Wolf and Wolf-Dog Care

Caring for wolves and wolf-dogs is no easy task. These are sensitive wild animals who are not adapted to living with humans. We spend lots of time at Mission: Wolf dealing with problems caused by people who cannot take care of their animals. Before attempting to own a wolf or wolf-dog, please think carefully about the commitment you’re making and look over our wolf-dog questionnaire. We provide the information on this page as a resource for those who insist that they can care for a wild animal.

Land

Even captive wolves and wolf-dogs need lots of wilderness and space. Due to their propensity for howling, living close to neighbors is not a good idea. The more land you can acquire, the better. High noise or traffic areas create extreme stress for any wolf-dog because of its naturally shy nature. The successful owner will secure land away from people, busy roads, and potential development. If the wolf-dog owner does not personally own the property, a certificate ought to be signed and notarized by the land owner authorizing and giving the wolf-dog owner permission to erect permanent fenced enclosures that contain the animals on the property.

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Arrow and Zephir explore M:W’s 20-acre playpen.

Fencing and Enclosures

Mission: Wolf recommends strict minimum requirements for safe and humane containment of captive wolves and wolf-dogs. Enclosures must be a comfortable size for the animals and of sufficient strength to prevent escape. The following are intended to be minimums. At our facility, we often exceed these standards. We suggest that these minimums be strictly enforced.

Area

According to a study done at Mission: Wolf in 1999, captive wolves and wolf-dogs require at least one acre of enclosure space (200’ x 200’). When housing multiple animals together, a bare minimum of ½ an acre is needed per animal to minimize aggression toward each other (e.g. 3 animals = 1 ½ acres, 4 animals = 2 acres).

Height

Chain link fencing should adjoin to a ground barrier and extend upwards a minimum of six feet, with a two-foot extension of lighter-weight fence at the top. Overall fence height must be a minimum of eight feet. It is suggested that an electric wire be strung at the top of the fence on the inside of the enclosure to stop jumpers and climbers. At Mission: Wolf, we have double fences so that wolves who might climb or jump one fence can’t get enough momentum to jump another. Our fences are angled inward at the top to create an overhang.

Strength

All primary fence and gates should be of 9-gauge, 2-inch square chain link.

Ground Barriers

Buried concrete with reinforced mesh should extend two feet vertical into the ground and be attached to the base of the primary chain link fence to prevent animals from digging out. In place of concrete, a ground mesh four feet wide may be attached to the base of the chain link and lie flat on the ground extending into the enclosure. Logs, rocks, and soil (3-6 inches deep) should be placed on top of the mesh to act as weight and prevent injury to feet of animals.

Gates

All entrances and exits must have double gates and be at least six feet tall. Latches must be secure and lockable.

Perimeter Fence

A secondary fence at least five feet tall and five feet away from the primary fence must surround the enclosure. This prevents anyone from having physical contact with the primary enclosure.

Drainage

The enclosure must provide adequate drainage to allow animals to find dry ground in wet conditions.

Shelter

All enclosures are required by law to contain a shelter. Whether a manufactured dog house or something home-built, the shelter needs to safely provide the animal(s) with space to get away from rain, snow, and direct sun. Wolves and wolf-dogs chew on everything, so keep this in mind. They also like to perch above everything and look down on the world (kind of like cats), so make the shelter sturdy and safe enough for them to climb or jump on.

Vegetation

Enclosures should contain enough vegetation and ground cover to provide the animal with shade, hiding places, and grass to eat. However, make sure that no trees or bushes are too close to the fence. A tree can easily fall on the fence, and a wolf can climb up it to escape — yes, wolves and wolf-dogs are capable of climbing trees when given enough time!

Number of Animals

Abe, Zeab, Tiger and Rosie - 2014 - IMG_0759 - Courtney Hoyt

Zeab shows submission to Abraham. Larger packs can often lead to increased conflict and challenges for dominance. Photo by Courtney Hoyt.

