Wolfdog Ban Looms on Michigan Horizon

Wolfdog Ban Looms on Michigan Horizon

By: Norma Bennett Woolf  Date: 01/9/2012 Category: | Animal Legislation |

Michigan's planned ban on wolfdogs inches closer to passage as activists and politicians come out of the woodwork to outlaw these allegedly dangerous animals. The arguments are the same as those used against pit bulls and other breeds whose individual members have transgressed against people: these crosses between wolves and dogs or wolfdogs and dogs, or wolfdogs and wolfdogs are called unpredictable, aggressive, hard to train, and prey-driven, characteristics that fit many dog breeds from terriers to the various guardian breeds.

Senate Bill 705 bans new acquisitions and breeding of wolfdogs and requires licensing and confinement of those animals already in the state. All currently-owned wolfdogs must be spayed or neutered and permanently identified by microchip.

Although scientists are unable to differentiate between wolves, dogs, and wolfdogs even with DNA testing, identification of animals as wolfdogs will be based on the animal's appearance and entrusted to a broad-based set of law enforcement authorities: everyone from the village marshal to federal and state conservation officers can enter property and seize animals allegedly kept in violation of the statute. The criteria used for identification were taken from a booklet published by Randall Riggs (1) and include the claim that an animal's muzzle, canine teeth, shoulder height, body length, eye color, orbital angle, weight, chest width, dewclaw, coat, front paws, or tail can provide morphological clues to differentiate between wolfdogs and other dogs. The presence of four of the so-called wolfdog characteristics will be enough to identify the dog as a wolfdog under this act.

Dr. Al Stinson, vice president of the Michigan Association of Purebred Dogs and a trustee of the Michigan Association of Animal owners, has actively opposed wolfdog regulation as nothing more than a breed ban that can affect many purebred dogs that have a wolfy appearance. Stinson said that the amendment adding the identification traits was made in committee without the advance knowledge of the bill's opponents, so they did not have an opportunity for rebuttal before the vote that sent the bill to the Senate floor. In an attempt to refute some of the incorrect statements made in the Riggs booklet as part of the Senate debate on the bill, Stinson said: "Since this bill has profound implication for responsible dog owners, I feel compelled to rebut some of the statements by the proponents of the bill so that they will not be perpetuated as fact."

Stinson went on to note misinformation about dew claws (contrary to the booklet and the testimony, wolves do have them); gait (booklet claims that wolf gait differs from dog gait, but it does not - tracks depend on the speed with which the canid is traveling, not the breed or mix); and eye color (booklet says that wolves and wolfdogs have yellow eyes, but so do some dog breeds and mixes). He also noted that the bill gives "any person" the right to kill a wolfdog that is chasing or attacking a person, livestock , or any other animal, a situation that endangers wolves.

After a unanimous five-to-nothing vote in committee, the bill easily passed the Senate 29-5.

Among the heavy hitters supporting the ban proposal is the Humane Society of the US, long a foe of wolfdog ownership even though it has opposed other types of breed bans.

Veterinarian Leslie Sinclair, HSUS director of veterinary issues for companion animals, recently wrote (2): "Although recent information indicates strong genetic similarity between wolves and dogs, hybrids of these two species are not domesticated animals and the HSUS does not believe breeding or keeping of these animals as companion animals is in the best interests of human society or of the wolf-dog hybrids themselves."

However, according to I. Lehr Brisbin PhD (3), writing in the last issue of NAIA News, dogs are wolves according to the "latest genetic information" cited by HSUS' Sinclair, and crosses between members of this species are not true hybrids.

Writing about the assignment of scientific names to species and sub-species and changes in those designations as scientists learn more about animal biology, Brisbin said: "Just such a situation occurred in 1993 when the American Society of Mammalogists and the Smithsonian Institution published Mammal Species of the World: A Taxomonic and Geographic Reference. In this volume, it was agreed that our domestic dog should be designated Canis lupus instead of the more customary Canis familiaris, thereby confirming the consensus of the scientific community that the dog is indeed exactly the same species as the wolf, the species from which it is generally assumed to have been derived through the process of domestication."

