Have a canine behavior you are curious about?
Send possible future Wolf Behavior 101 topics to jeremy.heft@wolfcenter.org

Stiff Legged Jump

Have you ever watched a dog try to break ice by pounding on it with their front legs? This usually comical behavior is actually an official recognized behavior among wolves. It is known as a stiff legged jump, and it includes the wolf rearing up on his hind legs and slamming both straightened and held rigid front legs down to the ground. The wolf throws significant weight onto the front legs creating a great deal of downward force.

Just like dogs, this behavior is most commonly used to break ice in order to obtain the unfrozen water below. Dogs may do stiff legged jumps on frozen puddles or ponds by rudimentary instinct, but when remaining hydrated in the wild is a factor of life or death, the behavior could hold significant importance. However, at some point the ice becomes too thick to break, at which point wolves (and dogs) simply eat snow to obtain water.

Another important function of the stiff legged jump is to pin small mammals when hunting. Such small prey as voles and mice become trapped by the fast and heavy front legs, allowing the wolf to easily inflict a lethal bite and successfully obtain the nutrients of the small snack. Foxes and coyotes also use this behavior when hunting, but occasionally jump off the ground to increase speed and weight, which creates the well-known exaggerated hunting leap of a fox.

So the next time you witness this quite funny behavior in a dog, while you are smiling and laughing at them you can also realize the behavior has a history with a very serious purpose among wolves and other wild canids.

Jaw Punch

The discussion of this installment’s behavior was inspired by Himtuuqin, who routinely performs a jaw punch whenever feeding. A jaw punch occurs when a wolf pushes on a suspected food item with their nose prior to the initial bite of feeding. Immediately after a jaw punch is performed, the participating wolf jumps back away from the food item. Essentially a misnomer because the nose usually strikes the object rather than the jaw, the push is meant to confirm the food item is dead prior to consuming.

Contrary to some large cats and bears, wolves typically kill their prey prior to beginning to eat the animal. A jaw punch likely evolved to ensure the downed prey animal was truly dead and not faking death or still able to defend itself. All prey animals will fight when their life is in jeopardy and the kick of a large prey animal can severely injure or even kill a wolf. So a jaw punch would solicit a reaction from the injured prey and allow the wolves to either wait for the prey to perish or inflict further damage to speed death. This behavior increases the safety of wolves during the very dangerous occupation of living through hunting and killing large prey.

A jaw punch may also occur when a wolf investigates a novel item. Wolves are very curious and will approach new objects in their environment. After a thorough smelling and distant visual exam of the new item, investigating wolves may eventually approach the item and perform a jaw punch. Then if the item does not move an investigative bite of the item could be next. Once the item is identified as an inanimate object, the investigating wolves will probably urinate on it to claim it as part of their territory.

Den Behavior and Selection

As the snow melts in the spring, all gray wolf packs begin preparation for one the most exciting times of the year-the birth of puppies. As discussed in previous lessons, breeding season for wolves begins in December and usually terminates in early March, with the actual mating occurring typically in late February. Wolves have a 63 day gestation, which means puppies are born in April or May. This annual event is perfectly timed so puppies are not subjected to the extreme cold of winter immediately upon birth, plus most other Northern hemisphere mammals are birthing at the same time. This is not a coincidence, but rather an evolved pattern so the pack has ample prey in the form of elk or deer fawns, which means more food to share with the new puppies.

Another benefit of the spring season is the ground is quite soft due to being saturated from snow melt, thus is easy to dig into. Packs create a den for the mother to birth her puppies in, and then the pups and the mother reside in this den for the first several weeks after birth. The mother stays with the pups while the pack hunts, or a “pupsitter” is appointed by the pack to watch over the puppies when the mother must leave. Either way, the puppies remain in or near the den for the first few months of their life.

After the puppies are too large to inhabit the den, they are moved to a rendezvous site, where they stay while the pack is away hunting. Now considered sub-adults, the wolves will never use a den again in their life, unless one of them later becomes a mother herself. Dens are only used for birthing puppies, not as a sleeping area or to escape the weather as you may think. In captivity, wolves will occasionally use dens to escape dominance from other members, but this is not a natural behavior, rather an ingenious way to use the available environment to cope with the negative aspects of captivity.

