One day, you meet a wolf-looking dog at the park, or on the trail. He's probably not the percentage he was sold as—they rarely are—but he's had a lot of work put into him and is a pretty awesome dog. You want one too! So...where do you go from here?
Ideally, the first step is to do some research. Sure, you love wolves—but how much do you really know about them? There are so many misconceptions about both wolves and wolfdogs, that an in-depth inquiry in in order. This means everything from informational articles, personal stories written by wolf and wolfdog owners, and phone or in-person interviews with people who have successfully lived with the animals from litter to grave, and can tell you what works (and what doesn't).
The internet is a valuable source of information--although, of course, not everyone is honest and you have to take what's written there with a grain of salt.
Email past and current wolfdog owners! Ask for references, or for leads on places near you to visit. Contact wolfdog rescue personnel; they will be more than happy to direct you to some hands-on experience. Join a group or two, to make some connections.
Wolf or "high content" wolfdog owners will be quick to tell you that wolves are shy, (over)reactive, destructive animals who can hop a normal fence in the blink of an eye, and are useless as "guard dogs". They should be taken in much earlier than dog pups, for the best possible bond with their new family. They also don't like to be alone (a "lone wolf" is a sad, and often soon-to-be-dead wolf) and it's normally the GIRLS, not the boys, who will fight each other when kept in a group! These and other special needs should be understood and planned for ahead of time.
Wolfdogs are also mixed-breed dogs (mutts); this means you should understand the dog breed(s) they are mixed with, too. The people who really enjoy German shepherds (and their mixes) may not appreciate Siberian huskies very much. The dog heritage is VERY much a factor in creating a good wolfdog--so unless you are adopting an adult of known temperament, make sure that his breeder used QUALITY dogs in the line, and that you like the personalities typically found in that breed or line.
Wolf heritage adds intensity, intelligence, shyness, reactivity, physical size and strength (and in most cases, robust health) to the breed mix package. This makes them "advanced level" dogs (as though huskies, malamutes, and shepherds weren't already!), so understanding canine body language and basic training are a must. This is not a dog you can raise half-heartedly and still expect a great experience and a happy, well-adjusted dog. Remember that you get out what you put in--and even more so with a wolf mix.
By now, you have also learned that wolves and all Northern breed dogs need an excellent fenced yard or enclosure, to keep them safe! Perhaps you already have the requisite sturdy 6 foot fence (for lower and mid "content" animals) or have installed an 8 foot fence (for higher contents/near-wolves/escape artist adults). You've also built in "dig proof" security at the bottom...and you know that you might have to add lean-ins or raise the fence height in the future, if your animal is especially skillful at fence-busting. If you live in a less isolated area, your neighbors and/or home-owners association are fine with this.
Theoretically, you now have a good idea what wolves and various crosses are like. You are dog savvy and feel a connection to the breed. You've protected the potential pup with a fence. You have decided to make the leap into ownership...what's next?
Wolfdog breeders are everywhere. Some are much better than others; referrals and in-person visits beforehand are a good way to find your way to the better ones.
Let's assume you have selected a good breeder and you pay him a visit, with the hopes of obtaining a puppy.
The breeder will have MANY detailed questions for you. He will want to know your level of experience with dogs in general, and how much you know about wolves and wolfdogs in particular. He will want to hear about your fencing/containment: how tall, what sort of materials, have you made provisions for digging out. (Before the pup is sold, he will want to see this area in person, or send a representative to do it for him.) He will want to know who will be interacting with this wolfdog: are you married? With children? Any other pets? What sort of lifestyle do you lead? (Some wolfdogs are well suited for a normal, full family life—some require more extensive devotion and become a lifestyle in & of themselves.) He may ask for a vet reference...and if you don't own your own home, he may decline you at this time or will at least need to talk to your landlord. (Many landlords are not okay with large, digging, chewing dogs—and their homeowners insurance may not be okay with certain breeds.) He will want to discuss the legalities of your area and the outside environment (rural vs. suburbs, attitudes of the neighbors, roaming children, frequency of unattended visitors).
If one of this breeder's pups is well suited to your lifestyle, he will offer extensive information on his animals and invite you to ask a lot of questions yourself. He may even have a "puppy book" or "owner's guide" to give you. He should explain the importance of understanding your dog, how they communicate, how to establish leadership and teach basic manners and commands. He'll address shyness, and how to work with it. He'll warn of the wolfdog's destructive chewing and digging tendencies, and give tips on how to minimize this. He'll show you his fencing techniques, and stress the importance of good containment at all times. He will have knowledge to share regarding latches, dig- or climb-proofing, fun and enrichment ideas, doghouses and viewing platforms, feeding, medical care, and interactions between animals. Take full advantage of his experiences!
If you are adopting your wolfdog through a rescue organisation or foster home, the screening and educational process should be essentially the same. Rescues are likely to to have more information specific to YOUR exact dog, rather than general info, since her adult personality is now fairly well known...whereas a young pup is more flexible, but is not yet showing her genetic personality quirks. There are advantages and disadvantages to either choice.
Finally! You bring the pup home, and are a proud new wolfdog owner.
Lo and behold, you already have all of the basic necessities in place. Rather than a mad scamble to "get up to speed"—you are free to focus on enjoying and bonding with your new family member. :-)
At this point (the start of ownership), there are only a few things left to consider.
Commitment is EVERYTHING when it comes to dog ownership. This is perhaps even more critical when it comes to an extremely sensitive and intelligent dog such as a wolfdog. Promise your pup you will come through for her...no matter what.
Troubleshooting of any behaviour issues is well established for dogs in general, and the steps are not any different for wolfdogs. (There are NO behaviours found in wolves that are not also found in some dogs.) Use solid behaviour modification and positive-reinforcement techniques, and things will eventually work out. If you get stuck, try another method, or get help from a professional or even another Northern dog owner.
Keep high standards, and don't get complacent.
Have fun! Be sure to enjoy the journey you are taking with this very special soul—who relies on you for security and guidance.
(Isn't that why you got a dog in the first place? :-)
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