When is a dog not a dog?

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The wolfdog (not to be confused with the wolfhound – originally used for hunting wolves) is a wolf-dog hybrid though now far removed from a wolf. It is partly the legacy of the Dutchman, Leendert Saarloos (died 1969). He was an avid fan of the German shepherd dog (GSD) but wanted to enhance its robustness and give immunity to canine distemper, so, in 1932, decided to breed a male GSD (Canis lupus familiaris), Gerhard von Fransenum, to a female Eurasian wolf, Fleur (Canis lupus lupus, or common wolf). His aims appear to be successful insofar as today’s dog is strong with wolf like characteristics, but the first generation puppies did succumb to the disease. The Dutch Kennel Club recognised the breed in 1975 and, in recognition to its creator, named it the Saarloos wolfdog. The Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI) recognises the Czechoslovakian wolfdog and Saarloos wolfdog. According to a UK breeder of the Saarloos they are – I quote – “Super intelligent. By nature they tend to be wary of new people. I have never seen an aggressive Saarloos – even if cornered they will just shy away and are not reactive.” To recap – their trainability is high, reactivity low and aggression very low.

HOWEVER, as a primitive breed, albeit with the wolf being genetically introduced comparatively recently, the wolfdog needs to be handled with respect and sensitivity, along with lashings of guidance, leadership and stability. Only then will trust and respect be reciprocated otherwise he/she will make his/her own decisions becoming more reactive, responsive and alert to changes in their environment with potentially unwanted behaviours. So, not a dog for the novice! Bred originally as companion dogs they are now of the pastoral group and, like the GSD, also used for herding, guarding, guide dogs and search and rescue dogs.

Such hybridization has been found throughout Europe, North Africa and North America. However, the population in Holland and Europe generally is tiny when compared with the US. Here the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1998 estimated a population of some 500,000 animals. Cross breeding in the wild has also been detected though biologist have difficulty identifying the genes because of dilution due to inter-breeding between grey wolves, Eastern wolves, red wolves and coyotes. In the north-eastern corner of the US coydogs and coywolves are found causing further confusion! Because of this difficulty, phenotyping is also used to help identify hybrids. However, spitz type wolfdogs are, unsurprisingly, less lupine in appearance. In the Ethiopian Highlands wild wolfdogs are present as the result of cross breeding between the Ethiopian wolf (C. simensis) and feral dogs. Inter-breeding in the wild has caused severe depletion of some wolf species placing them on the endangered list by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). For example, Oxford University is currently heading an Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme.

A dog or a wolf?

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