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Physical Differences Between Wolves and Dogs?

The following information was written by Skylar from A Wolf Adventure (www.wolfechovalley.com) in Saskatchewan, a good friend of Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary.

What are the physical differences between a wolf and a dog?

A) There are quite a few physical and biological differences and I will address them below:

1) Wolves’ nails on every foot are darkly colored as in charcoal (dark grey) (dilute black) to dark black and in the case of Arctic wolves a taupe color. (The *tips/ends* of Arctic nails lack color.) Due to various definitions and spectrums of the color taupe, ranging from light taupe which appears tannish/pink to a smokey brownish color, the color of actics nails by stating taupe can confuse some people. They do lean more towards a lighter smokey tannish/pink color, BUT arctic nails can also be a darker taupe, they just are not black. Some dogs can have dark nails especially dark colored dogs, but wolves do not have clear /pink/ , white/pink , or white nails like the domestic dog. PLEASE NOTE: That just because a white wolf may have arctic colored nails does not mean it’s necessarily pure canis lupus arctos, I have a pure wolf here that is predominantly arctic and 1/4 another subspecies, besides my pure arctics and she has the arctic colored nail.

Wolf’s Black Nails
Arctic’s Wolf Nails (light taupe)
Example of darker taupe nails on arctic wolf’s paw
Example of a clear dog’s nail (note the pink quick)
Wolf pups nails are light/white when young, BUT by approx *8-10* wks will have started to transition, and by 10 weeks at most have darkened up.
Black wolf pups nails also start off light/white


2)   Wolves do not have blue eyes this is a domestic dog trait only.  Blue eyes is a recessive gene, both parents must carry this gene for pups to acquire it. Wolves do not carry this gene. Some pale colors, especially pale greens can sometimes appear bluish in tone and mistaken as blue.

Purebred Siberian Husky with blue eyes -courtesy Jill Porter


3) Wolves have highly slanted almond shaped eyes with heavy dark /black eye lining.


4) Wolves have extra large feet, with two very large protruding front toes. Not smaller and or rounded feet like a dogs.

5) Wolves will not have sharply defined white tail tips like many domestic dogs. Most often one will view wolves that have black tail tips. Some tail tips have more of a pronounced black tip than other’s might have. Please note however, that domestic dogs can also have black tail tips *example* included here

Note the black tip on this wolf’s tail
Picture of white tail tip on a purebred dog
Black tail tip on domestic dog


6) Wolves have a caudal mark/scent gland *often called precaudal gland* (a dark spot positioned approx. 3-4 inches down from the base of the tail,) it can tend to have a bluish tinge to it with a few longer stiffer hairs that poke out of it. The spot can be a few different shapes. Even Black phase wolves though it is harder to see have this spot on their tail. Some black phase puppies have a few white or black stiff hairs poking out of this area. The spot looks a little shinier in appearance. MOST Domestic dogs even *if* they have the mark itself on the tail  (which still would not be all that common, are most likely to be seen on dogs with wolf heritage or old working northern breed lines,) however it is not a functioning/working precaudal gland.  PLEASE NOTE HOWEVER : That there is a breed of dog called the Rhodesian Ridgeback this older breed (often called the African Lion Dog Or African Lion Hound) surprisingly though classified as a sight hound has a precaudal gland and it is said to be a functioning one at that. Wolves also have scent glands between the toes and on the face. (On cheeks close to the mouth, behind the ears and in the eyes) as well as a few glands close to the anus (both sides as well as immediately below.) The wolves at AWA on a daily basis like to rub their heads/cheeks, against objects, be it each other or even trees/fences, and even us their caretakers! This is away to let others know they were there through scent marking.

Caudal mark on arctic wolf
Caudal mark on black phase wolf pup’s tail


7) Wolves’ canine teeth are very large and they are more curved and thicker than the typical domestic dogs teeth are, they can reach lengths up to just over a couple inches long.  They are adapted to crush huge bones in one crunch. Claws and Jaws work together to hold down the meat, (claws which also can rip up hide) and jaws to cut/slice, shred, and break bone.


8 ) Wolves’ chests are so narrow their legs appear to be side by side causing their large feet to splay to the side when standing still. Legs are long and lanky. Shoulders & butts are narrow for faster acceleration.

Wolf front in summer appearance


9) Wolves back legs have a significant cow hock look to them when at a standstill. The tail is slightly in the way in this picture of Tibet Night Song, but cow hocked means the canines hocks turn in, which makes it’s toes point /splay outwards.

