As an animal lover, I was very excited to visit Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary and learn about wolves and wolfdogs. This beautiful sanctuary is about an hour east of Banff, and 10 minutes west of Cochrane. Don’t let the drive scare you! It’s a beautiful drive to an amazing sanctuary with stunning mountain views.
The best part? The dogs! When you arrive at Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary, you are greeted by Skookum, a giant Alaskan Malamute. Skookum is just as tall as some of the wolfdogs on the property and he is often mistaken as one of them. He’s HUGE! At 160 lbs, he’s probably bigger than most of the people on our tour! But he meets everyone with a smile before settling down for a nap with an eye on the door. I’m already in love, and I haven’t even left the gift shop!
The Interactive Tour comes with access to the Sanctuary Walk. I arrived early to look around the facility. There are some rules for attendees, including a dress code so visitors are unattractive to the wolfdogs. Wolves are attracted to fur, faux fur and anything dangling. The sanctuary also asks that you don’t call, whistle or otherwise try to entice wolfdogs. Wolves are afraid of people, and while dogs may love this attention, it’s terrifying for a wolf.
The wolfdogs are separated into their preferred packs where they’re contained within large fences they can’t jump or climb. All of the enclosures are huge with trees and other environmental elements that mimic a wolf’s natural territory. If the wolves choose to say hi, they come up to the fence. If they’d rather do other, wolfey things, they have many places to hide. It’s the ideal setup for these skittish animals.
Along the walk there are signs with tons of information. For example, did you know that wolf kills are good for the soil? They increase nitrogen and other nutrients, which enhance plant life in the given area. Wolf kills also feed many different species. These kills are just one of the many reasons why wolves are an important part of a healthy ecosystem.
During my Sanctuary Walk, I met Mauko, a low content wolf/husky mix available for adoption. Mauko came from British Columbia where she wasn’t handled properly by a dog walker and had to be sent to the sanctuary. Because of her friendly demeanour, she is available for adoption to the right home. Wolfdogs aren’t for everyone, and Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary wants to make sure their adoptable animals have the best chances for success in their new homes.
After meeting Mauko, I returned to the gift shop for my tour. Our tour guide, Scott, brought us to meet the Yamnuska Pack of high-content wolfdogs. Scott talked about depictions of wolves in the media, saying they’re often portrayed as ruthless killers who hunt humans. “We’re used to seeing wolves as scary all the time,” says Scott. From the time we’re little kids, hearing stories about the “Big, Bad Wolf,” to when we’re adults watching Hollywood entertainment such as “The Grey,” we’re inundated with images of wolves as scary and dangerous predators.
This couldn’t be further from the truth! The high content wolfdogs in this pack wouldn’t come too close, despite having visitors several times a day and getting treats on every tour. “They have thousands of years of instinct telling them they’re the top of the food chain with the exception of us,” says Scott, “Hollywood pushes the idea that they’re aggressive, but in reality, they’re afraid of humans.”
This point was driven home when we were all armed with treats, and Scott had extra tasty chicken hearts in his pockets. The wolfdogs still wouldn’t come close. We threw treats towards them and they hung out at the edge of our reach. They occasionally took a treat while keeping an eye on us. They frequently left, despite encouragement to stick around.
Scott then brought us to the Cascade Pack of low-content wolfdogs. These guys displayed typical dog behaviour such as coming up for treats, interacting with strangers and even begging for more treats. They allowed us to pet them and were quite friendly. It was a stark difference from the high content wolfdogs of the previous pen!
Dispelling Wolfdog Myths
All the wolfdogs at the sanctuary came from people who legally bought them from breeders. These people likely paid thousands of dollars for them – but then realized they weren’t ideal pets. High content wolfdogs have a lot of energy and intelligence, as well as strong instincts, that make them terrible house pets. “It’s not that people get bitten or injured by these animals, it’s that they’ve spent thousands of dollars on an animal that’s afraid of them,” explains Scott, “These animals present all of the challenge with none of the fun.”
Wolfdogs need to go to a designated sanctuary or be euthanized. Yamnuska is the only wolfdog sanctuary in Canada, so they are often a last resort for these animals who, through no fault of their own, have been bred and sold to people unequipped to take care of them.
Wolf or Dog?
So how can you tell the wolf content in a wolfdog? It’s not that easy. There are no DNA tests that accurately determine wolf content. Certain tests are designed for dogs, but they do not measure wolf DNA. People often talk about wolfdog percentages, but these numbers are likely made up by the breeder to make their animals more appealing.
At the sanctuary, determining wolfdog content is largely observation based. Some physical traits of wolves include: an inability to bark, unique coats, nails, and eye colour, and long, long legs. Wolves are tall, slight animals with close set legs that make up most of their height. Scott compared Skookum, the malamute in the gift shop who weighs 160 lbs, to Kuna, a high content female wolfdog. Kuna is taller than Skookum, but only weighs 75 lbs. It’s all in those legs!
Eye colour is also an indicator of wolf content. Wolves have amber or hazel eyes and are genetically incapable of having any other eye colour. Despite marketing trends, blue eyes are a recessive dog trait. Many marketers photoshop blue eyes onto wolf images because humans perceive them as pretty or mysterious.
Wolves and dogs also speak different languages, or at the very least, different dialects of the same language. Dogs change roles frequently during play and can initiate play with any number of gestures. Wolves have a heavy subtext to their body language, and even though they enjoy play as much as dogs, they place a high importance on pack hierarchy and respect. This is partly why Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary has so many different packs. Mixing high content with low content wolfdogs creates language barriers. This can be dangerous for the low content animal who doesn’t speak the same language.
Watch the low content wolfdogs playing, here.
Leave ‘em Howlin’
Our tour ended with the setting sun and we left to a course of wolfdogs howling. We were pretty chilly by this point, but we learned a lot about wolves and wolfdogs. I was inspired to learn more. If you’re looking for that perfect wolf photo to mark your mountain vacation, try an Interactive Tour at Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary and get close and personal with these amazing animals.