The Effects of Enrichment on the Behavior and Welfare of Wolfdogs

by Sue Cranston

Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Diploma Course


The International School for Canine Psychology & Behavior Ltd
© Sue Cranston 2019


Over the past 30 years enrichment has become an integral part of animal welfare and most zoos and sanctuaries now utilize enrichment to design habitats, increase activity, stimulate behaviors, increase problem solving and exploration, and to reduce abnormal behaviors. (Mellon, 2011) A multitude of studies have been completed on the topic of enrichment for captive-held animals but very few studies have been done on wolfdogs. This thesis examines the effectiveness of enrichment on wolfdog’s welfare when held in a sanctuary. 

The wolfdog is a mix of the gray wolf (canis lupus) and the domesticated dog (canis lupus familiaris) and will typically display a blend of some wolf and dog-like behavioral and physical traits.  Many of today’s wolfdogs are the offspring of animals that have been bred in captivity for many generations, consequently they are typically a mix of one wolfdog bred to another rather than a pure wolf bred to a dog. They are categorized by the amount of wolf in the mixture with low contents ranging from 1%-49% wolf, mid contents from 50-84% and the high contents from 85-99%. Still, modern wolfdogs hold onto many of their wild cousin’s behavioral traits and are considered to be tame rather than domesticated animals. 

They tend to be very independent creatures with a high level of intelligence that leads to an inquisitive nature not seen in most dog breeds.  This leads to equally high levels of ingenuity and their inventiveness will never cease to amaze most people.  Wolfdogs are clever, resourceful, and have amazing abilities to problem solve.  It is their nature to be highly independent and a bit on the stubborn side.  They can also be very sensitive and highly reactive to their environment and depending on how well socialized they are and how closely related they are to a pure wolf; a wolfdog will react to things in their environment with variable intensities.  The general rule of thumb is the higher the wolf content and the more closely related to a pure wolf the more intense the reactions. 

Many studies completed on captive-held animals in sterile environments or lacking in enrichment substantiate a loss of many of their natural behaviors. Wild wolves spend their days hunting for food, breeding, raising their young, patrolling and protecting their territory. In sanctuaries we take many of these behaviors away by deciding who they live with, what they eat, when they eat and remove their ability to breed and raise young.  Consequently, wolfdogs in sanctuaries can become bored and either spend far too much time inactive or they begin to display a number of behavioral issues including pacing, guarding, testing or challenging of mates or caregivers. 

The purpose of this study is to examine the effects of environmental, emotional and animal enrichment on wolfdogs held over a period of time in a sanctuary.  The study was conducted at Indigo Mountain Nature Center, in Lake George, Colorado.  Indigo Mountain is a small non-profit sanctuary that provides lifetime homes for wolfdogs in need. Subjects of the study were 76 individual wolfdogs residing at the Center over the span of 19 years. (see Appendix I).  The animal’s ages varied from puppyhood to 16 years and the amount of wolf content ranged from low content wolfdogs (1-49% wolf) to mid content (50-84% wolf) to very high content (85-99% wolf) as determined by verifiable pedigrees or DNA testing. The animals were held singly, in pairs and packs depending on family group, age and temperament or behavioral difficulties.  The habitats in which they were housed vary from small quarantine pens of 2,400 square feet to 2 acres in size. Each habitat contains a pool, logs, boulders, varied terrain, many old growth pine trees and a 4×8’ or 8×8’ log house.  Some have additional platforms to climb on. 


Over a period of 19 years the staff at Indigo Mountain compiled enrichment reports on the animals in our care.  As part of our behavior-based husbandry program, enrichment was integrated into daily management and each animal residing at Indigo Mountain has had an enrichment and training plan designed specifically for them based on setting behavioral goals that include biological, social, and cognitive needs.  This was done by modifying the Disney Animal Kingdom’s S.P.I.D.E.R. program to our own use. (Disney,2001) We used extensive planning, implementation, documentation and evaluation to develop our program.

