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While it’s a fact that dogs are descendants of wolves, there are certain dog breeds that tend to have more wolfy characteristics than others. The popular German Shepherd Dog is one of those breeds that retains some of the physical traits of their wild canine ancestors, and their looks are often compared to that of a wolf.
But why do German Shepherds look so much like wolves?
The German Shepherd Dog is similar in size to a wolf, most likely due to selective breeding over time and the fact that dogs are descended from wolves. Despite their physical likeness, German Shepherds and wolves have different personalities and temperaments and the two should not be considered similar in that respect.
In this article, we will look at the ancestry of German Shepherds and their genetic relationship to wolves, and how selective breeding over time has led to the German Shepherd maintaining a lot of wolf-like physical traits. We will also look at the differences between the two, and some of the key differences as to what makes a German Shepherd a dog and not a wolf.
Why Do German Shepherds Look Like Wolves?
When it comes down to it, German Shepherds look so similar to wolves because the wolf is a common ancestor for all breeds of dogs. From the tiniest Chihuahua to the largest Great Dane, dogs and wolves share a common ancestor.
For some breeds, such as the German Shepherd, selective breeding has led to the dogs maintaining many of the physical traits that a wolf has, such as a larger body, erect ears, and a weather-proof coat.
While some traits are more prominent than others, they are similar enough in the German Shepherd that many people will comment on how much your German Shepherd looks like a wolf. German Shepherds, as well as most other dogs, will also pay tribute to their wolf ancestors by engaging in a howling match or by stalking their “prey”…which is usually just their favorite toy!
German Shepherds vs Wolves
So why do German Shepherds look more like wolves than some other breeds of dogs?
That would be due to the selective breeding and the interest of the founder of the German Shepherd, Captain Max von Stephanitz, in keeping the wolf-like characteristics present in the breed. Because the original function of the German Shepherd was as a working dog that protected herds of sheep and other livestock, retaining those wolf-like traits helped deter potential predators of the livestock the dogs were diligently guarding.
When it comes to the similarities between wolves and German Shepherds, we must first look at the wolf itself. There are several different species and even subspecies of wolves all over the world, and there are significant differences in the physical traits of several of them.
For comparing wolves to German Shepherds, we are going to look at the average gray wolf (Canis lupus) which is the most common wolf species in North America, and which most closely resembles your average German Shepherd Dog.
While there are distinct subspecies of the gray wolf, such as the Mexican gray wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) and the Arctic wolf (Canis lupus arctos), the majority of the gray wolf subspecies as most people know them are still pretty similar in their physical traits as they relate to what you would look at when comparing a German Shepherd to a wolf.
Your average adult male German Shepherd generally weighs between 65 to 90 pounds and a height of 24 to 26 inches at the top of the shoulder when fully grown. Male German Shepherds should be longer than they are taller.
Your average male gray wolf usually weighs between 70 to 115 pounds and has a height of 26 to 32 inches at the top of the shoulder. While that’s smaller than giant breeds like Great Danes, it’s still significantly larger than a German Shepherd. Male gray wolves also tend to be longer than they are taller and can reach a length of 4 ½ to 6 feet from the tip of their nose to the tip of their tail.
Certain individuals of either species can vary in their size compared to the averages, and it is not uncommon to see smaller or larger individuals.
Your average adult female German Shepherd generally weighs between 50 to 70 pounds and has a height of 22 to 24 inches at the top of the shoulder. Female German Shepherds should be longer than they are taller.
Your average female gray wolf usually weighs between 50 and 90 pounds and has a height of 26 to 32 inches at the top of the shoulder. Female gray wolves also tend to be longer than they are taller and can reach a length of 4 to 5 ½ feet from the tip of their nose to the tip of their tail.
As with males, certain individuals of either species can vary in their size compared to the averages, and it is not uncommon to see smaller or larger individuals.
German Shepherd puppies tend to weigh around half a pound to one pound as newborns, which is pretty similar to gray wolf puppies and both the German Shepherd and gray wolf gain weight and grow in a similar fashion up until sexual maturity, which occurs between 1 to 2 years for the German Shepherd and 2 to 3 years for the grey wolf.
Once the puppies start entering into their adolescent years, this is where the selective breeding of German Shepherds would come into play and the German Shepherd puppy may be smaller or of a similar size to a gray wolf puppy of the same age, which at this age the gray wolf puppy is around the same size as an adult gray wolf. Individual puppies from both species may also vary in their size throughout the growing process.
It doesn’t just end at size and there are many other similarities between wolves and GSDs.
Both German Shepherds and the gray wolf have a similar coat type.
While this can vary with some types of German Shepherds who were specifically bred for long hair or a smoother coat, the original standard for a German Shepherd was a double-coat which had a smoother undercoat and short, slightly plush top coat containing their guard hairs which protected them from the weather.
Gray wolves have a similar double-coat, which helps keep them warm in the winter, repels water, and keeps them cool in the summer. Wolves tend to have shorter and thicker guard hairs, which directly impact the unique banded coloration of a wolf whereas the guard hairs of a German Shepherd (which are located within the top coat) are not quite as thick and cluster differently, thus their coat tends to have a smoother transition in the coloring.