In 2004, WERC supported an interesting Masters Thesis study by Jon Trapp of Prescott College. Jon, a WERC supporter and personal friend, examined wolf den selection and characteristics in the Northern Rocky Mountains. The study showed that nearly all dens existed within the core area of the pack’s territory, or the area used most frequently by the pack. The most important factors in selection of a den site were determined to be adequate canopy (or large tree) cover, herbaceous vegetation nearby, small logs and rocks near the site, and the proximity to a water source (usually within 100 m). Jon found that many dens were visually obscured from a close range by vegetation, making the dens difficult to locate. This is probably important for protection of the puppies from predators and maybe even humans.

The study also found that human made structures such as roads were not a significant factor in choosing den sites, therefore providing more proof that wolves can probably coexist closely with human society. Most dens were dug under a fallen tree root system or under a rock or similar large item, probably to help support the roof of the den. The soil type of the den site was deemed important, as most dens possessed a sandy-type soil that allowed easy drainage thus preventing the den from being flooded. Jon’s findings were important to wolf protection, as managers now have better knowledge of potential den areas so protection from humans can be accomplished by closing certain high potential den areas to human activity during the birthing season. This would allow packs to birth and care for their puppies undisturbed, leading to healthier wolf populations in the future. WERC is proud to have been a part of this important study.

Shake Off

Another behavior commonly seen among wolves during the winter is the shake-off. This very basic, and likely instinctual, behavior is not social in nature, but rather is to promote care of the individual body. Shaking snow, rain, and even dirt off the fur coat is regularly seen among all dogs, some cats, and most other mammals, but there is a simple, yet very important survival motivation behind such shaking.

Wolves maintain a dual-layer fur coat. The seldom seen inner layer of fur is known as the undercoat. It is comprised of densely compacted, solid-shafted, and always gray hairs (hence the name gray wolf) which comprise the main insulation layer of the coat. However, this layer of fur does not insulate well when saturated with water. Conversely, the outer layer of fur, known as the guard hairs, is comprised of long, straight, hollow-shafted hairs that are quite oily. These hairs vary in color dramatically and thus create the individual coloration to each wolf. The hair follicles of the guard hairs create oil that essentially provides a waterproof barrier along this outer layer, therefore preventing the inner undercoat from becoming wet. Snow and rain collect on the guard hairs and would eventually seep downward to the undercoat if not removed. By shaking-off the precipitation, a wolf is ultimately keeping the undercoat dry, which in turn maintains thermo-regulation for survival.

The process of a shake-off is quite simple, and occasionally comical. The animal typically begins by shaking the head side to side and twisting the neck, then the shaking motion quickly proceeds through the body, ending with the tail. Any person who has ever given a dog or cat a bath can surely attest to the velocity of water leaving the fur coat! Wolves also use this shake-off behavior when their fur coats become dusty after bedding down in the summer and I have also witnessed it being used to expel flies and other insects that land upon the guard hairs.

Even though most dog and cat keepers have probably seen the shake-off behavior hundreds of times, now you know that this simple behavior does have an incredibly important motivation among wolves – thermoregulation and ultimately survival.


As we enter into the scary season of Halloween, wolves are often portrayed as ominous creatures of the night. Werewolves are a popular myth (or reality, depending on who you ask) that surfaces during this season of the living dead, supernatural creatures, and other dark auras that seem to peak our senses in a peculiar way. Images of wolves this time of the year are usually expressed in aggressive postures, especially snarling.

A snarling wolf, or one who has tightened their lips in a manner to expose their teeth, is surely a figure most people would wish to avoid. And rightly so, as this is exactly what the snarling wolf intends. A snarl among wolf facial postures is a display that could have several different motivations; however all possess a common theme: a greatly disturbed wolf.

The basis behind a snarl is to display the teeth, which in many species is known as a posture of threat or defense. Bears, large cats, and even some sharks are commonly known to perform a type of snarl when confronting potential danger. Wolves will snarl for both aggressive and defensive reasons. A dominant wolf may snarl toward a submissive wolf during an elevated dominance display, or a submissive wolf may snarl in return as a sign of defiance against a dominant wolf. The position of the lips and teeth are the same in both cases, however the eye and body position is much different.

A dominant or aggressive wolf has an elevated body posture with eyes staring directly at the submissive wolf, where a submissive wolf has a lowered body posture with an averted gaze. Yet, both aggressive and defensive snarls inform the counterpart that the snarling wolf is highly antagonized and is ready to become physically engaged with the other soon if necessary. While handling social captive wolves, this is a posture we obviously wish to avoid, while wild wolves will likely never exhibit such a posture toward humans. The only possible exception to this is if a human would surprise a wolf when near food. Wolves are highly defensive of their food and will growl and snarl at most anything that approaches it. Submissive wolves will even snarl at dominant wolves when food is present, which usually causes the dominant wolf to avoid the situation.