It is was our desire to encourage species-appropriate behavior, provide each animal choices throughout the day and prevent stereotypic or agonistic behaviors. This was done by first completing a natural history questionnaire for the wolf and an individual history for that specific animal. Any stereotypic or abnormal behaviors were notated in this history. Next, we defined what we wanted the enrichment to achieve and set goals based on the findings in those two histories coupled with the habitat information in conjunction with what behaviors we wish to encourage or discourage through opportunity and motivation.

The second step was the planning stage where we determined how we would go about obtaining our goals.  We also took in safety concerns such as is this item appropriate for this animal, can it cause injury, will it damage or destroy the habitat, can it cause gut impaction or obstruction, lead to escape, lead to aggression, is it free of small removable parts that might be swallowed.  We also took a good look at what resources were available to build the enrichment item, the costs and staffing availability.

The implementation or “play” phase of our program included collecting or constructing the enrichment items and giving the items to each animal.  While the items were placed in the habitat we observed and documented what the animal’s response was and what the caregiver observed while the animal was interacting with the item to determine if the items helped us meet our goals or a waste of time and money. The animals were videoed while we observed.  

Only caregivers with at least 6 months interaction with the animals participated in the data collection and the Wolf Ethogram (Goodman, 2002) was utilized by all caregivers to ensure that we each identified behavior in the same way.  A Microsoft Excel spreadsheet was used to document and rate the animal’s response to the item on a 1-6 scale. (see Appendix II) This was accomplished by observing the length of time the animal engaged with the item or how many visits it made to the item.  The caregiver also made note of what they saw while the animal was interacting.  Each evaluation was filmed using a Nikon D3400 with a 24mm-75mm lens. After reviewing the documentation and video we completed a second scale that assessed how effective the item was and whether it reached our goals for that individual. (see Appendix III)

Finally, we evaluated the enrichment item for each animal and based on the goals set and the observation and documentation we collected we determine if the item was effective for that animal and if it should be continued, altered in some way or discontinued.  If it was to be continued it was placed on the enrichment calendar on a rotation basis for that animal so that it was never used more than once per week. If it was to be adjusted in some way, we would go through the process of observing and documenting the adjusted item.

To complete this thesis, I have compiled each of the enrichment worksheets for a variety of sensory, food related, social and cognitive enrichment items for all 76 of the animals to determine what behavioral effects these items had on the wolfdogs.  The animal’s sociability, content, pack structure and age were also notated for the study. 


Olfactory Enrichment:  Two different forms of sensory enrichment were used in this category.  We laid scent trails throughout the habitats using coconut cooking extract. This extract was utilized due to the fact that it is non-toxic and safe if ingested, relatively inexpensive and readily available year-round. A drop of the extract was sprinkled on rocks, pathways, and at the base of trees every 4-5’ throughout the habitat.  This method stimulated investigatory behavior and exploration and increased their locomotion and use of space 100% of the time.  It led to affiliative behaviors once the trail had been followed (80%) and we found that wolfdogs in family units or housed with siblings were more likely to engage in affiliative and epimeletic behavior.  This form of enrichment reduced overall inactivity or excessive resting across the board, however it was more effective with the high (100%) & mid contents (95%) than with the low content (85%) wolfdogs.  The 2 blind animals in the study excelled in this category and spent 25% longer periods investigating than sighted wolfdogs. 

A second olfactory enrichment test was wood chips soaked with lavender oil and piled into a digging mound.  Again, we found that it instigated investigatory behaviors 100% of the time and 90% of the dogs spent more than 10 minutes on the item.  It did lead to some slight agonistic behavior <10% of the time in unrelated pairs.  The lavender seemed to have a calming effect and 90% of the time the wolfdogs laid in the chip pile and napped with mates after the initial exploratory behavior ceased.  We found that the high and mid contents (100%) spent more time engaging with the pile than the lower contents (90%).

