Dogs That Should Be Guarding Sheep Are Mating With Wolves Instead | Smart News | Smithsonian

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A wolfdog. (Photo: Pandora666)

Dogs That Should Be Guarding Sheep Are Mating With Wolves Instead

Intimate encounters between dogs and wolves are relatively common in Georgia's Caucasus Mountains

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In Georgia's Caucasus Mountains, sheepdogs are befriending the enemy. Instead of guarding their herds from wolves, they are mating with those predators, which could explain instances of increasing aggression from the local wolf community.

In a new study, a team of Georgian researchers genetically analyzed hair, blood or scat samples from 102 wolves, 57 livestock-guarding dogs and nine mongrel dogs. They found that about 10 percent of the animals had a recent relative who was not of their species, and around three percent were first-generation hybrids. They were surprised to find such high numbers for instances of dog-wolf hybridizations. The dogs, it seems, are slacking on the job. "Ironically, their sole function is to protect sheep from wolves or thieves," the researchers explained in a release. "They guard the herds from wolves, which are common in the areas where they are used, but it appears that they are also consorting with the enemy."

The researchers wonder if hybridization might have something to do with recent trends of human-wolf conflict in Georgia. Over the past decade or so the instance of wolf attacks on livestock has increased, the team points out, and in several cases wolves have attacked humans. Hybridized animals tend to be less wary of humans, so there could be a connection. 

Wolfdog worries are not confined to the Caucasus region. Last month, a man in Connecticut shot a wolfdog after it attacked him in a park. A couple other dogs that were part of the ambush got away. Authorities don't know whether the animals or wild or are being raised by someone nearby, although genetic tests did reveal the dead canine's mixed heritage. According to a USDA estimate from around 15 years ago, around 300,000 wolfdogs live in the U.S.—the highest number of any country. 

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