In court for crying wolf

The owner says his dog's a husky; the council says it's a dangerous hybrid. Mark Rowe reports
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THE owners of one of Britain's most controversial crossbreed dogs - the wolf hybrid - are biting back.

A local council has been taken to court by an owner who argues it wrongly confiscated his dog: he says it is a husky, the council maintains it has a wolf hybrid on its hands.

The dog in question, Tobin, is two years old, weighs in at eight stone, is 6ft tall on his rear legs, and has already survived an attempt to have him destroyed. The case is likely to set a legal precedent when it is heard at Durham County Court next month, as it comes at a time of growing concern about the increase in the number of wolf hybrids in Britain.

The wolf hybrid is usually created by breeding wolves with alsatians, huskies or malamutes. The wolf-dog was first bred in 1989 by the South African police force which wanted more aggressive patrol dogs at the height of unrest in the townships. A year later, the genetic technology was exported to the US where wolf-dogs became popular among "rednecks" in the Midwest and among drug dealers.

They can look beautiful and to many of their owners they are not wolf hybrids at all but "northern inuits", dogs whose ancestry goes back a number of generations before you find the wolf parent. However, they are often sold on the wolf connection, usually through local newspaper adverts describing them as "pure wolf" or "wolf hybrid" dogs.

While there has only been one reported case of an attack involving a wolf hybrid in the UK - the Communications Workers Union complained last year to the Government about the threat to its postmen - concern has been heightened by the dog's poor record in the US, where it has been responsible for more than a dozen attacks.

Despite the fact that the traditional view of the wolf as a threat to humans is misplaced, the wolf hybrid throws up specific dangers, according to Eric Beevers, environmental health services manager at Sedgefield Borough Council, which is fighting the court case in Durham.

"What you have here is the hunting and killing instinct of the wolf combined with the dog element," he said. "It may look nice as a fluffy puppy but the wolf has a hierarchy system. As a puppy it is bottom of the stack but as it gets older it tries to move up from being a subordinate. It could treat a child as a small rabbit."

The point was endorsed by animal behavioural psychologist Sue Hull. "The danger is that predatory behaviour is triggered by things like high-pitched squealing noises that children can make. The difference is that a wolf that brings in a rat to its den will be praised, a wolf that drags a child into the house won't be," she said.

Both the RSPCA and the National Canine Defence League discourages people from keeping the animals which they fear are bought for the wrong, macho, reasons. The licence fee and insurance can cost pounds 200 a year and a wolf hybrid cannot be kept as a house dog or taken for a walk on a lead.

The case in Durham is expected to revolve around whether a dog can be considered a wolf hybrid if neither of its parents are wolves but one of its grandparents - or an even more distant relative - is.

"The law is a mess," said Trevor Cooper, the solicitor representing Tobin and his owner, Thomas Coates. "We would argue that a dog whose parents are not wolves cannot be a wolf hybrid. How far back do you go? After all, all dogs are ultimately descended from wolves."

In a recent case in Rotherham, Susan Wilding lost her claim that her pet dog was not a wolf hybrid after a DNA expert told the court that any animal with above one per cent of wolf in its make-up could not be classed as a domestic dog.

However, this will be the first time that an owner has been able to call on scientific evidence to support a claim that a dog is not a wolf hybrid. "There is no test at the moment to see how much of a wolf is in a dog," said Mr Cooper.

Mr Cooper will call an expert in wolves to support Mr Coates, who is taking action under the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977, arguing that he is entitled to enjoy his possessions - in this case his dog.

"We will argue Tobin is a dog, not a wolf hybrid. If the court says he has a bit of wolf in him then we will argue that it is not sufficient to make him a threat," said Mr Cooper.