Wolf Imprinting

Canis Lupus vs. Canis Familiaris
By Gaby Dufresne-Cyr, CBT-FLE

Many dog trainers use the wolf behavioural model or ethogram to train dogs, but is it appropriate? In this article, I will try to explain the, sometimes subtle, differences between wolf and dog behaviour and why we should stop treating the latter as wolves. I will write about my experience imprinting arctic wolf puppies (Canis Lupus Arctos)

In 2003, at the Park Safari Zoo, a project destined to imprint two arctic wolves took off. Imprinting is the learning of a species's characteristics during a short, sensitive period early in life. Roughly put this is when a bird learns he’s a bird. In wolves, this period last 19 days compared to 12 weeks in dogs. Our wolves were removed from their mother at 9 days of age and raised by two surrogate moms, a friend and myself. At this stage of development the cubs can’t see or hear, only the sense of smell prevails. Eyes open around the 10th day and ears approximately 5 days later. The wolves were bottled fed, and weaned at 34 days. In resume, wolf development is almost twice as fast as dogs.

As foster moms, we had to stay with the cubs for 24-hour periods till they were 30 days old. During this time we could not use any type of perfume (deodorant, shampoo, soap…) to mask our odour. The puppies need to identify to naturally occurring body odours. This process is very important if the wolves are to recognize humans later on. Sleeping with the puppies stopped when they turned 45 days old, their planned nightly attacks were just too much to handle. They would stock my colleague and I and jump on our heads, grabbing and shaking our hair like pray. Inevitably the time had come for the cubs to learn to stay by themselves and start identifying with their own species. Our objective was to imprint them not tame them.

Imprinting is very different from taming. The first suggests the animal will identify with humans but not regard them as conspecifics. During imprinting, the animal learns to associate with humans but doesn’t identify sexually with them. Taming will do just the opposite. A tamed animal will acknowledge a human as conspecific. He will fight with or for him during mating season. Obviously, this is a very dangerous situation to be in with a fearless wolf. Imprinting also serves to reduce the flight distances to zero. In order to attain successful socialization, the use of aversive techniques are forbidden and all interactions are achieved by positive reinforcement. After the initial period of imprinting positive behaviour toward humans has to be maintained. Thus we scheduled a minimal hourly period of contact each day. If this hadn’t been possible the behaviour would have deteriorated and the pups would have become fearful of people.

It was decided that the clicker would be a useful tool in order to work with the wolves. So, before their ears open we conditioned the clicker. We accomplished this by clicking each time the cubs grab the nipple in their mouths. The naturally occurring muffled sounds provided a wonderful opportunity to teach them the “click” without scaring them. As the cubs grew older they were reinforced when they came to us and sat down. It was discovered very quickly that the puppies didn’t want to perform these demands on command but liked offering them freely. We also knew the wolves were going to the San Diego Zoo and be part of their Ambassador program, so clicker training became a daily game. We would click for spontaneous behaviours and reinforce social interactions. But, because of natural pack eating behaviour, the puppies would best work alone. So, at three months of age, the wolves were finally separated.

In The End

The imprinting process is a learned response and has no basis in genetics. What this means is wolf socialization can not be passed down from generation to generation. With each new litter of cubs the imprinting process has to be started all over again. While working with Dr. Raymond Coppinger he said to me: “The idea that prehistoric men domesticated the wolf is simply wishful thinking!” Even if you raise a wolf in the best of conditions he will never be a dog. Case in point: after spending three months imprinting these cubs I was bitten by one of them for removing a roll of film from his mouth. This proved to me that wolves do not respond well to training despite efforts to treat them positively. Most importantly I learned that Canis Lupus doesn’t relinquish and despises sharing, but is extremely intelligent, fair and curious. Basically, wolves love to have a good time…on their own terms!

Benefits of Socialization

In the following video, taken by Miss. Moore, one can observe the benefits of socialization. First, Kenai is extremely relaxed in front of a large group of people, thus exhibiting his natural behaviours of curiosity, exploration and vocalisation. Secondly, he responds to human cues and accepts rewards. In nature, a wolf's natural response would be to run away as fast as possible. Their flight distance being ¼ mile, wolves avoid social interaction with humans.

When the trainer cues him to scent roll, notice how Kenai refuses. The trainer must respect his decision, forcing him would create anxiety, fear and possibly aggression, all of which should be avoided. At one point in the video, the trainer mentions helicopters are flying over, notice how Kenai remains relatively relaxed in this situation. This is a direct result of imprinting. 

Socialized wolves can better represent their species, thus allowing them to become ambassadors. When we imprinted Kenai we knew he was going to the San Diego Zoo, thus we started rewarding calm behaviours and ignoring negative ones, the result is what you see in the video. 

Many thanks to Miss. Moore for allowing me to post her video.

Kenai at the San Diego Zoo

Kenai at 10 years old