Cow hock


10) Wolves have banded fur and it lies differently than a dog’s fur does.  Wolves have a banded pattern of fur ticked with stiff black hairs approx 1 ½ inches long that outline a v shape draping down their backs, (dorsal cape) some capes are more readily noticeable than others. On black wolves it is still there but harder to see. (Banded means each individual hair has a few different colors per strand.) See pic. The dorsal cape starts behind the shoulders and comes to a point on the mid back.

Banded fur
Wolf dorsal cape on white wolf-though not ticked with black you can clearly see the longer guard hairs making up this dorsal cape
Dorsal cape on grey colored wolf-look just behind the shoulder blades on the upper back down


11) Wolves though they have (dew claws) a fifth digit on the front paws, they will not have rear dew claws like many dogs can and do have

12) Wolves’ tails when they walk will not curl up or over their backs like a dogs tail will. Wolves’ tails are extremely straight. Even dog breeds that have straighter tails (Like Geman Shepheds for example) will still have a slight curl to them when they run or walk/prance. A Wolf’s tail will however depending on their mood, show a lot of different emotions, and can be held in various positions from straight out in a horizontal position, to straight up in a vertical one, and everything in between.

Wolf at a trot
German Shepherd tail curling up


13) A wolf’s fur (pelage)changes color consistently as it ages. Some more drastically than others. A black phase wolf can be born pitch black, yet phase so light they can appear almost solid white or bright silver by the time it is 6 years of age.  Black dogs even though they may get a few white hairs as they get to be seniors, stay black. Even grey/silver colored wolves change color, although may not appear as drastically to phase as black wolves do over time.

Black phase pure wolf pup


14) Wolves can have many vocalizations, but do not bark like the typical domestic dog does. They have an alarm bark that sounds like a rapid blowing, fast puffing like sound, or a high-pitched yip that can almost be coyote like and are alarm calls. Wolves can also scream when agitated/alarmed. Wolves are by nature very quiet shy animals, and unless you live with them you would be hard pressed to ever hear them alarm bark/scream, since wolves are not easy to view in the wild to hear such sounds.

15) Wolves howl, and though domestic dogs can howl some being pretty darn good at it even, I have yet to hear this howl mimicked by a domestic dog in quite the same way and range/pitch as a wolf’s howl. A wolf’s howl is one of the most haunting beautiful sounds to ever hear. And for the most part unrivaled by domestic dogs.

16) Male wolves testicles will be peanut sized all year round (and not fertile) until mating season once a year in the winter months to correspond with a female wolf’s estrus, after mating they will once more shrink down so as to barely be noticeable, unlike a male domestic dog whose testicles remain the same size all year, and is able to mate any time of the year.

17) Wolves will not have pink/black, pink reddish noses.

Siberian Husky and Malamute cross-This dog has a pink and black nose seen often in northern breed dogs. NOTE: the open white face


18) Wolves eyes can be various shades of amber from light to dark ( yellow orange- brown orange) various shades of yellow from pale lemon colored to a deep gold, various shades of green, and yellowish green, in the case of arctics they have a brown looking eye when young which lightens up some over time but will still not be light yellow,(in certain light and when photographed actics eyes can appear a lot lighter than they actually are) What wolves won’t have is blue eyes. (wolves do not carry the blue eyed gene which is a recessive trait in domestic dogs) Wolves eyes are characteristically marked with a heavy dark black eye lining. Wolf pups eye’s start off with various spectrums of blue from light to dark, they will go though a few different color changes till their final color by a few months of age, although they will tend to lighten up a bit over the first year. Wolf pups eyes transition from either blue to blue green/ blue to grey colored or grey green, or green to finally their determined genetic shade one of the above colors.

19) A wolf’s nails/claws are thicker and larger than the typical domestic dogs used for helping to rip open prey’s tough hides during hunting and for then eating.


20) Wolf pups are not born with distinct markings & masks like Siberian huskys, German Shepherds or Alaskan malamutes. Please look at the domestic DOG pictures provided, CAREFULLY.  PURE wolf pups including arctic wolves are born darker colors,with well-blended fur. Not sharply defined white markings on their feet, on their noses, on their foreheads, or have *large* white chest markings.  Arctic wolves are NOT EVER born WHITE please look at the photo of the young pups said to be arctic wolfcross pups, being born WHITE is a DOG trait NOT a WOLF trait.  Many white DOGS and crosses are sold as arctic crosses when they simply are NOT.  Please go to legend and ecos page on this site to see how true arctic wolf pups look like when young.