A snarl is commonly used by dogs in both aggressive and defensive scenarios just like wolves. Although a snarl appears dangerous, it is a posture that is actually meant to avoid a physical confrontation by serving as a final warning before attack. When wolves snarl they rarely become involved in aggressive encounters, hence the behavior serves as a communication tool rather than a sign of war.

Furthermore, snarling has no basis in predatory behavior, subsequently wolves never snarl at prey. So during this season of Samhain, always remember that a snarling wolf simply means to warn you – not necessarily eat you. A werewolf snarling, on the other paw, may mean something profoundly more evil, so BEWARE!

Did you know why wolves have a strong background in Halloween lore? There are many reasons wolves are connected to the powers of darkness, beginning with the Bible. In several passages the wolf is associated with the devil and demons, possibly due to livestock depredations at the time? Werewolf literature dates back to nearly the same time as the Bible, and wolf/human shape shifters are known in legends of most world cultures. The werewolf became popular again during the Bubonic Plague as wolves were occasionally seen leaving the mass graves by moonlight. The people of the time believed the dead were transforming into wolves (under a full moon of course) to leave the mortal world behind.

Finally, wolves have strong ties to vampires as well. A wolf is one of the shapes a vampire may assume (the other common shapes being mist and a bat), and the great Count Dracula adored wolves. The Prince of Darkness referred to them as the “Children of the Night” and “what sweet music they make”, he said of their howling. With such history, it is no wonder how wolves have become an iconic symbol of Halloween. I guess everyone, even the powers of darkness, have something to enjoy and celebrate about wolves.

Eye Position

“Don’t look a wolf in their eye!” …How many times have you heard this popular myth? Even some experienced biologists believe this before visiting the Sawtooth or Owyhee Pack. The truth is that wolves use eye position as an important form of communication, both within their pack and toward other animals around them (like us).

Gray wolves will look one another in the eye, as humans do, when communicating a greeting, dominance behaviors, and other social gestures. Wolf handlers at the Wolf Center are taught very early, even before meeting the pack, to look into the pack member’s eyes when greeting. This allows the wolves opportunity to examine the emotions or mental state of the handler, a process that can be difficult to perceive from humans absent facial postures.

Wolves communicate regularly through subtle and sometimes dramatic facial postures, however, humans have become quite stoic in facial postures through time probably because of our heavy dependency on verbal communication. Still, most humans maintain very subtle posturing through their eyes, a trait captive wolves can learn to decipher. Hence, eye contact with any canine, from your dog to a wild wolf, is a beneficial action that promotes social communication and bonding. There may be times when eye contact is not appropriate with an unknown canine that exhibits potential hostile behaviors, such as growling and snarling.

The process of avoiding direct eye contact, known as averting gaze, will show the aggressive canine that you mean to avoid a fight. In wolves, a submissive wolf regularly averts gaze when a dominant wolf attempts a dominant display toward them. During drastic submissive displays, the submissive wolf will even open their eyes wide when averting gaze, thus showing the whites of their eyes. This behavior is thought to be the most dramatic of submissive eye postures.

Another behavior to avoid with unknown canines, especially wolves, is the fixed (aggressive) stare directly into their eyes. Such a stare is a blatant challenge of that canine’s rank and social status. If performed toward a dominant wolf, a reciprocal challenge and fight is likely to ensue. High ranking wolves use this technique to assert their rank over submissive pack members or as a challenge to another trespassing wolf pack.

Most humans unknowingly use eye posture to communicate with one another, or canines, just as wolves do. Think back to the last time you found yourself in close proximity to an aggravated or aggressive dog. You averted your gaze, right? Or the last time you disciplined your dog for an inappropriate behavior. Did you stare at them while reprimanding them? Wolves use this same eye posturing as an important communication tool, and if used properly, humans can more effectively communicate with canines around us every day.

Tail Posture

One of the most obvious communication postures observed in wolves is tail position. Although the positioning of the tail is one of the most frequently observed communication techniques, it is also one of the simplest forms of communication.

There are two factors to evaluate when discussing tail posture: elevation & movement. The elevation of the tail correlates to the hierarchy rank of the individual, generally the higher the tail placement the higher the wolf’s rank.

Erich Klinghammer and Pat Goodman (from Wolf Park) described five different tail heights that have become the standard in explaining all tail positions. As Klinghammer and Goodman described in their Wolf Ethogram, a T1 tail posture is when the tail is at full height, pointing straight up in the air. This position is typically reserved for the alpha-pair of the pack.

