Differences Between Wolves and Dogs

Genetically, dogs are almost identical to wolves but they are very distinct and different creatures. It is easy to see some similarities between the two groups, but what makes them so different?

Domestic vs. Wild

The most definable and important difference between dogs and wolves is that wolves are wild and dogs are domesticated animals. A wild animal has evolved behaviors and adaptions that allow them to thrive in a non-human environment. They are unaltered by human intervention and not naturally responsive to human control. A wolf might become tame enough to tolerate a human presence, but it is still genetically wild and maintains its natural instincts. Domesticated animals have been genetically altered through selective breeding, enabling them to live and thrive in a human environment. Domesticated dogs are reliant on humans and have lost important instincts to live in the wild. A dog that has not had human intervention is still domesticated but may lack social skills for living with humans.


Dogs and wolves may have some similarities in appearance, but there are many differences. The wolf is built for acceleration and killing prey when compared to the dog. It is narrower throughout the chest, shoulders and hindquarters. The legs are longer, feet are bigger and somewhat turned out, and the head is wider. Their teeth are more curved and thicker, making their bite stronger and better able to crush bone and contain prey. Their eyes are slanted and almond shaped with black lining. Dogs' appearances can vary drastically between breeds. Some dog traits not found in wolves are pink noses, webbed toes, and blue eyes. A dog's fur can lose pigment as it ages throughout adulthood, but this does not happen in wolves.


Another difference between the wolf and dog is in the gait. A wolf walks by placing its feet almost directly in front of each other, as if walking a tight rope. When it picks up speed, it is more of a trot than a run. A dog walks with its feet next to each other, as if walking along two parallel ropes. The tail of a wolf, when walking, is normally down and does not curl on the end. Many dogs have tails with curled tips.


Dogs and wolves vary greatly in their reproductive cycles. Wolves only reproduce once a year and bearing litters is reserved for the alpha females. It is not uncommon for other females in the pack to produce milk to assist in pup rearing. A male wolf's testicles are only fertile once a year when the female is in heat. On average, wolves are not sexually mature until they are almost 2 years of age. Dogs mature sexually much earlier than wolves, sometimes by six months of age. Female dogs can have litters at any time of the year. Unaltered, healthy male dogs are fertile throughout the year.


There are many noticeable differences in the behavior of wolves and dogs. Wolves are shy and very quiet. They whine and howl, instead of barking. They are always thinking about and interpreting their environment. Unlike most dogs, they are not impulsive, but are calculated and strategic. Wolves would rather live together in a pack where dogs prefer to live with humans. Even if dogs are stray, they will live close to humans and the hopefully resulting food supply. According to Dr. Adam Miklosi, of the Family Dog Project at Eotvos Lorand University, in Budapest, Hungary, dogs are genetically geared to seek human companionship and are extremely perceptive of human body language and cues. They look to humans for guidance and assistance with problem solving. Wolves are uninterested in human direction and look to other dogs in the pack to assist with problem solving. Two-way communication with humans is not inherent with wolves. Dogs, on the other hand, can imitate and repeat our gestures and use these skills to manipulate their interaction with humans.

Although some traits have been handed down from the wolf to the dog, evolution has made them genetically, biologically, and behaviorally very different. Understanding their differences and similarities will allow for a greater appreciation of both groups of animals.

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Are wolves dogs?

It's the other way around. Dogs are a subspecies of the Grey Wolf.
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