Puppies under the age of 6 months did not investigate or interact with the wood pile for periods over 5 minutes as most of the adults.  However, they did lay down in them and go to sleep.  The lavender seemed to add to the relaxation process. 

Tactile/Food Enrichment:   There were three items tested in this category.  First, we took a straw bale and stuffed small pieces of meat and salmon inside it.  This led to extensive natural foraging (greater than 10 min), sniffing and pawing at the bale until the bale was disassembled in a pile by 100% of the animals.  Once satisfied that the food was all gone, they would lay in the straw and show affiliative and epimeletic behaviors such as attention seeking, self-grooming or nibble grooming one another.  The only difference noticed between content ranges was in the increased focus and intensity of the nibble grooming in the high contents.

The second item in the tactile category was hide enrichment.  We took elk hides that still had small amounts of meat attached and cut it into 2’x2’ squares for each individual.  The hides were then handed out to everyone within the habitat at the same time.  Initially every wolfdog franticly grabbed the pieces, but we found in the high content family units with packs of 4 to 6 the behavior quickly escalated to agonistic behavior with a lot of ritualized agonistic behaviors for the first 5 minutes and eventually settled down as they all laid down with their piece of hide to chew.  We did not witness any agonistic behavior in the mid or low contents.  In fact, they tended to play tug-of-war games with them.  The hides were left with each pack overnight.  The high contents tended to shred and consume them overnight (95%) while the mids and lows were still playing with them the next day. (98%)

The third food related enrichment item was stuffing an extra-large Kong™ toys or Zogoflex Tux toys with cream cheese and freezing them overnight.  This initially led to locomotion throughout the habitat and then they each relaxed to lounge and lick/eat the cheese.  Once the food was consumed 70% of the High contents and 100% of the mids and low contents continued to play with the Tux toys while the Kong™ toys were left alone.

Visual Enrichment:  We filled the Bubble Buddy gun with BBQ flavored bubbles and “shot” them near the animals.  This triggered predatory hunting patterns as they oriented, stalked, chased and bit at the bubbles. As this category involved close human contact, the more unsocialized animals (20%) would not participate. We found the high contents tended to tire of the game after about 5 minutes (90%), however the mid and lower contents played for at least 10 minutes each. (100%). 

Cognitive Enrichment:  We used clicker training techniques to teach sit, down, come, target and go to a station.  In addition to learning basic manners our goal was to also boost confidence levels and trust with the caregivers. Animals with a higher sociability rating (80%) scored much higher than those that lack socialization.  80% of the animals participated while 20% would not participate.  There was no difference in the results between the content ranges in this category.

Social Enrichment:  This category included a one-on-one Woods Walk with a caregiver.  The animal was placed on 30’ lead and allowed to investigate and explore his or her surroundings.  Because it requires some level of sociability only 80% of the animals in the study participated.  85% of those animals participating showed locomotion, investigative and attention seeking behavior from the caregiver as they walked.  The additional 15% moved through the forest at a fast pace with little exploration and did not check in with the caregiver at all. Once returned to their habitat 90% of the animals displayed affiliative, epimeletic behaviors and 95% of them showed social play behaviors with their mate(s) for at least 10 minutes.


The results of this study suggest that enrichment activities do affect the wolfdog’s welfare and lead to positive behaviors in a sanctuary setting and should be included in daily husbandry.    In most of the enrichment categories evaluated we found that enrichment led to an increase in positive behaviors, more activity and less boredom.

As the wolf’s primary sensory modality, it was anticipated that the olfactory enrichment category would prove to be the most effective enrichment tool and our study did indicate that it was one of the more preferred enrichment items.  These activities stimulated exploration and investigatory behaviors, increased locomotion and overall use of space and reduced inactivity.  It was also found to be very successful in instigating both individual play and social play among pack members and led to affiliative and epimeletic behaviors for long periods of time. It also encouraged natural hunting abilities of tearing and shredding in others. Additionally, we found that lavender could be used to increase activity and have a calming effect on the wolfdogs.