A T2 tail is when the tail extends in a straight line pointing away from the body, parallel with the spine and ground. This position is usually utilized by beta-males and other high ranking members.

A T3 tail occurs when the tail is held at a relaxed state, or pointing straight toward the ground. Most mid-ranking wolves maintain T3 tails. A T3.5 tail is when the tail points at the ground like a T3, however the tail is pressed against the back of the hind legs in this lower rank posture.

Finally, a T4 tail, which is usually reserved for omegas, is when the tail is tucked against the abdomen between the legs. Each individual wolf can alter their tail posture as necessary to communicate their dominance or submission. For example, a mid-ranking wolf may display a T2 tail when near an omega, but then quickly change the posture to a T3 or T3.5 if an alpha approaches the area.

The movement of an individual’s tail is also an important communication factor. Wolves wag their tails like dogs, however contrary to most dog owners; we do not describe the behaviors as a sign of happiness. Generally, wolves wag their tails when there is an increase of energy or excitement occurs.

There are two specific styles of tail wagging that wolves perform: rigid or fluid movement. A rigid tail (like a pendulum) wag means the wolf is excited and has dominant tendencies. A fluid, or snake-like wag typically is a signal of play or greeting toward other pack members.

The elevation and movement of each wolf’s tail work together to describe the behavior of each individual. So, a wolf who is rigidly wagging a T1 tail is exhibiting intense dominance, however a wolf fluidly wagging a T3 tail is probably soliciting social play with other pack members.

Wolves can alter their tail posture rapidly in order to maintain coherent communication within the pack structure. Tail posture is an important tool wolves use to maintain hierarchy stability through accurate communication.

Cache Content

Ever wonder why dogs bury bones in the backyard? The reason is simple: to store and protect the bone or food item from scavengers. Not many scavengers in your neighborhood? Well, most dogs will continue to exhibit this behavior because it is an instinct that has been transferred from over 12,000 years of breeding the current domestic dog away from gray wolves.

In the wild, wolves have many competitors for their food, especially ravens and other avian scavengers. In an attempt to protect food that cannot be consumed immediately, wolves have adopted a behavior known as caching. To cache is to bury food in a shallow depression thus preventing avian scavengers from detecting the item. Wolves then return and unearth the item later for a snack between kills.

The Sawtooth or Owyhee Pack caches food constantly, nearly every feeding, and the amounts per cache vary from a small mouthful up to 15 pounds or so. The process of caching is simple. A wolf tears a small fragment from a carcass and trots off to a secluded area, usually with moderate to dense tree cover, digs a depression suitable for the item, then places the item in the hole and uses their nose to cover the meat with the freshly dug dirt. The wolf then tamps down the food grave with their nose. It is easy to see when individuals have been caching as they have the telltale “brown nose” from tamping down the cache site. So the next time your dog has dirt over their nose pad you now know why.

A word of caution regarding cache sites – all wolves aggressively defend their cache sites against all others. This poses the single greatest danger to handlers of any captive pack, and thus all dog owners should exercise caution when investigating any potential cache site. Amani, even though alone, exhibited the most frequent cache behaviors among the Sawtooth Pack, probably due to the ample amount of food he received. He subsequently must protect the food from the ever-present ravens. Ultimately, the behavior can be summed up as “bury it or lose it.”

Breeding Behavior

As most humans in the Northern Hemisphere tend to seek shelter indoors and limit activity during winter, wolves are at their most active. There are two main reasons for this higher activity period this time of year. First, gray wolves are built for cold weather, so as the chill seems to bite into human nerves, wolves do not feel the same effect. The double layer of fur in wolves seal out the cold temperatures and snow, creating a comfortable environment for wolves. On the contrary, the high temperatures of summer are oppressive to the heavily furred canines. Thus, winter is a more active time of the year for them.

The second reason wolves are more active in winter is because it’s their annual breeding season. Wolves breed only once a year, during the winter months so the pups will be born in the spring, when food is plentiful and the weather less severe. The season begins in late December and proceeds until late February or early March. Most of this period is simply behavioral preparation for mating, which only occurs for a few days up to two weeks at the completion of the season.

Wolves actually begin an increase in sexual hormone production around October, but obvious breeding behaviors begin to show in December as a general increase in dominance among the hierarchy. Both alpha-male and alpha-female step up their dominance frequency and severity toward all submissive members in an effort to reaffirm their breeding rights. This increase is a major reason why the Sawtooth Pack has experienced most hierarchy changes during winter. As the season progresses, the alpha-female will then begin to solicit attention from the alpha-male, or other males. She does this by performing behaviors that appear to be playful. She will approach the alpha-male and paw at his back or head, place her head across his back, or just simply stand or walk next to him, usually touching.

