amount of his services.

Howling Woods Farm attempts to rehome its rescued wolf dogs whenever possible, but the adoption application process is rigorous. They’ve rehomed about 150 animals over the past 10 years and say it can take more than a year to place some. Hodanish says the sanctuary hopes that more vigorous screening and stricter home requirements will help prevent the cycle of animals being surrendered to shelters. With rescue requests increasing and rehoming processes taking as long as they do, not every wolf dog will be given a second chance.

“Wolf-dog rescues all over this country are full most of the time, so we see countless wolf dogs euthanized in shelters. Shelters will not put them up for adoption due to liability issues. It’s a heartbreaking problem,” says Guidry. Besides taking in abandoned wolf dogs, sanctuaries also play a large role in providing education to the public. “We feel there are no benefits to ‘owning’ a wolf dog over a conventional dog breed.”

“The most rewarding part of my job is educating the public on the challenges of exotic pet ownership,” continues Guidry. Sanctuaries often provide facility tours as well as off-site visits to schools and other organizations so individuals can learn how wolves differ from domestic dogs. “Wild wolves are the epitome of what it means to be wild and free. They have a right to live that life. The fact that people try to numb their wild instincts by breeding dog into them just to make them pets is terribly sad.”

Wilde says it is not the wolves, but rather, the owners who are the most challenging aspect in her role as an educator and trainer. “So many people have unrealistic expectations of what living with a wolf dog will be like,” she says. “Wolf lovers would do well to support organizations that are helping wolves in the wild.” With their educational efforts, sanctuaries hope to convince others the best way to respect wolves is to let them stay wild and to decrease the number of wolf dogs being bred for profit. Only then can these animals live how they were meant to — wild and free.

Editors’ Note: In our opinion, despite their undeniable beauty, deliberately breeding or purchasing wolf dogs as companion animals does a disservice to wolves. If you love wolves, honor their ancient connection with our domestic dogs by joining the effort to preserve their habitat and maintain their status as a federally protected species. HSUS and the Defenders of Wildlife are just two of many groups working on their behalf.

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Chelsea Tyler

Chelsea Tyler, a freelance journalist living in Boston with her 10-year-old Jack Russell Terrier, Zoey, writes about environmental issues, sustainability, and conservation.