Wolves and wolf-dogs are very social animals. It is best to give them canine companionship of some kind. If you already own one wolf or wolf-dog, consider adopting a strong and sturdy mature domestic dog from the local pound (German shepherd, malamute, husky, rottweiler, etc). Introductions can be difficult; wolves and wolf-dogs are very territorial and slow to trust new members in their pack. When trying to place new animals together, it is safest to divide the enclosure in half with a single layer of 6’-8’ chain link with a gate in it. Put the animals on opposite sides of the fence until they become accustomed to each other. Be prepared for fence-fighting.

At the same time, do not get carried away in providing your wolf or wolf-dog with a large pack. While wild wolves live in packs of 2-30 animals, captivity puts limits on the size of a viable pack. According to a study done on captive wolves and wolf-dogs, it is possible to minimize the aggression between animals when there are four or fewer living in one enclosure.

Captivity creates abnormal behavior in wolves and wolf-dogs. The fence that surrounds their enclosure and protects your wolf-dog is also the fence that can cause serious problems. Wild wolves use posturing and ritualized dominance to gain and maintain their ranking in the pack hierarchy. When a wild wolf is kicked out of the pack, for whatever reason, it can leave the area and start a new pack. In captivity, the fence prevents them from doing this. Without close monitoring, captive animals can seriously injure each other when they cannot get away. Always keep in mind that you may have to separate animals that have lived together for many days or years. Be aware that you may need to build another enclosure to house the animal(s) that have been kicked out of the pack.

Feeding

Captive wolves and wolf-dogs do well eating diets like those of wild wolves. Wild wolves survive on sporadic meals of deer, elk, moose, bison, and other natural prey. Even captive wolves and wolf-dogs are capable of, and benefit from, digesting pounds of raw meat. Their bodies do not need all of the carbohydrates and preservatives that are found in normal dog food. Raw, whole bones serve as a source of calcium and other vitamins, as well as strengthening teeth and jaws. Don’t worry about feeding your wolf-dog uncooked bones — it is only when bones are cooked that they become brittle and splinter. It can be difficult to find elk and bison to feed your wolf-dog, so you can rely on raw chicken, turkey, beef, etc. Pre-cooked or pre-seasoned meats, as well as pork and pork products, should not be fed to your animal, as they can cause many digestion issues. Don’t forget that your wolf-dog also needs access to fresh grass and vegetation to help with digestion.

Most captive wolf and wolf-dog sanctuaries have found that nutritional supplements help the animals stay healthy. In particular, glucosamine (for arthritis and stiffness), vitamin C (for infection and the immune system), fish oil (for skin and coat problems), vitamin A, B-complex, D and E (for various conditions), alfalfa and wheatgrass (for internal parasites), pumpkin (for digestion), and garlic (for internal and external parasites, as well as the immune system) are very helpful when needed. Any supplement can be administered as needed by inserting it into a small ball of ground meat.

Another thing most people do not immediately realize is that wolves and wolf-dogs will eat, and often enjoy, fruit. Many captive wolves and wolf-dogs have been known to go crazy for watermelon. We’ve even met a wolf that liked pineapple.

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M:W Staff spend many long hours each week preparing raw meat for our resident wolves and wolf-dogs. Photo by Laura McGehee.

A word of caution — do not suddenly change your animal’s diet. If your wolf-dog has spent its life eating dog food, it would be a shock to the system to change completely over to a raw-meat diet. Every animal has different nutritional needs. Some wolf-dogs require a diet of pure, uncooked protein, while others need some dog food, rice, or oats to digest everything properly. Talk to your vet, and don’t be too afraid to try something new, keep your eye out for holistic and organic alternatives, and pay attention to what your wolf-dog really needs.

Water

All animals must be provided with a constant source of clean water. A horse or cattle water trough secured to the fence is suggested. Wolves and wolf-dogs are capable of tipping over, shredding, or burying metal tubs. Most wolves and wolf-dogs greatly enjoy swimming and wading in ponds, pools, streams, or large tanks. During hot weather, it is necessary to provide the animal(s) with water deep enough to lie down in, as they cannot sweat and have very thick coats.

Interactions with People

The most important thing to remember about interacting with captive wolves and wolf-dogs is they are still wild animals! Everything that happens is on their terms. That means it should always be their choice to interact with someone or not. You cannot force a wolf or wolf-dog to like you or obey you.

