The first time you saw a German Shepherd, you probably thought, “Wow, that looks just like a wolf.” German Shepherds indeed have pretty similar physical characteristics to wolves regarding their face, coloring, and stance. So, why do German Shepherds look like wolves?
German Shepherds look like wolves because they are direct descendants of wolfdogs. In fact, the first German Shepherd came from a dog that was believed to be a quarter wolf, and some look more like wolves because they’re actually bred with wolves, known as wolf-dog hybrids.
So, if you are wondering what a wolfdog is – in simple terms, a wolfdog is a dog that has been produced by the mating of a wolf with a domesticated dog.
To fully understand why German Shepherds look like wolves, we need to look deeper into their bloodline. In doing so, you’ll discover the history of German Shepherds and their exact relationship to wolves.
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To learn exactly why German Shepherds look like wolves, read on!
Following the Bloodline
So, we know that German Shepherds (and all dogs for that matter) come from predominantly gray wolves, but the German Shepherd seems to be a little closer to wolves in terms of their direct ancestry.
We’re about to examine the bloodline of the modern-day German Shepherd to determine whether or not their distant wolf ancestors play a role in their similar appearance to wolves. This is about to get interesting…
The History of German Shepherds
It’s easy to see that the modern-day German Shepherd looks very similar to wolves, but we’re going to delve into the history of the German Shepherd to see what happened along the way to give them this appearance!
The first German Shepherd was developed in 1899 by a man named Max von Stephanitz, who was attending a dog show in his native Germany and was shown a dog (originally named Hektor Linksrhein) that was believed to be a one-quarter wolf and was the product of few generations of selective breeding.
Von Stephanitz had a strong belief that dogs should be bred for working, in particular, herding sheep. He also wanted to introduce a breed standard as he realized there were many different shepherd dogs in the country.
He was so impressed with the dog’s intelligence, obedience, beauty, and strength that he bought and renamed him Horand von Grafrath.
It is said that he was particularly fond of this dog due to his wolf-like appearance.
Von Stephanitz immediately founded the Society for German Shepherd Dogs, and Horand von Grafrath became known as the first GSD to be added to the society’s breed records. He was subsequently referred to as “the father of German Shepherds.”
Horand was then bred with dogs belonging to other society members that also displayed many desirable traits.
At the time, this new breed’s ancestry appears to be a little difficult to track, and there is some debate. There was very little data recorded, but here’s what we do know about the first German Shepherd:
- The first German Shepherd descended from a dog that was at least one-quarter wolf. Many reports now assert the belief that the first German Shepherd had at least one close wolf ancestor. After von Stephanitz and his colleagues bred the first German Shepherd with another similar dog, many pups were born. Some inbreeding then occurred, but this was deemed necessary in order to fix the traits being sought in the breed. That means that all modern-day German Shepherds are the direct descendants of the original one-quarter wolfdog.
- Wolfdogs were used when crossbreeding. In the 1800s, it was common for dog breeders to develop a studbook (breed registry) to overview the breeding process of a specific breed. Among the dogs used in the subsequent breeding process of the GSD, at least four were either wolfdogs or partly descended from wolfdogs.
- German Shepherds might just come from dogs that looked like wolves. When recording the breeding data in the studbooks for the German Shepherd, the term “wolf” was used quite consistently. However, it’s highly possible that the term “wolf” was used to describe the appearance of the dog itself, not the ancestry of the dog. “Wolf” was used to describe a pattern that is nowadays referred to as “sable.”
The history of the German Shepherd is quite interesting, especially when you consider that wolfdogs were definitely used at least once during the breeding process. This helps to explain why German Shepherds look pretty similar to wolves!
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German Shepherds are still one of the most popular dog breeds in many countries. You can take some more German Shepherd insights from my top article, German Shepherds as Pets: The Ultimate Guide.
Are German Shepherds Part Wolf?
When out walking my German Shepherd, I sometimes get asked whether they are part wolf due to the visual similarities.
German Shepherds are not part wolf but descended from the gray wolf. Despite sharing 99.9% of their DNA with wolves and being genetically very close, they are not wolves. All domesticated dogs are members of the Canidae family – 34 species, including wolves, coyotes, jackals, dingoes, and foxes.
I’ve always found it fascinating how wolves evolved into dogs and how they diversified into so many different visual breeds, from pugs to poodles.
Many people believe that German Shepherds are even more closely related to the wolf due to the understanding that his direct ancestor Horand von Grafrath was at least one-quarter wolf.
There is still some ongoing debate about how much wolf is actually in the German Shepherd breed despite it being thought that Horand was part wolf and that von Stephanitz used wolfdogs in the subsequent crossbreeding.
