These two photos depict two wolf hybrids.
The animal on the left, with its floppy ears and black-and-tan coat, is an F1 wolfdog from Wildlife Park Kadzidlowo in Poland. He was intentionally bred from a “Polish spaniel” dog and a European wolf bitch. I am not sure what breed of spaniel the father was, but this hybrid reminds me very much of the Gråwachtel, a German spaniel (“wachtelhund”)/Norwegian gray elkhound cross. The dog features predominate. It looks like nothing more than a really feral-looking retriever type dog.
The animal on the right is a first generation cross between a West Siberian laika dog and a female wolf. Breeding West Siberian laikas to wolves is really nothing new, and the practice continues in Russia to this day. Knowing the politics of wolf hybrids in the United States, it might not be wise to discuss this feature in the West Siberian laika. There is a certain politically correct movement that views any sort of wolf hybrid as a skittish, dangerous animal, when in reality, the animals vary quite a bit. Having been around a West Siberian laika, I can attest that they are less wild and skittish than many other Nordic breeds.
The truth is you can’t tell a wolf hybrid by just looking at it. If the dog in the cross has floppy ears, it’s not going to look like a wolf at all. It may act more like a wolf.
Or maybe not.
The differences between wolves and dogs are more complex than you might think.
Unfortunately, this problem gets worse when certain people make absolute claims about wolves, dogs, and wolf hybrids.
The one absolute claim one should follow is always be leery of absolutes!
When someone says “never” or “always,” they are setting themselves up for error. All it takes is one example that goes counter to the claim to make it false.
And that’s what happens.
There are pure wolves that are as docile as golden retrievers when they are brought up imprinted upon people.
There are also dogs that are very reactive and nervous and only bond to a few people– just as most captive wolves do. There are pure wolves that have made decent hunting and working dogs.
There are wolf hybrids that have killed people, and there are wolf hybrids that have been the perfect pets.
Because of the complexity of the wolf and dog question, I cannot consider dogs and wolves distinct species. There is just too much overlap between dog and wolf to make such absolute distinctions.
I will use Canis lupus familiaris to describe the dog.
I think one of the biggest obstacles to getting people to understand why wolves are dogs is that the only wolves people seem to know about are the big wolves from northern ranges. What they don’t realize is that these wolves are not the totality of their species. They are actually a fairly specialized variant that evolved in the northern parts of Eurasia and North America to hunt things like moose, caribou, elk/wapiti, bison, aurochs, and muskoxen.
There are also wolves that are much smaller in the Middle East, South Asia, and yes, Africa, that are much more dog-like, and at least one study points to Middle Eastern wolves as being the primary source for most of the genetic diversity in the dogs we have today.
Wolves are actually a very diverse species, and historically, they were even more so. Dogs are just a reflection of their ancestral species diversity. Once removed from the rigors of natural selection, humans can play with that ancestral wolf genome to produce what is really the most morphologically diverse population in the world.
One cannot tell a wolf hybrid just by its appearance.
And one cannot always tell a wolf by its appearance either.
The facility that bred it actually said it was actually 1/8 Great Pyrenees!
Wolves and dogs are wild and domestic populations of the same species.
The wolf itself is really a vestige of what was once a very diverse species.
Wolves managed to range over almost all of Eurasia and all of North America from the Valley of Mexico to Greenland. Their range in Africa has only recently been revealed through genetic studies.
And this species became successful because it could adapt its morphology– perhaps rather rapidy– to fit new ecosystems and prey sources.
To live in the same places, humans adapted new technologies. Wolves adapted their bodies through evolution.
A domestic dog is just a wolf that has evolved to live with humans. It’s a different niche, and humans did quite a bit of selective breeding to produce unusual body types.
But the body template and the vast majority of the genome are still those of a wolf.
Dogs are wolves in terms of their phylogeny and genes.
They may look very different now.
And dogs may be much better adapted to living with people.
But dogs and wolves haven’t diverged that much.
And when a floppy-eared dog mates with a wolf, the results can be somewhat disconcerting.
We expect the wolf dogs that result from the mating to look like wolves and not Labrador crosses.
It takes us aback.
And it makes us wonder.
The top image comes from this recent study that confirmed hybridization between male wolves and female dogs in the Baltic states.
Previous “naturally occuring” wolf dogs in Europe have all been between male dogs and female wolves, which is one reason why the studies that one cannot use mtDNA studies on European wolves to confirm or deny the introgression of dog genes into the wolf population.
There will be more on this study in a future post.