Mouths

Wolves and wolf-dogs are very mouthy. They use their mouths for everything: to eat, to communicate, to bite, to play, to hold — much like we use our hands. First, remember that you NEVER take anything out of their mouth. Once they grab it (your camera, the pot roast, your shoe, etc.), it is their property and it will be defended. Second, realize that wolves and wolf-dogs expect you to communicate in the same ways they do. When greeting you, most will stick their nose on yours, look into your eyes, and lick and clank your teeth. If they are not allowed to do this, some will nibble on your lip, while others will grab onto your face. Wolves and wolf-dogs are shy and skittish around strangers, but very outgoing and boisterous around pack members (including their human family). These situations both provide their own set of problems and requirements.

Strangers

To a wolf, a stranger is wholly unpredictable and a constant threat. A wolf or wolf-dog that is pushed into or cornered in contact with a stranger is, after ample warning growls and teeth showing, liable to fear-bite in self defense. It is best to expose a wolf-dog pup to as many people and experiences as possible while very young, in order to socialize it and desensitize it to most strangers. When a wolf or wolf-dog seems particularly upset or tense around a person, do not force the encounter; the animal probably has a good reason. Use the wolf or wolf-dog as an ambassador for its species, showing people that they are gentle creatures when given the chance, but that they do NOT belong in most homes. At the same time, pay extremely close attention to everything that happens during an interaction with your wolf-dog to prevent anything bad from happening.

Family

Conversely, captive wolves and wolf-dogs see their human family as part of their pack. Sometimes, they need lots of attention and companionship from you. If they were raised in the house as a puppy, with constant contact and reassurance from you, it can be very difficult for everyone involved when they grow up. When the wolf or wolf-dog becomes so large and strong that it is moved into an outside enclosure and people cannot always go inside the fence, the animal misses the contact as much as the people. They can end up taking out their frustration by beating up other pack-mates, or trying to grab people through the fence. Be very aware of this problem from the beginning. If you start off by getting your pup used to living in an enclosure with other canines from the day you bring it home, you may not have this problem. If it is too late for this, keep people away from the fence and enclosure at all times, except when you can enter and interact with the animal.

Methods

What happens when you do enter the enclosure, and the animal is so excited to see you that it knocks you over and gives you a bloody nose? Or the wolf-dog sees its opportunity to challenge you for leadership? Or acts very scared? These are complicated questions that are hard to answer. The real answer depends on the animal and people involved, their histories and relationships, and the exact context of the situation. There are very different schools of thought on what to do. Here are a few suggestions for potential solutions:
  • Do not get involved, or rather, turn everything into play when entering the enclosure; get down on the animal’s level and be prepared to catch it when it comes flying at you to say hello. When you are challenged or end up scaring the animal, start playing with it, acting goofy to throw it off balance, make it forget about its original intent, and accept you as its leader again.
  • The dog whisperer approach: when you first enter the enclosure, completely ignore the animal. The theory is that showing disregard is a dominant posture. Watch an adult wolf react to pups, and you will see they ignore the pesky pups until everyone calms down and the adult is ready to deal with them. By ignoring your wolf or wolf-dog, you are showing ultimate superiority. Becoming a dog whisperer is much more complex than simply ignoring your wolf-dog, but it centers on getting in tune with the animal’s natural communication and using it to your advantage (see Jan Fennell or Cesar Milan for books, DVDs, and more details). And remember, your wolf or wolf-dog is NOT a dog, so the methods may not always work the way you expect them to, but it is a good starting place.
The best suggestion for figuring out how to interact with a captive wolf or wolf-dog is to talk to as many experienced people as possible. Everyone has their own ideas. Take what other people suggest and make it your own. Figure out what works for you and your wolf-dog. Always keep in mind, however, that fear, intimidation, and cruelty will do nothing for you. They will only hurt your animal and make it dangerous for anyone to be around. Wolves and wolf-dogs have very long memories, and all it takes is one bad experience to change how they see the world.

Need more information? Contact us with specific questions — we are happy to help you take care of your animal.

Many thanks to Annie White for her contributions to this page.