German Shepherds are very well known for their large, erect “bat-like” ears. While the German Shepherd tends to have larger ears than most wolves, these erect ears do come from their wolf ancestry.
With domestication, many species of dogs developed more “cute” traits to appeal to the human species and ensure they received food and shelter, and this includes the floppy ears that you see with a lot of other dog breeds. With the German Shepherd, they maintained their erect ears and their ear type is now a defining physical characteristic of the breed.
Muzzle & Bite Force
The German Shepherd and the gray wolf share a very similar size and length of muzzle, especially when compared to a breed like a Boxer or a Pug, both of which have been selectively bred to have a squishier face.
Despite the similarities in muzzle and head size, the German Shepherd has a bite force that is much less than the bite force of a gray wolf. The German Shepherd’s bite force is around 230 to 240 pounds per square inch (PSI), compared to the gray wolf’s bite force of 398 PSI. While that’s impressive it’s still less than the bite force of a bigger breed like a Great Pyrenees.
In the video below, you can directly see the similarities (and differences!) between a German Shepherd and a pack of wolves:
Why Do Some German Shepherds Look More Like Wolves Than Others?
There are certain sub-types of German Shepherds that can differ greatly from wolves compared to your traditional German Shepherd, and some that actually more closely resemble a wolf than your traditional German Shepherd.
Certain types of German Shepherds, such as the Show Line German Shepherds, the East German/DDR Working Line German Shepherds, or Czech-Line German Shepherds, have all been selectively bred over time for changes in their coat lengths, coat types, weights and lengths, muscularity, or colors.
While they are still related to wolves, these sub-types may not share the same physical traits with wolves as some other German Shepherds might.
In fact, the founder of the German Shepherd Dog, Captain Max von Stephanitz, was particularly fond of the wolf-like characteristics of a type of dog he saw in the late 1800s in western Germany. The dog’s work ethic, muscular features, intelligence, and primal canine characteristics caught von Stephanitz’ eye, and thus the German Shepherd Dog was born.
While this initial German Shepherd, known as Horand von Grafrath, displayed wolf-like traits over time and through selective breeding some of those wolfy characteristics became less prominent and the dogs became more of the German Shepherd we know and love today.
Due to the growing popularity of the German Shepherd and the demand outweighing the supply, several unscrupulous breeders made poor breeding decisions and genetic diseases and illnesses began appearing in the German Shepherd, particularly in the United States where dog breeding regulations were non-existent outside of breed clubs.
Due to the increasing amount of genetic health issues and deformities that resulted from the poor breeding practices, as well as public outcry, many responsible German Shepherd breeders worked diligently to help reduce and eliminate the presence of genetic abnormalities and get the German Shepherd back to its original breed standard and the dog that von Stephanitz idolized.
Can German Shepherds Be Bred With Wolves?
Because they share such genetic similarities, German Shepherds (just like any dog) can be bred to wolves. Breeding a German Shepherd to a wolf will result in what is called a wolf hybrid or more commonly a “wolf-dog”.
Because you are breeding two distinct species, it is difficult to determine what physical traits the puppies would have more of. Some puppies may look more like a purebred wolf, whereas other puppies may look more similar to a purebred German Shepherd. You may get lucky, and some puppies will have the best of both parents and look like the perfect example of a German Shepherd/wolf hybrid.
While you can breed a German Shepherd to a wolf, it usually unwise to do so. Wolf hybrids are illegal in most places within the United States, and because both wolves and wolf hybrids are not similar personality- and temperament-wise to dogs, the resulting offspring tend to be skittish, aggressive, and prone to escaping from their homes and yards and only experienced wildlife rescues, wolf-dog rescues, or wolf refuges should generally be in possession of these animals.
Is a German Shepherd The Most Closely Related Dog Breed To A Wolf?
While the German Shepherd may closely resemble a wolf, they are not the most similar dog breed to a wolf.
That recognition goes to breeds such as the Siberian Husky (which also tends to be the breed that howls the most!), Alaskan Malamute, or some of the other Spitz-type and northern-bred dogs such as the Norwegian Elkhound or Akita.
Most of these breeds look the closest to a wolf because they are relatively rare breeds in comparison to the German Shepherd, so their gene pool has maintained the same traits and characteristics as their ancestors and there has been less out-crossing (where you breed one dog to a dog of another breed to try and increase or decrease a specific trait) to other breeds.
This is unlike the German Shepherd which has had a lot of genetic dilution and out-crossing over the decades and has resulted in a very specific breed type, but which is less wolf-like and more doglike than the German Shepherd’s ancestors.
Similar to the German Shepherd, just because these breeds look similar to a wolf does not make them the same as a wolf and they should be treated as our canine companions rather than a wild wolf.
While your German Shepherd may look similar to a wolf in terms of size, they are definitely a dog and should be treated as such.
German Shepherds are loyal, intelligent, and sensitive dogs and while they may share the genetics of their wolf ancestors, they are much more content to lay by your feet in a warm living room than to be tracking down an elk herd on the tundra!