Wolves as pets and working animals

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The Wolf and his Master, as illustrated by Harrison Weir in Stories of Animal Sagacity

Wild wolves are sometimes kept as exotic pets, and in some rarer occasions, as working animals. Although closely related to domesticated dogs (which are generally thought to have split from wild wolves between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago), wolves do not show the same tractability as dogs in living alongside humans, and generally, much more work is required in order to obtain the same amount of reliability. Wolves also need much more space than dogs, about 10 to 15 square miles so they can exercise.[1]


Captive wolf puppies are usually taken from their mother at the age of 14 days, preferably no later than 21 days.[2] Wolf pups require more socialisation than dog pups, and will typically stop responding to socialisation at the age of 19 days, as opposed to dogs which can still be socialised at the age of 16 weeks. For the first four months of their lives, wolf pups need to be kept isolated from adult canines, except for a few brief visits per week, in order for them to properly imprint on humans.[2] Pups will typically develop behavioural abnormalities if raised without another member of their own kind.[2] Because wolf milk contains more arginine than can be found in puppy milk substitutes, an arginine supplement is needed when feeding pups below the weaning age. Failure to do so can result in the pups developing cataracts.[3]


Captive wolves following hand gestures at the Wolf Science Center in Austria
Raven, a former Ambassador wolf, licking a visitor at Mission: Wolf

As pups, wolves can't be turned into domesticated animals, and such a relationship as pets is discouraged.[1] As adults, wolves have been shown, most of the time, to be largely unpredictable, and will sometimes display aggressive behaviour toward small animals and children. Pure wild wolves can never be fully trusted with children because, unlike dogs, they lack any alteration of their predatory behavior. These behaviors are genetically encoded and thus cannot be eliminated by socialization or training. At best, these inherent behaviours can only be suppressed.[4] Wolves have a strong incentive to rise up the pack hierarchy, as only the dominant pair may breed, thus they will instinctively challenge their owner for pack status after reaching adult age.[1] In the wild, wolves usually disperse from their pack upon reaching adulthood, but as this is mostly impossible in captivity, conflict avoidance behaviour is not an option. In such scenarios, it is not unusual for wolves to attack their owners or pen mates.[1]

Some wildlife centers housing captive wolves prohibit handlers from entering wolf enclosures if they happen to have a cold or other vulnerability which the wolves can detect.[5] Captive wolves are generally shy and avoid eye contact with humans other than their owner, as well as not listening to any commands made by any other humans. They usually vacate rooms or hide when a new person enters the establishment.[6] Even seemingly friendly wolves need to be treated with caution, as captive wolves tend to view and treat people as other wolves, and will thus bite or dominate people in the same situation in which they would other wolves.[7] Ordinary pet food is inadequate, as an adult wolf needs 1-2.5 kg (2-5 lbs) of meat daily along with bones, skin and fur to meet its nutritional requirements. Wolves may defend their food against people, and react violently to people trying to remove it.[2] The exercise needs of a wolf exceed the average dog's demand. Because of this, captive wolves typically do not cope well in urban areas.[2] Due to their talent at observational learning, adult captive wolves can quickly work out how to escape confinement,[8] and need constant reminding that they are not the leader of their owner/caretaker, which makes raising wolves difficult for people who raise their pets in an even, rather than subordinate, environment.

Some pet wolves are euthanised or might be released into the wild where they are likely to starve or be killed by resident wolf packs in regions where they are still present. Abandoned or escaped captive wolves can be more destructive and pose a greater danger to humans and livestock than wild wolves, seeing as their habituation to humans causes them to lose their natural shyness.[9] The Wolf of Gysinge is thought to have been one such animal.