Wolf pups uniform in color-NO sharply defined white markings such as white booties, white stars on foreheads,open white faces
Pure GSD puppy-courtesy Jill Porter
Pure Alaskan Malamute puppy-courtesy Jill Porter
Purebred Samoyed-Puppies are born white
Young Purebred Siberian Huskies-Few different color ranges. PLEASE look at the open white faces ,and masks these purebred DOGS have
Purebred white siberian husky (BORN white)-courtesy Jill Porter
Alaskan Malamute and Siberian Husky with blue eyes-NO ARCTIC wolf in this DOG puppy! Being born white is a DOG Trait!

21) Wolves skulls differ from domestic dogs the width, height and length is larger, the orbital angle is different, (45 degrees for wolves compared to a dogs 53 degrees) The sagittal crest (raised area of bone at the back of the wolf’s skull is more pronounced.) This bump can clearly be felt on the wolfs head when felt, some jokingly call this a brain bump. Please go here for a more indepth tour into a wolf’s skull. http://www.soappuppy.com/wolf/skull.html

Comparison dog skull (left) with 3 wolf skulls-courtesy www.soappuppy.com/wolf
Wolf Skull Left Side View-courtesy www.soappuppy.com/wolf
Front view wolf skull-courtesy & thanks to Jess at www.soappuppy.com/wolf for the reprint permission of pics


22) Wolves do not not *generally* become sexually mature till approx their second winter (22 months of age to their third winter even) Where as dogs sexually mature approx 6-8 months of age, and can produce offspring. BUT please keep in mind I used the word general and being sexually mature does not mean because they have a first heat their first winter, they are mature. I have personally seen verified pure wolves come into their first heat at 10 months of age (not any younger than that,) and I should note that at wolf park www.wolfpark.org a study was done to check the viability of sperm in male wolves their first winter, and it was found to be *possible* for them to mate their first winter. It is an old wives tale *myth* that wolves do NOT come into their first heat until their second winter, there many cases of female wolves coming into heat (estrus) /(bleeding) their first winter, although it is *possible*, it is still rare to observe female wolves acually mating their first winter, even if they go through estrus. But anyone stating wolves absolutely *cannot* mate their first winter, male or female this has proven itself to not be true. *In Dr. L.D Mech’s book {Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation} he states a case of a captive female wolf it’s first year, having given birth even.

23) Wolves single track; (as do coyotes and foxes) in the great outdoors one can tell the difference between a wild wolfs tracks, and a large domestic dogs tracks by their appearance. Single tracking is where the wolfs back paws, are placed in the front paws tracks when moving as to form a straight line, dogs tracks are more *staggered*. (*Unsteady and uneven gait thus domestic dog tracks will not be in a line.*) A dogs chest is proportionally wider than a wolf’s is, thus a dogs rear hind foot will be placed *beside* the front track.

Back print placed in front-Wolf track
Single tracking-Wolf track


24) Wolves are a territorial predator, and will attack other animals that encroach on their territory, including other wolves, wild canids, and dogs. If the coyote population is dense in an area, you know wolves are not really around, as wolves would not share their territory, and would kill off any coyotes they came upon.

25) Wolves have *webbed feet* skin that is attached between the toes, this aids them not only like snowshoes in the winter but also to help them in swimming, and for better traction and grip on slippery surfaces.


26)  Wolves have thick double coats, the dense undercoat acts as insulation to keep a wolf warm and cozy during frigid cold weather, and the coarse outer coat /guard hairs act like an umbrella, when snow lands on a wolf’s fur it will sit atop the fur and not penetrate through the thick undecoat, it also helps to keep the wolf warm when it rains.  A wolf’s guard hairs act as insulators due to the hair shafts being hollow.

Snow resting a top the fur


27) Wolves have smaller, rounder, thicker, well furred ears, NOT larger, thinner, or pointier ears like German Shepherds.

Wolf ears-NOTE the rounded tips, THICK smaller ears, and all the fur within the ears
White German Shepherd Ears-Please note the large size with not much fur within the ears
German Shepherd cross (Not an arctic wolf cross!)-This dogs ears are fairly well furred , rounded tips, BUT are TOO large
Purebred Siberian Husky ears-Ears are more thinly furred and thinner than a wolf’s ears, have more triangular tips/shape
German shepherd, malamute and wolf cross ears-Ears are too big!fairly well furred ears, BUT not furred enough, Can still see some pink within
Purebred German Shepherd ears
Malamute, Shepherd, wolf cross ears-Ears are too large to be a wolf’s, some pink can be seen within, fairly well furred but not enough
Wolf Cross ears-Ears are to thin, and not furred enough, can see some pink within, shape is too triangular


28)  Wolf pups will NOT have pink or pink and black paw pads.  Every single one of the paw pads on wolf pups will only ever be black. They are born with solid black pads. (pic of just under two week old wolf pup and pic of 2 weeks old canine pup with some wolf heritage)  Even if the paw pads fade to all black within weeks, the fact the pup has this trait to begin with at birth and any time period onward SHOWS dog heritage. NOTE: The pics in my presentation shown of pink/black paw pads, did turn to solid black, and did not stay pink and black.