Brisbin's argument is echoed by wolfdog owners, sled dog groups, the Michigan Association of Purebred Dogs, Michigan Hunting Dog Association, Michigan Association of Animal Owners, American Dog owners Association, and the United Kennel Club. Not only do these groups cite the genetic evidence that dogs and wolves are the same species, they point to the folly of trying to identify a wolfdog by such criteria as muzzle length or the paw size.

The UKC website features a challenge to those who think that wolfdogs are easily identified by using the Riggs criteria: a page of 18 photos with the request to identify each as a wolfdog or not. Those who do not pass the test are asked to send a letter opposing the bill to the Michigan legislature to illustrate the futility of trying to identify wolfdogs by appearance.

UKC president Fred Miller closed his letter opposing the ban with a more succinct version of the argument: "You cannot regulate what you can't identify." Miller said that other legislatures have foregone or rescinded wolfdog regulations because of enforcement difficulties.

"Similar laws in other jurisdictions have proven to be unenforceable and ineffective. Tennessee and Oregon have rescinded their laws regulating wolf-hybrids because of the problems in administering the regulations. After a four-month study, a panel of experts in Alaska concluded that their new wolf-hybrid bill was unenforceable because there is no way to distinguish between wolf-dog crosses and other mixed breed dogs. In a recent telephone survey of the persons administering 'wolf hybrid' regulations, most freely acknowledged that such rules were extremely difficult to enforce, primarily due to the inability to identify the object of the regulations. To date, every legal challenge to these laws has been won by the owner of the canid in question and nearly always on the grounds that such laws are unconstitutionally vague." (4)

Dr. Stephanie Porter, a molecular geneticist and member of the Colorado Canine and Feline Hybrid Advisory Group, agreed in a letter she wrote to Colorado senators when they were considering a ban in that state. "Regulating wolf hybrids brings a nightmare of legal issues. . no scientific inquiry has been able to find reliable DNA markers that can distinguish a wolf from a dog, particularly if the dog is one not far in time from its wolf ancestry, such as a Malamute or German Shepherd. Since there is no independent test that can tell a wolf hybrid from a dog, how can any legislation be enforced?" Porter wrote.

Porter also made the following points in her letter:

  • "Prohibition does not work well in the United States. Monty Sloan of Wolf Park reports that in states that have banned the ownership of wolf hybrids, their existence, breeding and importation have not been affected."
  • "A ban will make it impossible for owners to become educated about their animals. Owners will not be able to take their animals to obedience classes or get training from dog trainers. This could lead to significantly more bite and attack incidents since owners will not have access to extremely valuable positive influences or the knowledge to properly train and socialize their animals."
  • "If a ban is in effect, owners will be much less likely to take their animals for veterinary care. This means that the State of Colorado will be creating a pool of unvaccinated animals that could greatly increase the threat to public and animal health, for instance through a greater likelihood of rabies outbreaks."
  • "Responsible breeders might close down their operations but irresponsible breeders would continue 'underground.' This means that the general quality of the animals purchased in Colorado would be decreased since responsible breeders do not sell animals with aggression problems, but irresponsible breeders would not hesitate to sell problem animals. Additionally, responsible breeders educate their clients and refuse to sell to people that are not equipped to handle their new charges. Irresponsible breeders are only interested in making money, so will sell an animal to anyone that can pay. Thus, a ban in Colorado would likely lead to an increase of poorly bred wolf hybrids and less educated owners, a very bad combination."


