It is often said that adult wolves cannot be tamed. The animals are just too emotionally reactive and fearful to ever accept human contact, so if a facility wants to have wolves that can be handled, it must take them from their mothers at an early age, usually said to be before they are three weeks old.
However, there have been those who have tamed adult wolves. The most notable attempts were done by Jerome Woolpy and Benson Ginsburg of the University of Chicago. Their success in taming adult wolves was described in The American Zoologist in 1967, but it is still often said that adult wolves that have not been socialized to people as puppies are impossible to tame.
The issue is not that it is impossible. The issue is that it requires some special housing equipment and lots of time and patience to do so.
It should be noted that even though Woolpy and Ginsburg were able to tame these adult wolves, it does not automatically follow that they became exactly like domestic dogs. Although these wolves became very friendly toward all people, it is unlikely that these wolves could be used to do much of the specialized work that we ask of domestic. However, it is inaccurate to claim that it is impossible to tame an adult wolf.
Woolpy and Ginsburg based their 1967 paper on their experiences with seven wolves. Three were socialized as neonatal whelps and were in constant contact with people throughout their lives. Three were socialized as young puppies and adolescents and then turned out with other wolves that had not been socialized, and one was an adult wolf that had received no human contact until it was five years old. All were able to become socialized to people, and those that were socialized as adults were friendly toward all people. However, those three that were socialized as puppies and then turned out with other wild wolves were not social toward people at all. These wolves had to be tamed in the same way as the five-year-old.
The authors describe their socialization of adult wolves as follows:
So adult wolves can be tamed. It just requires a lot of time and expertise (and a bit of courage).
Granted, this was a very low n study, and three of the wolves that were tamed as adults had initially been imprinted on people as very young puppy.
But one was tamed as a “middle-aged” adult that had no prior experience with people.
So it can be done.
I believe the researchers were able to repeat these results with other wolves, for these researchers worked extensively with captive wolf colonies.
Other researchers haven’t had so much luck.
And I think there is a very good reason for it.
At the time, it was assumed that the only way one could handle wolves was to be very rough with them. In much of the captive wolf husbandry literature, it discusses how important one must establish dominance over the wolves to deal with them. Some wolf experts and pseudo wolf experts like to use lots of physical force and dominance displays in dealing with their charges. And those actions are just the ones used with the socialized wolves.
The unsocialized wolves are often netted and gripped with catch poles to vaccinate them and to tranquilize them for physical exams or transport to new facilities.
The use of these differing but harsher techniques on both socialized and unsocialized wolves doesn’t really endear the wolf to its care-takers.
If you read what Woolpy and Ginsburg actually did, there was none of this “I am the alpha wolf” mentality. There was also no assumption that an adult wolf couldn’t learn to accept people as social partners.
They simply asked the wolf to be friends.
Of course, it took a while to ask the wolf the question.
But once the wolf understood what was being asked, it answered in the affirmative.
Now, I should warn that it is not a good idea for amateurs to catch wild wolves and coyotes and try these techniques.
Not only is ownership of these wild canids illegal in many states and municipalities, it is really not wise for amateurs who have very little experience to try to pet wild animals of any sort.
It should also be noted that all of these wolves were large hunting wolves from northern North America, and all had come from wild populations that had been historically persecuted.
All of these wolves had very strong fear reactions, which is one reason why the socialized wolf pups lost their friendliness to people when they were house with unsocialized wolves for an extended period of time.
It is unlikely that the ancestral wolves had such strong fear reactions, and therefore, it would have been easier for ancient hunter-gatherers to form relationships with them. Most wild dogs that are not heavily hunted are very curious about people, and it is likely that ancient wolves were much more likely to approach people out of curiosity than modern wolves are.
These wolves could have been socialized as adults. It should not be assumed, as some often do, that the original wolves that were domesticated were neonatal puppies. Adult wolves could have been tamed, even without the specialized techniques that Woolpy and Ginsburg used.