Though wolves are trainable, they lack the same degree of tractability seen in dogs. They are generally not as responsive as dogs to coercive techniques involving fear, aversive stimuli and force. Generally, far more work is required to obtain the same degree of reliability seen in most dogs. Even then, once a certain behavior has been repeated several times, wolves may get bored and ignore subsequent commands. Wolves are most responsive toward positive conditioning and rewards,[10] though simple praise is not sufficient as in most dogs.[11] Unlike dogs, wolves tend to respond more to hand signals than voice.[11] Although they are more difficult to control than dogs, they can be easier to teach if the motivation exists.[10]

Captive wolves are also less suitable than dogs for working. German wolf biologist Erik Zimen once attempted to form a dog sled team composed entirely of wolves. A complete failure, the wolves ignored most commands and were far more prone to fighting than sled dogs.[8] North American wolves and wolf hybrids were used as experimental attack dogs by the South African Defence Force in Apartheid South Africa in an attempt to breed animals capable of tracking guerrillas. However, the experiment proved a failure and was discontinued due to the wolves' inability to follow even basic commands.[12][13] However, their sense of smell can rival that of established scenthounds. Tests undertaken at the Perm Institute of Internal Troops in Russia demonstrated that high-content wolf hybrids took 15–20 seconds to track down a target in training sessions, whereas ordinary police dogs took 3–4 minutes. Their success has led to plans to use them as police dogs for the Russian police.[14]

Pet wolves and the law[edit]

Many countries, states and local regions have specific regulations governing the acquisition and management of wolves. In Britain, the keeping of wild wolves is strictly controlled under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 and a license is needed to own one. In the United States, the keeping of pure non dog wolves is prohibited by the Endangered Species Act Amendments of 1978 U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Can You Turn a Wolf into a Dog: Commonly Asked Questions about Wolves and Hybrids in Captivity By Pat Tucker & Bruce Weide, Wild Sentry, Copyright 1998
  2. ^ a b c d e "Guidelines for Keeping Wolves and Wolf-Dog Hybrids". Wolf Park. Archived from the original on 2008-08-03. Retrieved 2008-10-28. 
  3. ^ L. David Mech & Luigi Boitani (2001). Wolves: Behaviour, Ecology and Conservation. p. 448. ISBN 0-226-51696-2. 
  4. ^ "Of Wolves, Wolf Hybrids and Children". Wolf Park. Archived from the original on 2008-06-17. Retrieved 2008-10-28. 
  5. ^ "Statement by Valerius Geist pertaining to the death of Kenton Carnegie" (PDF). Wolf Crossing. Retrieved 2008-09-09. [dead link]
  6. ^ Wolf Song of Alaska: Guideline Characteristics of Wolves and Wolfdogs
  7. ^ Man and Wolf: Advances, Issues, and Problems in Captive Wolf Research, by Harry Frank, Published by Springer, 1987, ISBN 90-6193-614-4, ISBN 978-90-6193-614-5, 439 pages
  8. ^ a b Coppinger, Ray (2001). Dogs: a Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution. New York: Scribner. pp. p352. ISBN 0-684-85530-5. 
  9. ^ Graves, Will (2007). Wolves in Russia: Anxiety throughout the ages. p. 222. ISBN 1-55059-332-3. 
  10. ^ a b "Are wolves and wolfdog hybrids trainable?". Wolf Park. Archived from the original on 2008-06-15. Retrieved 2008-10-30. 
  11. ^ a b "Wolf Training and Socialisation: Example #1". Wolf Park. Retrieved 2014-10-30. 
  12. ^ "Sad Howl of Wolves Recalls Apartheid in South Africa" (PDF). Robyn Dixon / Los Angeles Times / October 17, 2004. Wolfsong Alaska. Retrieved 2008-08-01. 
  13. ^ "Apartheid Regime Bred Man-Hunting Wolf-Dogs" (PDF). Gavin du Venage in Cape Town / NEWS.com.au / May 3, 2005. Wolfsong Alaska. Retrieved 2008-08-01. 
  14. ^ "Russian police employ wolves for service". Oksana Anikina, Translated by Maria Gousseva. English Pravda. Retrieved 2008-10-30. 

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