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Working with Wolves

Sep 02, 2022

In October 2021, I was asked to come in and work with a young wolf hybrid living in sanctuary at W.O.L.F Sanctuary outside of Fort Collins, Colorado. The sanctuary is home to 30 wolf hybrids who were rescued under various circumstances. The reality is, there are people breeding and selling wolf hybrid puppies to owners who don't understand how much work it is to share your life with a wolf hybrid. It is not impossible but a wolf hybrid is not going to behave like a family dog and in most circumstances, these fluffy wolf puppies find themselves in shelters by a year old. Shelters typically don't have the infrastructure to accommodate wolves and their behaviors. Hence why W.O.L.F sanctuary exists. 

The young wolf hybrid, named Topaz displayed many normal behaviors for wolves. At under a year old he was jumping, mouthing and play biting at staff members. We started by teaching Topaz a foundation behavior called targeting. We use a stick with a ball on the end and the objective was for Topaz to touch the target with his nose and earn reinforcement along the way. In addition to the targeting we taught him that a clicking noise from our handheld clickers meant that a tasty food reinforcement was on it’s way. Topaz learned targeting the first day we met. In addition to targeting we also taught Topaz a stationing behavior. He has a wooden spool in his habitat that was perfect for the training. We taught Topaz to jump up on the spool when staff were in the habitat so he could get the attention he wanted but also prevent him from jumping and mouthing at staff. Topaz is a very motivated learner and his stationing behavior is working so nicely today. He is able to jump up on his spool, get some pets and then participate in more training. It was a delight to say the least. Utilizing my training skills and seeing them work with a wolf hybrid right before my eyes was what my dreams are made of. I was hooked, I wanted to train more wolves.

After we started to make progress with Topaz, the sanctuary directors asked what I thought we could do training wise with the other residents at the sanctuary. They saw how powerful the training was and how it really further enriched Topaz's life and they wanted more of that for the other animals. I then set out to train both staff members, volunteers and the other 30 animals at the sanctuary.

After getting to know the W.O.L.F organization better, I had more insight into all of amazing work they are doing. The wolf sanctuary was in the process of building their brand new facility in Red Feather, Colorado. Not a small operation and it was so amazing to connect with the directors and see all the time and energy that had gone into the new facility. They spared no details when it came to building habitats to give the animals in their care the best place to live out their days. Due to laws and regulations against owning any wolf or hybrid these animals won’t get adopted, they will live at the sanctuary their whole lives. The advantage to this is that we have a chance to work with and train the animals over a long period of time. 

Last year due to wildfires in the area all of the animals had to be evacuated in an emergency and as a result of that all the animals were really fearful of their crates. In an effort to change their perceptions of the crates and make the eventual move to their new home as smooth as possible we began crate training all of the residents. By slowly teaching the animals to be comfortable in their crates we are able to prevent at least one stressor from the move. All of the animals are different so we customized the crate training plan for each pair and individual. Most of the residents at the sanctuary are paired with another animal to play with and offer companionship. Creating training plans for 30 animals is a super fun puzzle that with the help of staff and volunteers is coming together so nicely. I have every faith that when it comes time to move, we are going to have a much easier time getting the animals crated and moved. Above all else, we are doing everything in our power to minimize the stress for the animals. 

In addition to training the staff members, Steph and I were also invited to the sanctuary to train several of their volunteers in person. Steph and I had such a great time teaching the amazing people who donate their time how to train the most effectively. The learning principles are the same if you are teaching dogs or wolf hybrids. So not surprising that training wolf hybrids is not much different than training pet dogs, with the exception of some of the intense fear responses to new people in the animals at the sanctuary. The level of fear in many of the residents in common. Wolves were not domesticated and have a really hard time with the human world they are asked to live in. We were able to coach the volunteers on not only training but effectively reading body language and how to best move their bodies and carry themselves around the more fearful animals. Something else we put a lot of time and energy into teaching the volunteers was the power of slowly building up trust with the residents. While many of animals are friendly with humans, it takes time to build that trust. It does not come right away like it does with many pet dogs.  

It has truly been the thrill of a life time to take on a training project of this magnitude. It’s been so moving to connect and form relationships with the wolf hybrids at the sanctuary and I am so looking forward to more training and supporting them in their new home. After the move we have wonderful training plans to further enrich the animals lives and get them the care they need. That is all for now, look forwarding to sharing more in the future! 

-Rachel Laurie Harris CPDT-KA, owner, A Good Feeling Dog Training

Learn more about the training in this episode 210 of Disorderly Dogs.