The Tactile/food category was also very successful with all ranges of wolfdogs. The straw bale with hidden food stimulated many natural foraging behaviors, and plenty of investigatory behavior as they search for food.  While the item was disassembled within a short time it continued to provide enriching benefits as the animals nested in it and continued to self-groom or groom a mate.

While it did cause a bit of agonistic behavior, we saw the greatest range in behaviors with the hide enrichment. After some initial ritualistic behaviors were displayed the wolfdogs quickly settled down to shred, tear and consume the hides.  It also provided a much longer period of enrichment for most of the animals and offered the additional benefit of cleaning teeth.

The stuffed toys provided some entertainment and stimulation but was not as effective as the hide.  It was interesting to note that the shape of the toy played into the results.  The Tux toy shape gave them a greater space for chewing and somewhat easier access to the cheese which I feel played into the length of time they interacted with the toy.  The differing colors Kong(black) and Tux (blue) may have played a small part as wolfdogs see blue a bit better.

The visual enrichment experiment using the Bubble gun was effective in stimulating some natural predatory motor patterns such as eye-stalk-chase, however the high contents lost interest quickly when the chase did not lead to something to bite on.  It also required the animals to be social enough with the caregivers to feel comfortable.  This was not the case in 19% of the animals.

In the cognitive enrichment experiments we found that wolfdogs across the range were highly interested in learning new behaviors and spent on average 20 minutes in each training session.  The animal’s sociability played into the success of this experiment.  Those that trusted and felt comfortable with the caregivers excelled while those that tended to be on the shy or reclusive side would not participate.

The Woods Walk was a highly stimulating enrichment experiment for most of the wolfdogs.  They were given the space and time to investigate their surrounds, take in smells, sounds and sights which lead to a great deal of mental stimulation.  A large percentage of the them (85%) would explore to the end of the lead and return often to check in with the caregiver.  These animals walked better when working with a caregiver that they had a close social bond too.  They would also show signs of cognitive mapping or the ability to acquire, store and recall information they learned about this new territory. The remaining 15% tended to march through the forest in pursuit of something.  The level of socialization clearly matters in this category of enrichment.  Those who had experience exploring a variety of environments did much better than those who lacked socialization.


This compilation of data clearly shows that with careful planning and thoughtful consideration of behavioral history, social structure, and prior enrichment experiences that wolfdog caregivers can create obtainable goals for wolfdogs to reduce boredom, aggressive or agonistic behaviors and increase the animal’s choices, control and stimulate natural behaviors.  I hope that additional large-scale studies involving enrichment as it pertains to wolfdogs will be completed in the future to aid in the welfare of the breed.

