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Why Do German Shepherds Look Like Wolves? Like Dog, Like Wolf!

Last Updated: February 12, 2024

The striking resemblance between German Shepherds and wolves often catches the eye of many dog enthusiasts. When encountering a German Shepherd, it’s common to think, “Wow, that looks just like a wolf.”

This resemblance is not just a coincidence; German Shepherds share several physical traits with wolves. But why do German Shepherds look like wolves?

German Shepherds look like wolves due to their common ancestry in the Canidae family, which is evident in their facial structure, ear shape, and fur coloring. This likeness is enhanced by selective breeding, particularly by the breed’s founder, Max von Stephanitz, who aimed to create a dog with the wolf’s strength, intelligence, and noble appearance.

Thus, the wolf-like features of German Shepherds are a blend of natural genetics and intentional breeding choices.

This blog post delves into the fascinating genetic and historical factors that contribute to this similarity, offering insights into the ancestral links and evolutionary aspects that shape the appearance of these noble dogs.

A pack of wolves standing fierce in a forest

Why Do German Shepherds Look Like Wolves?

Following the Bloodline

So, we know that German Shepherds (and all dogs) 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…

German Shepherd History

It’s easy to see that the modern German Shepherd looks very similar to wolves, but we’ll delve into the breed’s history to see what happened along the way to give them this appearance!

The first German Shepherd was developed in 1899 by Max von Stephanitz. He attended a dog show in his native Germany and was shown a dog (initially named Hektor Linksrhein) that was believed to be a quarter wolf and the product of a few generations of selective breeding. 

Von Stephanitz strongly believed that dogs should be bred for working, particularly 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 and pointy ears.

Von Stephanitz immediately founded the Society for German Shepherd Dogs, and Horand von Grafrath became the first GSD to be added to the society’s breed records. Subsequently, he was referred to as “the father of German Shepherds.”

Horand was then bred with dogs from other society members who displayed many desirable traits.

At the time, this new breed’s ancestry appeared to be a little challenging to track, and there was 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 to fix the traits 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 cross-breeding. 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, the term “wolf” was used consistently for the German Shepherd. However, it’s highly possible that the term “wolf” was used to describe the dog’s appearance, not its ancestry. “Wolf” describes a pattern nowadays called “sable.” 

The history of the German Shepherd is quite interesting, especially when you consider that wolfdogs were used at least once during the breeding process. This helps to explain why German Shepherds look pretty similar to wolves!

German Shepherds are still among the most popular dog breeds in many countries.

Check Out This Video of Dog Breeds That Look Like Wolves…

Related Article: What’s Your German Shepherd Mixed With?

Are German Shepherds Part Wolf?

When out walking my German Shepherd Willow, I sometimes get asked whether she is part wolf due to the visual similarities, especially the face, pointed ears, and bushy tail.

German Shepherd colors are varied, but I suppose it doesn’t help if your dog has a wolf mask.

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 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 Horand was part wolf and that von Stephanitz used wolfdogs in the subsequent crossbreeding. 

Do you want to know 10 differences between the two animals? Check out the below video…

Breeding Practices

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 because returning soldiers of the First World War spoke highly of the breed’s characteristics. 

The German Shepherd Dog has always maintained its wolf-like appearance that remains sought after by many people.

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 actively seeks 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!

No Breed Changes

So, let’s think about the idea of the German Shepherd having at least one immediate wolf ancestor.

A German Shepherd looking like a wolf and sitting on a log

When Horand, the first German Shepherd, was bred, he fathered many pups, one of whom was named Hektor von Schwaben.

Hektor was then inbred with another of Horand’s puppies, who produced three offspring and went on to father a total of 84 German Shepherd puppies. Therefore, all German Shepherds are essentially inbred.

Well, what exactly does that mean?

When breeders see that a specific dog has produced a group of puppies with 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 summary, German Shepherds are specifically bred to look the way they do. So, both types might appear similar in size (including height).

Wolf-Dog Hybrids

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 controversial, 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 their sale, possession, and breeding.

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 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 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 desperately seek.
  • 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 about how difficult these animals can be. After all, they are part wild and only begin demonstrating 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, 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.

Why Does My German Shepherd Howl Like a Wolf?

German Shepherd Dog howling. Why Do German Shepherds Howl?

You may now know why German Shepherds resemble wolves, but did you know that your German Shepherd may occasionally display wolf-like behavior, such as howling?

Your German Shepherd may howl like a wolf:

  • As a form of communication
  • To warm you of danger
  • When responding to another dog howling
  • To get attention or to relieve boredom
  • As a reaction to high-pitched sounds such as a police siren
  • When suffering from separation anxiety
  • Due to medical issues

Although wolves and dogs display similar behavior, there are also many differences between the two species.

To find out more, check this out: German Shepherd vs. Wolf. You’ll learn about differences in physical features, behavior traits, running speed, sexual maturity, trainability, diet, and bite force.


Are German Shepherds related to wolves?

German Shepherds are related to wolves and share many physical and behavioral traits with them. They were originally bred in Germany as working dogs and have been domesticated for centuries.

Despite their close genetic relationship with wolves, they are considered loyal and affectionate pets and have been developed into a distinct breed suited for specific jobs.

How are German Shepherds and wolves similar?

German Shepherds and wolves share similarities in appearance, intelligence, social behavior, hunting instincts, and loyalty. They both have pointed ears, sharp teeth, and a similar body shape. They are highly intelligent and can be trained to perform various tasks.

They are natural hunters with a strong prey drive capable of tracking and chasing down their prey. They are known for their loyalty to their pack or family and will fiercely defend them if necessary.

How do you know if your German Shepherd is mixed with wolf?

To determine if your German Shepherd is mixed with a wolf, look for signs such as physical appearance, behavior, and DNA testing. A German Shepherd with wolf genes may have a thicker coat, larger paws, and a more pronounced snout.

They may also exhibit more independent and aloof behavior, be more wary of strangers, and have a stronger prey drive.

DNA testing is the most accurate way to determine breed composition. However, owning a wolf hybrid can be challenging and require specialized care and training, so it’s important to do your research and consult with a professional before bringing one home.

Can you train a German Shepherd to be more like a wolf?

When we examine the physical characteristics of German Shepherds, it becomes clear why they resemble wolves. Both breeds have a similar body structure, including a strong, muscular build, erect ears, and a pointed snout.

Furthermore, both German Shepherds and wolves share similar behavioral traits, such as their intelligence, loyalty, and protective nature.

However, the resemblance between the two species is not only limited to their physical characteristics but also extends to their shared ancestry, as both German Shepherds and wolves belong to the same overarching family, Canidae.

This genetic similarity explains why German Shepherds often possess similar features such as their distinctive pointed ears, wedge-shaped heads, and strong, muscular bodies. 

Final Thoughts

Well, we learned 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 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, the breed hasn’t changed, 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.
Sharon Waddington
Sharon Waddington is the founder of World of Dogz. With over 30 years of experience working with dogs, this former Police Officer has seen it all. But it’s her trusty German Shepherd, Willow, who steals the show as the inspiration behind this website. As Sharon’s constant companion Willow has played a pivotal role in shaping her passion for dogs. Recently, Sharon has become deeply passionate about the plight of rescue dogs and is an active advocate for dog rescue, striving to make a difference in the lives of dogs in need.

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