“The puppy just jumped out the 2nd story window!” I cried, “I need help.”
Like many dog lovers, I had fallen in love at the first sight of a tiny wolfdog puppy. She was a mid-content with a pure wolf grandmother. I named her Mizune, but called her Zu.
At 7-weeks, Zu was the cutest thing I’d ever seen. She was sweeter than honey and drop-dead gorgeous. She squealed and chirped like a baby bird and scampered like a raccoon. Making her part of my family was a dream come true.
At 8 months, Zu was wild and intractable and for the third time in a matter of weeks, I was seriously doubting my ability to keep Zu safe from the world and the world safe from her. I had been living with dogs for 20 years and had raised an awesome low-content wolfdog called Mujo who, at 3 years old, was ready to serve as an example of good behavior for a new puppy. I thought I knew just about everything I needed to know to raise a mid-content wolfdog. I was wrong….very wrong.
The first thing I noticed was how strong willed Zu was. Her will was like a force of nature. When she wanted something badly, she was relentless and self-reliant. She was incredibly strong and athletic and had no tolerance for boredom. How was I supposed to train a creature with the fearlessness and resolve to bring down bison?
From the start, Zu’s passion for destruction was breathtaking. I couldn’t leave her in the house unsupervised, even with Mujo. The first and only time I did, I returned to the kind of devastation normally associated with hurricanes and tornados. Even so, I was determined to train her to live as an indoor/outdoor dog and to sleep in the house every night. Before Zu, all my dogs had accepted me as their all-powerful and benign dictator. If they wanted to go out, they would come to me whining, begging me to open the door, not Zu. When she wanted to go out, she didn’t even think of asking for my help. Instead, she went around the house, inspecting it for weak spots, hatching her escape plans.
One night, she stood on her hind legs on a wobbly cot and knocked out the flimsy plastic covering the window on either side of the air conditioner. Fortunately, she was too big to squeeze through the gap.
Another night Zu got trapped in the bathroom after drinking from the toilet. A bag of laundry fell against the door which opened inward and Zu couldn’t get out. In a similar situation, Mujo would’ve whined a bit and then resigned himself to wait for me to free him. Zu, on the other hand, didn’t see any reason to wait. The puppy went right through that door, leaving only kindling for the woodstove in its place.
Then Zu killed my landlady’s cat. Then she attacked a neighbor’s little cock-a-poo as if it was prey and it took all my adrenaline-powered strength to keep her from killing it as well. Nothing I knew about dogs had prepared me for this.
I was having trouble in other areas as well. At 8 months, Zu was still not reliably house-trained. Even after a 4 hour walk, she often peed on my pillow as soon as we got home. When she didn’t want me to put on her collar, she growled and snarled. I had never had a dog do that before. Every instinct told me to take this seriously, but how? Should I ignore her and keep on trying to collar her? If I didn’t, would I jeopardize my authority as leader of the pack? Would she bite me?
The morning Zu leapt from the 2nd story bedroom window, landing like an Olympic gymnast and grinning from ear to ear, it finally hit home. I was in over my head. Zu was becoming a danger to herself and to others. Even though I loved her dearly, I knew that if I wasn’t able to keep Zu safe, I had no business owning her. I would have to find her a better home. That’s when I called Full Moon Farm.
My experience with Mizune was nothing new to Full Moon Farm’s founder and director, Nancy Brown. The sanctuary she created for abused and abandoned wolfdogs was operating at full capacity. Hundreds of wolfdogs, many on the brink of death, had found refuge there and all too many of them were “owner surrenders” -- the victims of well-intentioned people like me who had fallen in love with adorable wolfdog puppies only to find that they lacked the resources and experience to keep them as they grew into powerful adults with a serious will of their own.
When I tearfully asked Nancy if she could help me find Zu a better home, she said “no”. She couldn’t find her a better home because there aren’t any. Instead, she could teach me what I needed to know to keep her. I was so relieved to find the help I so desperately needed, I broke down and cried.
True to her word, Nancy and the volunteers built a “guest enclosure” for my dogs and for the next 6 months or so I brought Zu and Mujo to Full Moon Farm on Saturdays for training. Nancy made it clear that I needed to be trained even more than Zu if I wanted to be leader of my pack. As I helped to clean enclosures and feed and water the 80+ residents of Full Moon Farm, I watched the more experienced volunteers carefully and slowly gained a better understanding of wolfdogs and how to work with them. When the work was done, I would leash up Mujo and Zu and Nancy would walk with us, watching closely, answering a million questions and giving advice.
Slowly but surely it paid off.
Training a wolfdog is not like training any other kind of dog; wolfdogs remember everything. You can’t use anything but positive reinforcement to earn their trust yet you must assert yourself as the unambiguous leader. It’s tricky, demanding and time consuming. If you fail, the wolfdog doesn’t have many options. Unlike most dogs, they do not adapt easily to new owners. Most shelters and animal control facilities do not even try to find wolfdogs new homes. They just euthanize them. Fear and ignorance are the wolfdog’s greatest enemies.
Many people wrongly assume that wolfdogs are aggressive, unpredictable and dangerous. In many places, they are banned altogether. Good breeders make buyers sign contracts saying that they will bring the wolfdog back if they can’t keep them. They check out prospective buyers very carefully and go so far as to inspect their homes before agreeing to sell them a puppy. Greedy “backyard breeders” make a lot of money selling wolfdog puppies to anyone who will buy them. Many of the wolfdogs they breed end up abused or abandoned. Many live and die in agony. The lucky ones end up in sanctuaries like Full Moon Farm.
Nancy Brown does her best not to turn any wolfdog away and she cries almost every day because that’s not possible. Full Moon Farm depends entirely on volunteers and donations. It is a non-profit and no one there gets paid, but even so, the volunteers will tell you that they’re getting back more than they’re giving from the love and trust they receive from the wolfdogs.
They have many stories to tell about animals that arrive at the farm starving, suffering and terrified of humans and how they are healed and cared for until they learn to trust and love again. I have seen this happen and it’s nothing short of miraculous. Nancy Brown doesn’t only work to provide homes for wolfdogs that humans have failed, she is equally devoted to keeping wolfdogs out of sanctuaries and shelters by educating the public as well as animal control officers and others who work with dogs. This is very important to wolfdog owners like me. We love our dogs and want to be able to tell people all about them but we often run into people who think we’re nuts (or worse) for living with and loving a “big bad wolf”.
Many people think wolfdogs shouldn’t even be allowed to exist. Fighting centuries of prejudice from people whose primary understanding of wolves is derived from fairy tales isn’t easy. We need all the help we can get.
As I write, my sweet Zu is sleeping next to me on the bed, on her back with her feet in the air, head thrown back, snoring softly. She is now 2 ½ years old and thriving. She’s the most loving and fascinating canine companion I’ve ever had. Every day, Zu, Mujo and I go for long walks off leash in the woods next to our home and I get to watch Zu leaping from boulder to boulder, up and down cascading waterfalls, happy as a wolfdog can be. There’s nothing like it. I thank Nancy Brown and all the volunteers of Full Moon Farm for making this possible.