In the beginning, the alpha-male usually returns a snap or growl in response to her advances. Other females may do the same behavior toward the alpha or other males, but are usually disciplined if caught by the alpha-female. Then, the females of the pack begin their estrus cycle, usually within a few days of one another. Once this occurs, the males of the pack begin to pay attention to the female advances.

The alpha-female then increases her “flirtatious” advances toward the alpha-male, plus performs the ultimate sexual solicitation behavior of pushing her rump against the alpha-male’s rump or side and curling her tail to the side (exposing her genitalia). This posture only occurs during peak breeding season and an excellent indicator of the next stage of the season, actual mating. Once the alpha-male catches on to her indications, he will then begin to reciprocate the play-like behaviors of placing his head over her back and sparring with her while both are standing on their hind legs (an action that resembles dancing).

Soon after, he will then pair bond to the alpha-female, which is an act of guarding her from all other males who may attempt to mate with her. She is fertile at this stage. During this time, no other wolf is permitted within a close proximity to his chosen mate. Usually, the other pack members avoid the alpha-pair during this time and observe the two from a distance.

Mating occurs over several occasions each day for anywhere between two days to two weeks. The intercourse process is exactly the same act as domestic dogs perform. When ovulation is complete and intercourse ceases, the alpha-pair no longer exhibit solicitation behaviors toward one another and essentially all dominance and hierarchy behaviors return to normal very quickly, even overnight sometimes.

After the season is complete, all wolves seem to be exhausted and then enter into a very low energy period of the year, springtime. At the completion of the 63-day gestation period, packs with a successful breeding season welcome new pups into their family in April or May.

Scent Rolling

Scent rolling is the act of pressing the body against a strong-smelling object or scent. This behavior usually begins with the wolf pushing a cheek against the object, and then sliding on it until the side of the chest has cleared the object. The wolf will likely stand and repeat the process several times on each side of the body.

Wolves commonly perform this behavior with any strong or unique-smelling object within their territory, such as a smelly carcass (food), urine or feces from another animal outside the pack, or any other pungent odor encountered that is not a regular scent within their territory.

Many visitors ask why wolves and subsequently their dogs perform such a behavior. For wolves, the answer is simple: olfactory camouflage. We believe wolves are essentially transferring the scent of the different odor to their bodies so when hunting their prey may not smell wolf, rather the benign rolled-upon scent, when in close proximity of the hunting pack. This camouflage has obvious benefits for hunting wolves, as they may be able to gain closer access to their prey. Another theory for evolution of scent rolling is to transfer the scent of the rolling wolf onto the object chosen, thus “marking” it as an item within their territory. Gray wolves likely utilize both of these advantages as a motivation to perform scent rolling.

So, why do dogs perform such a behavior? Some breeds may scent-roll for the same reasons wolves do, especially to mark their territory. A pertinent question to any interested dog owner is: “Does your dog typically scent-roll on your property more so than off your property?” If so, the motivation is likely a territorial marker. In some dog breeds, scent rolling is simply a rudimentary, or useless hereditary, tie-over from their ancestors, wolves. Regardless if domestic dogs perform scent rolling or not, the behavior is an important survival tool for gray wolves.

Scrape Behavior

Have you ever noticed your dog scratching the ground after urinating and wondered why the heck do dogs do that? Well, once again, this behavior, known as a scrape, is a residual behavior tied over from the dogs’ ancestor, the gray wolf.

The act of scratching the ground in a backward motion, usually with the hind legs, and sometimes also with the front, is typically performed by dominant wolves, but may also be done by mid-ranking individuals depending on the circumstances. Wolves do this scraping as a type of marking behavior, such as to announce a territory boundary to an opposing pack, or to claim a food item as their own.

Wolves have scent glands located between the pads of their paws, so every scrape they perform leaves a characteristic scent of that individual. Hence, dominant wolves tend to use this behavior to announce their status among their own pack, or perhaps a rival pack that may cross into their territory.

Domestic dogs probably use the behavior for similar reasons, or simply may conduct scraping due to instinct and not possess a current motivation. The Sawtooth Pack: Wolves of the Nez Perce are often noticed scraping after a dominant member urinates, after the alpha-female, Ayet, displays dominance over Motoki, and usually when fresh food is available.