Since the first German Shepherd was created in 1899, von Stephanitz continued to breed, refine and promote the GSD for the next three decades.
The breed became popular in the UK and America in the early 1900s, partly due to the popularity of dog movie stars Rin-Tin-Tin and Strongheart and partly from returning soldiers of the First World War who spoke very highly of the breed’s characteristics.
The German Shepherd Dog has always maintained its wolf-like appearance that remains sought after by many people.
What’s even more interesting is the sudden interest in wolfdogs (wolf-dog hybrids) over the past decade. They have become more popular due to their appearance in movies and TV shows such as Game of Thrones. Though illegal in most states, a small population of people actively seek the allure of owning a dog that’s part wolf.
This fact alone can explain why some German Shepherds might look more like wolves than others!
For an even bigger wolf-looking German Shepherd, check out this article on the mighty King Shepherd, German Shepherd vs. King Shepherd: What’s The Difference?
No Breed Changes
So, let’s think about the idea of the German Shepherd having at least one immediate wolf ancestor.
When Horand, the first German Shepherd, was bred, he fathered many pups, one who was named Hektor von Schwaben. Hektor was then inbred with another of Horand’s pups, who produced three offspring who went on to father a total of 84 German Shepherd puppies. Therefore, all German Shepherds are essentially inbred.
Well, what does that mean?
When breeders see that a specific dog has produced a group of puppies that possess the most desirable qualities, they tend to breed within the same group. That means the “ideal” German Shepherd is actually the product of inbreeding.
If you’re wondering how that impacts their appearance, it’s a pretty simple answer!
Breeders and German Shepherd owners really value their physical appearance, especially their wolf-like appearance.
German Shepherds look like wolves because they’re bred to continue to look like that, continuing the physical appearance of the first-ever German Shepherd.
In a nutshell, German Shepherds are specifically bred to look the way they do.
All German Shepherds practically have the same DNA, but that isn’t stopping breeders and ordinary people from breeding German Shepherds with wolves.
Yes, you heard that right!
People are intentionally crossbreeding wolves and German Shepherds to create wolf-dog hybrids. To make it even more fitting, these dogs are often referred to as “Wolfdogs” or Wolf-Shepherds. This cross-breeding of a wolf and dog counteracts 12,000 years of dog domestication – ironically, humans are breeding the wolf back into the dog!
Wolf-dog hybrids are a very controversial subject, and laws and regulations concerning them vary. Many organizations worldwide, such as the Humane Society of the United States and the RSPCA, consider wolfdogs to be wild animals and fight for an international ban on the sale, possession, and breeding of wolfdogs.
Here are some important things to note about the modern-day wolf-dog hybrid:
- They’re illegal in most US states. It’s illegal to own a wolf as a pet in most states in America, and wolf hybrids are no different as they are seen as exotic pets. Some states and countries do consider them domestic animals depending on the percentage of their phenotype, however, they are not recommended by veterinarians due to their wild ancestry and they are much more challenging animals that aren’t really meant to be kept as pets.
- They look more like wolves than regular German Shepherds. Because they have a parent that’s usually 100% wolf, they look even more like wolves than the average German Shepherd, which many people are desperately seeking.
- They can be dangerous. You can somewhat predict the behavior of the average dog, but wolves are another story. They can be dangerous and are definitely not recommended for families with young children or other animals.
- Many wolf-dog hybrids end up being euthanized. This is due to owners not realizing or being uneducated as to how difficult these animals can be. They are, after all, part wild and they only begin to demonstrate their wild natures as they mature.
If you happen to see a dog described as a German Shepherd that looks much more like a wolf than the average German Shepherd should, it might just be a wolf-dog hybrid!
Wolfdog hybrids clearly guarantee that German Shepherds come from wolves but also increase the chances of German Shepherds looking more like dogs in the future when these new wolf-dog hybrids are bred!
Well, we figured out that all dogs have wolves as ancestors, even if these breeds don’t necessarily look like wolves anymore. But, it’s impossible to deny that German Shepherds look very similar to wolves even today.
Only the other day, I was out walking my German Shepherd, and as I passed a little girl, I heard her say to her Mom, “Is that a wolf?” It did make me smile.
Here’s a recap of why German Shepherds tend to look like wolves:
- The first German Shepherd came from a dog that was believed to be a quarter wolf.
- When German Shepherds were created, they were then crossbred with wolfdogs several times along the way.
- Since its inception, there haven’t been any changes in the breed, making the wolf-like appearance permanent in this breed’s DNA.
- Americans are flocking toward “wolf-dog hybrids,” which might explain why some German Shepherds look even more wolf-like than others.
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