Shy Wolf Sanctuary | Phenotyping
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Wolf, Wolfdog, or Dog?

How do you tell the difference between them? Animals are evaluated by phenotyping.

What is Phenotyping?

Phenotyping is an attempt to identify an animal as wolf, wolfdog, or dog by its physical characteristics. The look and behavior of an animal determines the wolf content.

What is a Wolf?

A wolf is a large canine mammal known as Canis Lupus. They are meat eaters and can range in size considerably depending on where they live. Some of them are only about 55 pounds full grown while others can be up to 200 pounds. They can range in size from 40 to 65 inches in length. Such a measurement is from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail. The average lifespan of a wolf in the wild is from 6 to 8 years. However, in captivity they can live up to 16 years.

What is a Wolfdog?

A wolfdog is the offspring result of breeding a wolf with a domestic dog. Most wolfdogs today are a mix of wolfdog and dog. Few are the offspring of a wolf and dog known as F1 content. Most dogs bred with a wolf are the German Shepherd, Malamute and Siberian Husky because they already have a “wolfy” appearance. Wolfdogs are measured by content or how much wolf they have bred in them. Content levels are low, mid and high.

What is a Dog?

A dog is a canine mammal, Canis Lupus Familiaris, descended from wolves. Not natural wild animals, they have been domesticated as pets or working animals as far back as 31,700 years ago. Domesticated dogs are considered “man’s best friend”.



  • the head is large in comparison to the body
  • the ears are round-tipped, well-furred and small
  • the nose is black and has a slight slope
  • the eyes are almond shaped, close set, and can be a range of colors (green, amber, yellow, etc) The eye color is rarely blue unless very low content wolf with a high F number
  • the face is blended with straight-haired cheek tufts

The wolf has a larger head and ears, wider face, and blended markings.





  • Chest is narrow with long flat ribs.
  • Shoulders are flattened and close set.
  • Back is slightly tapered and narrow.
  • Tail is bushy and straight, log shaped.

The wolf has a much larger body. Its tail is log shaped and bushier with no curve. The chest is narrow, shoulders are flattened and the back is tapered.

The dog has a much wider chest, neck and larger shoulders. The tail is curved and fans out. The coat is finer and the markings are more defined.




  • Coat is thick with coarse straight outer guard hairs.
  • Undercoat is thick and wooly.
  • Coat is thicker around the neck.
  • Coat color is blended, with few defining markings. Masks and markings will be muted in appearance.
  • Hairs may be tri-colored.
  • Color will often change or fade with age.


The wolf has a more blended coat, longer hair around the neck with no defined markings.

The wolfdog coat is thick and blended, with some defined markings (black stripe down forehead and light colored cheeks).




Legs and Feet


  • Elbows are slightly turned in towards ribs.
  • Pasterns (wrists) are long and angled away from the body.
  • Toes are long and arched.
  • Feet have webbing between toes.
  • Nails are dark colored.
  • Paws are large.
  • Dew claws are only on front feet (wolves and high content wolfdogs).





Dogs such a Malamute, Siberian Husky and some German Shepherds may be mislabeled as a wolf or wolfdog because they may look “wolfy”.

Consequences of mislabeling:

  • Euthanasia
  • Classified as dangerous
    • causes most potential owners to overlook the animal
    • causes irrational fear
    • may lead to neglect
    • may lead to being passed from owner or sanctuary to another


  • Neck is lowered in line with the back when walking or running
  • Front and rear feet land in or near the spot the front foot has landed, giving the appearance that the animal walked on 2 legs
  • Profile is very low and level





  • fear or skittish behavior when around new people, especially groups of people
  • will likely attempt to flee the situation
  • extreme independence and problem solving
  • intense digging and destruction of enclosure and items
  • usually due to boredom or escape attempts
  • howling, very little to no barking
  • stealing objects of interest (keys, hair bands, glasses, phones, radios)


In 1993 wolves and wolfdogs were declared the same species, Canis Lupus, according to the Code of International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature and the American Society of Mammalogists. We no longer refer to wolfdogs as hybrids.


Phenotyping is not an exact science and is often too difficult to do accurately.


  • Become as knowledgeable as possible about the characteristics of wolves vs. wolfdogs vs. dogs
  • Contact someone that can help make a more accurate assessment of the animal, such as a wolf sanctuary owner, wolf/wolfdog organization, or Fish & Game personnel
  • Use the chart, and checklist