Dr. Stephanie Porter, a molecular geneticist and member of the Colorado Canine and Feline Hybrid Advisory Group, agreed in a letter she wrote to Colorado senators when they were considering a ban in that state. "Regulating wolf hybrids brings a nightmare of legal issues. . no scientific inquiry has been able to find reliable DNA markers that can distinguish a wolf from a dog, particularly if the dog is one not far in time from its wolf ancestry, such as a Malamute or German Shepherd. Since there is no independent test that can tell a wolf hybrid from a dog, how can any legislation be enforced?" Porter wrote.

UKC's Miller concurred: "Otherwise responsible owners of many Northern breeds may find themselves the objects of harassment by neighbors or animal control officers who may confuse these purebred dogs with wolf-dog crosses. This type of harassment may generate expensive litigation and bad publicity." Alternatives to breed-specific legislation "It makes no sense to legislate against specific types of dogs. In fact a recent study done in England found that making three breeds of dogs illegal (Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, and Dobermans) did NOT decrease the number or severity of dog bites that occurred (Injury 1996 Vol. 27:89-91),"

Porter wrote. On the other hand, she said, "A dangerous dog act that is not breed specific would put the blame squarely on those who deserve it, the irresponsible owners who do not train or socialize their dogs, or who even encourage aggression in their dogs. In this way, responsible people that have well trained, well socialized wolf hybrids as companion animals would not be punished for the acts of irresponsible owners. "Besides a dangerous dog act, education is the most important way to prevent tragedies like the Colorado Springs (5) incident. If people involved in the wolf hybrid community were asked to provide educational lectures in their counties about the responsibilities of wolf hybrid ownership, many people would be prevented from buying a hybrid inappropriately. A combination of public education about wolf hybrids plus a non-breed specific dangerous dog act that would take dogs out of the hands of people who are creating killer canines, would greatly improve the safety of all Colorado residents." Pursuant to a January 1998 report from the Colorado Canine and Feline Hybrid Advisory Group (see sidebar) that recommended against restrictions on hybrid ownership, the Colorado Legislature passed a generic dangerous dog law.




1. Wolf-hybrid Guide for Animal Control Personnel, by Randall Riggs, Chapter Two: Generalized Identification of Wolf-Hybrids which lists the characteristics and compares wolf, wolfdogs, and Malamutes in a chart followed by short descriptions of each characteristic. The booklet contains several inaccuracies, including a description of a wolf or wolf hybrid trot as a "loping-type of gate" (sic) and urges animal control personnel to "observe the gait of confined animals to help ascertain if the animal in question is indeed a wolf-hybrid" even though it is difficult to observe the gait of any dog while it is confined. The claims of distinction between wolves, wolfdogs, and dogs also ignore genetic principles that randomly determine the animal's phenotype.

2. Letter from HSUS to the US Department of Agriculture in response to the proposal to include wolves and wolfdogs in rabies vaccine protocols. HSUS and other wolfdog opponents have long used the USDA refusal to approve canine rabies vaccines for use in wolves and wolfdogs as a reason to ban these animals. For more about the USDA's proposal to allow use of rabies vaccines in these animals, see "Wolfdog owners hear good news, bad news," NAIA News, Fall 1999

3. "What's in a name? Or, the wolf among us" by I. Lehr Brisbin PhD, page 7, NAIA News, Fall 1999

4. For a complete look at wolfdog regulations, visit the website of the Wildlife Education and Research Foundation at http://www.cia-g.com/~werfwolf/st_regs.htm

5. From Porter's letter to the Colorado Senate committee: "My understanding is that the SB167 was introduced due to the tragic incident in Colorado Springs where a woman was killed by two dogs reported to be wolf hybrids. In a phone conversation with Darlene Kobobel, I was informed that the county autopsy found that these dogs had not been fed for two weeks. In addition the owners had been cited multiple times for violations, including allowing the dogs to run free and chase livestock. The owners were ordered to remove the animals from the county which they did not do. Why did the county allow this situation to escalate into a death? This was not a wolf hybrid problem, it was a problem with irresponsible ownership."


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Norma Bennett Woolf -

Editor and Writer for the National Animal Interest Alliance.

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