Q: How are wolves related to dogs?
A: All dogs are domesticated descendants of gray wolves. Indeed, some researchers classify dogs as a subspecies of wolf. We still don’t know when dogs were first domesticated, but it was at least 15,000 years ago and may have been as far back as 100,000 years ago. Since then, people have bred dogs to be very different from their wolf ancestors, and from one another. Dogs differ from wolves, both physically and behaviorally, in several ways (see below).
Q: What are some differences between wolves and dogs?
A: Wolves differ from dogs, even superficially “wolf-like” dogs like huskies, malamutes, and German shepherds, in several ways. Some of the more important of these differences include:
- Wolves have proportionally larger teeth, brains, heads, and paws and longer legs than dogs.
- Wolves have very narrow, keel-like chests and their elbows point inward, causing their front legs to come close to touching one another.
- Wolves have a well-defined “face” formed by a ruff of fur along their cheeks which extends out to the side. (This is less prominent while in their summer coat.)
- While most dogs tend to have curling tails, wolf tails are straight. Wolf tails often have a black tip (never a white tip as in many dogs).
- Wolves have all-black noses, lips, gums, skin surrounding their eyes, and paw pads; in many dogs these are brown, pale, pink or multicolored.
- Many dogs have blue or dark eyes; wolf eyes are light-colored (generally yellow or amber), but not blue. However, wolf pups do have blue eyes, which change color as they mature.
- Wolf nails are dark-colored (or, with some arctic wolves, tan/gray/taupe), whereas many dogs have white or transparent nails.
- Wolf ears are small, rounded, erect, thick, and heavily furred inside and out. Most dog ears don’t fit this description.
- A wolf’s head shape is rather different from that of northern breed dogs: the snout is long and tapered, though broad and deep, and slopes gradually into the forehead, with no abrupt “stop” or wall where the forehead begins. A dog breed with a similar general head shape is the collie.
- Wolves shed only once a year, while many dogs shed more than once a year, or even continuously.
- The different colors on a wolf’s pelt will be well blended into one another. This is true of some dogs, but not generally of northern breeds like malamutes, which tend to have a very distinct facial mask. The dark fur on the face of many wolves extends around the eyes and down the top of the snout, unlike in most huskies and malamutes. Each individual wolf hair has several bands of different colors on it, though this trait is shared by some dogs (“agouti” coloration).
- Most dogs are sexually mature by eight months old, but wolves generally do not reach sexual maturity until two to four years of age.
- Female dogs go into estrus twice during the year at various times, and male dogs are fertile year-round, whereas wolves can only breed once during the year, in January to March (wolf pups are thus born in March to May).
- Dogs bark frequently, but wolves rarely bark, and when they do it is a low chuffing sound issued as a warning call, not the type of loud aggressive bark familiar from domestic dogs.
- Finally, wolves and dogs can behave quite differently toward people. Unless mistreated or poorly socialized, dogs love people and want to be around us. While a hand-raised and very extensively socialized wolf can sometimes develop close emotional bonds with its human “family,” a wolf’s natural emotional response to people is fear or at best aloofness.
Q: So what is a “wolfdog”?
A: Wolfdogs (also known as wolf hybrids) are the result of breeding wolves with dogs. Unlike most dogs, whose nearest wolf ancestors lived tens of thousands of years ago, wolfdogs have at least one wolf ancestor from very recently. The normal working definition of a wolfdog is an animal with wolf ancestry within the last five generations. Wolfdogs can be very doglike, very wolflike, or somewhere in between, depending on the content of wolf versus dog genes within them and other factors.
Q: This wolfdog breeder I found says that…
A: There is a great deal of misinformation spread about wolves and wolfdogs as pets. While some breeders are honest, caring, and conscientious, the vast majority are not. Breeders frequently misrepresent the wolf content of the animals they are selling—not infrequently selling mixed-breed domestic dogs as “wolfdogs” or even “pure wolves.” Often a breeder invents a pedigree for their animals, sometimes including references to non-existent types of wolves which sound appropriately exotic (“Canadian silverback,” for example). Existing wolfdogs are basically all descended from a fairly small number of wolves which have been captive for many generations; a breeder who claims that an animal was “taken from a den” in the wild, or that it is the result of a domestic dog mating with a wild wolf, is almost certainly lying.
Dishonest breeders frequently present wolfdogs as ideal pets, but this is rarely true, especially with animals with a high wolf content (see our page on wolves as pets). Despite what a breeder might tell you, most wolfdogs are not safe if you have small children or small pets. They make poor guard dogs (their reaction to strangers is to flee from them, rather than bark at them). They require very elaborate facilities to safely contain them and prevent escapes. They also require a great deal of exercise and attention, and a canine companion, to prevent stress, boredom, and unhappiness (a wolfdog is a terrible choice for a pet if you live in an apartment, for example). Finally, owning a wolfdog without a license is illegal in many areas. A reputable breeder will be honest about the difficulties of wolfdog ownership. A reputable breeder should also be asking you at least as many questions as you ask them, because a reputable breeder is someone who cares about their animals and the new homes they will have. Never trust anyone advertising “wolfdog puppies” in a newspaper or selling them on the side of the road.
Q: I want to get a wolf or wolfdog for a pet.
A: Wolves and wolfdogs do not make good pets; see here for more information. Most people who get one as a pet are unable to take care of it, and it either escapes, is confiscated, or is surrendered to a shelter or Animal Control. Such animals have little hope of survival, for they are usually euthanized almost immediately. It’s also illegal to own a wolf or wolfdog in many areas without a permit. So for your own sake as well as the sake of the animals, don’t get a wolf or wolfdog as a pet. There are already animals that look like wolves but act like dogs—dogs! Let wolves remain wild, help wolfdog breeding become a thing of the past, and adopt a rescue (domestic) dog.
If you need assistance in caring for or finding a home for a wolfdog, see our page on the subject.