Black paw pads
Young canine pup with pink and black pads- Pure wolf pups will NOT have pink & black paw pads


29)  Wolf pups ears are erect/standing by 3 -3 1/2 weeks of age not flopped over till 4 or more.

21 day (3wk) old wolf pup-note the little round ears perked up, click on pic to enlarge


30) a) Wolf pups will NOT be born with larger white stars/markings on their heads and or noses, even if this fades out once the pup is quite a bit older, it does not matter. b) Wolf pups will NOT have sharply defined white socks/booties. c) Wolf pups will NOT have flopped over ears till 4 weeks of age or more. PURE wolf pups ears WILL be standing BY 3 -3 1/2 weeks of age. d) Wolf pups will not have large white chest markings e) Wolf pups will NOT be born with pink, or pink and black noses (even if the nose turns black fairly quickly.) A pink and black nose shows dog genes.

There are some places who state they have wolves in captivity but have wolf crosses/wolfdogs/dogs with wolf heritage, not pure wolves, and such places have NOT had DNA tests done to PROVE otherwise.

Wolves follow certain rules biologically and physically, captivity does not change these rules. The following are pics that are of DOG traits NOT PURE wolf traits, if you see photos with pups that are stated to be pure wolf, and they have these traits when young, they simply are NOT pure wolf but have dog genes. Not any lab can do proper DNA testing either, the USFWC forensics lab in Oregon is the leading lab *at the moment* set up for such testing. Please read further down for more info. on this subject. PLEASE NOTE: That any of the following traits can be independant of the other, or all combined. Each individual physical trait in the examples, shows dog genes.

Picture of dog star and flop ears on a 3 week old pup-Ears on pure wolf pups stand up erect at and by 3 weeks of age
White socks/booties are a dog trait
Traits NOT seen in pure wolf pups-Note the large white chest marking sharply defined (this is a dog trait) & pink and black paw pads
Canine pup born with pink & black nose-Paw pads pink and black (Note: Pups nose and paw pads did turn solid black by 4 weeks)
Puppy with large sharply defined white markings starting under the chin down
Nose/head stars-Even though both markings faded/blended completely away this shows very early on the dog genes


31) Wolves, unlike dogs, lack sweat glands in their paw pads.

32) Wolf pups are ALWAYS born in the early to late spring months once a year.

(Whelping months/dates being Mid March leaning more towards the third week of March to the end of May. Not June through Feb. In the wild, the month of birth depends on latitude, thus also the sub-species of gray wolf. So a subspecies of wolf like an Alaskan Tundra, would have a later whelping date than a subspecies of wolf that exists in a more southern area naturally, while still falling into the parameters of the whelping months/ dates listed. Wolf pups are not born in the summertime and fall/winter months! Captivity does not change wolves biologically.

Meaning, a pure arctic wolf in captivity in Texas for example, will follow the same whelping date it would if it were living in the high arctic.

For reference please *click on link below which takes you to to Dr. Mech’s site and book listings, you will find verification of the above facts at the following book referral by A Wolf Adventure*

Dr. L David Mech’s book “Wolves:Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation

33) Wolves shed ONCE a year which starts in the later spring/early summer (June and July)  not twice a year like most dogs.  Their under coat and guard hairs come out in clumps. A Wolf’s undercoat and guard hairs will shed out (Nature’s haircut) and never matts up like dog’s fur does. By Fall the coat has completely regrown again. Unlike a dog that systematically sheds a great number of hairs on a daily basis, (do you have a dog and peple KNOW you have one, due to wearing their fur to work ;0)) a wolf’s fur does not shed on a daily basis to the degree dogs fur does. (I dont wear fur to work on my clothing!) There is a reason you will not see calendars of wolves in summer coats, for they get quite ratty/mangy looking when their glorious winter garbs initially disappear. By Mid summer however, they do return to being at least respectable looking in their shorter sleek coats.