What Are the Differences Between Wolves and Dogs?

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola

difference between wolves and dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • Both dogs and wolves belong to the same species, Canis lupus, and share more than 99 percent of their DNA, which may seem significant, but it’s enough to allow for significant differences
  • Somewhere between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago, dogs differentiated themselves from wolves, but specific dog breeds evolved from wolves in just the last 1,000 or 2,000 years
  • Domesticated dogs can be trained to obey commands to please their humans and be rewarded, but wolves won’t perform if they don’t feel like it, even for food
  • Dogs and wolves have the same number of teeth, but the teeth, skull and jaw structures of wolves are larger and stronger compared to those of dogs
  • Breeding wolves and dogs is not advised; wolf-dogs are generally more bold, stubborn and aggressive, and with the wildness of a wolf versus the lack of fear dogs have, expert say it could create a serious situation

As varied as dogs are, especially when you compare the Shar Pei with a Shih Tzu, or beagles with a Bergamasco, they're all related to the wolf. Researchers calculate that dogs differentiated themselves from wolves somewhere between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago, and specific breeds evolved in just the last 1,000 or 2,000 years.

In fact, both dogs and wolves belong to the same species, Canis lupus, and share more than 99 percent of their DNA. While it's a rare occurrence, it's possible, technically, for dogs and wolves to interbreed, according to Dr. Angela Hughes, veterinary genetics research manager at Wisdom Health and developer of dog DNA test kits.1

Hughes says dogs evolved because of their association with human tribes and uses Alaskan malamutes and Siberian huskies that resemble wolves as examples of dogs that are more closely related, especially compared to breeds like the poodle. She also asserts that dogs are more closely related to each other than they are to wolves, and had easy access to garbage left behind by humans, fostering more chance encounters between the two.

Hughes says experts believe that over multiple generations, these animals gradually became domesticated and developed intimate relationships with humans, reading their cues and being "groomed," to whatever degree was possible, as guardians and companions.

PetMD observes that the less than 1 percent of the DNA that wolves and dogs share may not seem significant, but it's enough to allow for significant differences between dogs and wolves.2 And due to the wide dissimilarities in dog breeds, below are some basic differences between dogs and wolves.

How Dogs and Wolves Look and How They Act

Dogs and wolves have the same number of teeth, but the teeth, skull and jaw structures of wolves are larger and stronger compared to those of dogs, which is "likely due to their need to bite and break things like bones in the wild, compared with dogs who evolved much more as scavengers of human refuse," Hughes says.

Wolves also have huge feet, and interestingly, the two middle toes on their front paws are much longer than the toes on the side. That helps wolves maneuver when they're springing to catch prey, says Kent Weber, cofounder and director of Mission: Wolf, a refuge for wolves and wolf-dogs in Westcliffe, Colorado.3

Their uniquely designed feet help them "spring off of their toes, flex their longer ankles, keep their elbows right together and spring at incredible distances. That's how a wolf can conserve energy and go so far compared to a dog," Weber said.

In comparison, dogs have rounder faces and larger eyes, according to Jenn Fiendish, a veterinary behavior technician in charge of Happy Power Behavior and Training in Portland, Oregon, who adds, "They also evolved to have floppy ears and curly or short tails, while the wolf has pointed ears with a long, sickle-type tail."

As you can imagine, puppies and dogs interact and play for the sheer fun of it, while wolves engage in play-like behavior that's actually a warm-up for surviving in the wild. When they're young, wolves learn the importance of hunting, and it can become deadly serious, notes Regina Mossotti, director of Animal Care and Conservation at Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, Missouri.4

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Dogs Love People; Wolves, Not so Much

They say that dogs are man's best friend, and it's true. In fact, Joan Daniels, associate curator of mammals at Brookfield Zoo in Illinois, contends that dogs can't survive without humans, and that while there are feral dogs in the wild, they've been domesticated just enough to compromise their ability to survive very well.

When pet dogs are trained to come when called or obey other commands, it's because they want to please their humans and be rewarded for it, says Michelle Proulx, animal caretaker and educational program director of Laporte, Colorado's W.O.L.F. Sanctuary. She says wolves won't perform if they don't feel like it, even if it's for food; they know they can find it on their own.

Fiendish says there are plenty of studies confirming that wolves aren't as easily trained as dogs are, and further, other behaviors are quite unlike dogs, and wolves fail to form attachments to humans.

Wolf Pups Mature Faster, and They're More Shy Compared to Dogs

Unlike the vicious creatures they're sometimes described to be, wolves are actually shy and try to avoid encountering humans. In fact, wolf attacks are very rare. Mossotti, who was involved in the renowned Yellowstone Wolf Project, describes approaching the prey wolves had killed while doing research on wolves, half expecting the wolves to become territorial to protect their hard-won dinner, but they didn't.

"You would think these are things they'd want to protect and take you on, but they run away," she says.5 Wolf-dogs, the result of cross-breeding wolves with dogs, have become an unfortunate trend that usually produces an unsatisfactory outcome for people who only want a pet with the distinction of being part wolf.

Too often, such owners lack the knowledge and dedication it takes to understand their unique propensities. In addition, wolf-dogs in general are more bold, stubborn and aggressive than domestic dogs. Mossotti adds, "If you combine that strength, intelligence and wildness of a wolf and combine it with a lack of fear that dogs have, that could be a pretty serious situation."

Even when they're only 8 weeks old, wolf puppies mature faster. Both are weaned at about 8 weeks of age, but in several different ways, wolves excel, undoubtedly because they're forced to survive in the wild, while domestic puppies and dogs have humans to care for them. Wolf puppies can also solve puzzles that dogs of the same age can't, Mossotti says. According to PetMD:

"Experts say wolves will be a good companion for about six months, at which point they can become hard to handle. Wolf and wolf-dog sanctuaries say they regularly get calls when the animal reaches sexual maturity."6

Wolves Breed Differently and Think Differently Than Dogs

For one thing, at 3 years of age, wolves reach sexual maturity, while dogs make the same transition between 6 and 8 months of age, according to The Spruce Pets.7 Dogs breed several times per year, while wolves do only once a year, from February to mid-March. Wolves average puppy litters of five or six puppies, as dogs do, as well, but only dogs can have more than that at a time. As for being moms, both wolves and dogs do well, but only male wolves are found with their families in a pack. Dogs don't form such family ties.

Dogs may be smart, but the problem-solving skills wolves possess make them tougher, more resilient and more persistent. Faced with a problem, dogs usually quit, most likely because they know a human will come along and fix it for them, while wolves try to figure it out for themselves, Proulx says.

Vital Differences, Including Food

One of the most important things to consider about feeding dogs and wolves is their food, and both must be fed species-appropriate diets. One of the most important considerations is that, contrary to many recommendations, a starchy diet isn't good for either dogs or wolves. Most dogs will suffer health consequences if fed a biologically inappropriate diet, as will wolves.

A dog's ability to stay alive on plant-based foods doesn't make him an omnivore, and while they can adapt to what they're fed, they still have the jaws and teeth of a carnivore. That said, while there are some genetic differences between wolves and domestic dogs, it's not an argument for feeding them grain-based diets.

While wolf-dogs can be somewhat sociable, Weber says that because they're part wild, they're not always adoptable, and all too often they end up being euthanized for behavior issues.

Further, experts say the differences between dogs and wolves are disparate enough to prevent them from recommending wolves and wolf-dogs as pets, but if someone is bent on the idea, adopting breeds such as the Alaskan malamute, Akita, husky, Samoyed or German shepherd will gain you a companion who's most like a wolf, at least in appearance.

+ Sources and References