Appendix I

Demographics of the Wolfdogs participating in the study

Name Content Sociability Housed with Age(s) in YR
Cochise HC 3 Alone 6-9
Apache HC 4 Dam P-14
Tala HC 2 Family Unit 11-12
Misu HC 4 Family Unit P-11
Chato HC 4 Family Unit P-13
Kobuk HC 4 Family Unit P-11
Ahote HC 5 Family Unit P-6
Satinka HC 5 Family Unit P-13
Ahkia HC 1 Sibling 5-15
Mofassa HC 1 Sibling 5-12
Nahima HC 1 Sibling 3-14
Kenai HC 4 Sibling 4-8
Yepa HC 4 Sibling P-11
Calamity HC 4 Sibling P-3
Chappa HC 4 Sibling P-2
Little Elk HC 4 Sibling P-2
Red Hawk HC 4 Sibling P-5
Sacajawea HC 4 Sibling P-2
Shasta HC 4 Sibling 4-12
Sky Song HC 4 Sibling P-5
Sophie HC 4 Sibling P-5
Shamus HC 5 Sibling P-11
Takoda HC 5 Sibling P-12
Tehya HC 5 Sibling P-13
Aiyana HC 1 Siblings 3-13
Sequoia UT HC 1 Unrelated 1-10
Speedo HC 1 Unrelated 6-14
WaHya HC 1 Unrelated 8-14
Amadeus HC 2 Unrelated 9-13
Stormy HC 3 Unrelated 1-6
Tekini HC 3 Unrelated P-11
Kanawha HC 3 Unrelated P-8
Oakley HC 3 Unrelated P-4
Mangas HC 4 Unrelated P-5
Suyeta HC 4 Unrelated 3-13
Tahoe HC 4 Unrelated P-3
Tioga HC 4 Unrelated P-3
Sarah HC 4 Unrelated P-5
Shunka Hei HC 4 Unrelated 2-8
Sonoma HC 4 Unrelated P-3
Sundance HC 4 Unrelated P-4
Denali HC 5 Unrelated P-12
Erie HC 5 Unrelated 4-10
Mikasi HC 5 Unrelated 5-9
Ouray HC 5 Unrelated P-12
Sequoia HC 5 Unrelated P-14
Tacoma HC 5 Unrelated P-14
Taza HC 5 Unrelated P-14
Tok HC 5 Unrelated P-11
Yosemite Sam HC 5 Unrelated P-7
Ahyoka MC 1 Family Unit 6-10
As Gaya Dihi MC 1 Family Unit 4-12
Wascin MC 3 Sibling 4-15
Yana Usdi MC 1 Siblings 4-15
Welela MC 3 Siblings 4-14
Dakota MC 1 Unrelated 8M-7
Lila Wi MC 3 Unrelated 4-14
Cassidy MC 4 Unrelated P-4
Cloud MC 5 Unrelated P-6
Indy MC 5 Unrelated P-7
Jaeger MC 5 Unrelated 6M-3
Stella LC 4 Alone 1.5-2
Bodie LC 5 Alone 1.5-3
Tippi LC 5 Alone 1.5-2
Aspen LC 5 Siblings P-4M
Blizzard LC 5 Siblings P-4M
Frisco LC 5 Siblings P-4M
Snowflake LC 5 Siblings P-4M
Summit LC 5 Siblings P-4M
Teddy Bear LC 5 Siblings P-4M
Arrow LC 2 Unrelated 4m-5
Cowboy LC 5 Unrelated 2-5
Fogerty LC 5 Unrelated P-7
Grand Teton LC 5 Unrelated P-9
Phoenix LC 5 Unrelated 1-4
Shastina LC 5 Unrelated P-11

Legend for Demographic Chart


LC = Low Content Wolfdog 1-49%

MC = Mid Content Wolfdog 50-84%

HC = High Content Wolfdog 85-99%

Sociability to Caregivers

1- Completely unsocial- runs from and/or hides from caregivers, extreme flight

2- Very shy, but will approach caregivers slowly

3 -Shy, but approaches caregivers

4 -Somewhat social – approaches caregivers with slight hesitation, does not necessarily   seek attention

5- Highly social- approaches caregivers readily, attention seeking

Housed With

Alone – Housed individually while in quarantine or due to behavioral difficulties

Dam – Offspring housed with its Dam

Family Unit – Pack consists of parents and offspring

Sibling(s) – Housed with one or more siblings

Unrelated – No close relation to pack members


P – Puppy <4 months old

1—16 – Age span

M- Months  ex. 8M – 7 = 8 months to 7 years

Appendix II

Enrichment Worksheet
1 No observed interaction with item
2 Animal orients to item
3 Animal approaches item but does not make contact
4 Animal makes 1-5 visits (or spends 5 minutes) interacting with item
5 Animal makes 6-10 visits (or spends 6-10 minutes) interacting with item
6 Animal makes greater than 10 visits (greater than 10 minutes) with item

Appendix III

Goals scale:
1 Animal avoids item
2 Animal has inappropriate interaction (aggressiveness or agonistic manner)
3 Animal interacts in a tentative manner
4 Animal interacts appropriately but not within the goal parameters
5 Animal interacts appropriately with projected goal behaviors
6 Interaction leads to additional positive behaviors


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