German Shepherd vs. Wolf: 13+ Key Differences & Similarities

German Shepherd vs. Wolf

If you’re a dog lover or you just love animals in general, you might have pondered upon the topic of German Shepherd vs. Wolf. While these canines share commonalities, they have lots of differences worth knowing.

While they have similarities, wolves and German Shepherd Dogs (GSDs) are poles apart. Wolves are prime predators with large bodies, immense strength, and superior senses. They are complex creatures that thrive best in the wild. Meanwhile, GSDs are smaller, more docile, and greatly less powerful.

Although there is a distinction between the two, both are majestic animals worth learning about. Luckily, this article has all you need to know about the similarities and differences between the German Shepherd and the wolf!

German ShepherdWolf
Size and weight 22 to 24 inches in height and 50 to 90 pounds in weight23 to 32 inches in height and 60 to 110 pounds in weight
Physical features Narrow wedge-shaped head, shorter legs, and smaller skulls, muzzles, teeth, and paws Wide wedge-shaped head, long feet, broader skulls and muzzles, and bigger teeth and paws 
HistoryComes from Germany and were bred to be working dogs Estimated to have appeared around a million years ago before migrating to Eurasia
Temperament Loyal, affectionate, intelligent, obedient Loyal to packmates, aggressive when threatened, anti-social
Lifespan 7 to 10 years8 to 13 years 
Dependence on humansNearly fully dependent on humans for basic needs like food and shelterDoes not depend on humans and will avoid them as much as possible
Running speedUp to 40 miles per hourUp to 48 miles per hour
Strength and bite forceSmaller and relatively weaker than the wolf, with a bite force of 238 to 400 psiLarger and stronger, with a bite force of 400 to 600 psi 
Hunting abilitiesStrong prey drive and good senses, but only for small creaturesPrime predator with superior hunting abilities in every aspect
MaturityMatures at 2 to 3 years oldMatures around less than one year old
Reproduction and breedingGoes into heat twice a year, able to produce larger litter sizes of 8 to 15Goes into heat only once a year, with smaller litter sizes of 4 to 6
PopulationAround 10 millionAround 300,000

Size and Weight

Menacing wolf looking back

German Shepherds are considered medium to large-sized dogs, but they will still pale in comparison to the substantial size of a wolf. 

On average, an adult German Shepherd is about 22 to 24 inches in height. It will also weigh anywhere around 50 to 90 pounds. 

These depend on several factors, including lifestyle, diet, and gender. For instance, male German Shepherds are generally taller and heavier than female ones. 

However, there are also size variations depending on the genetic disposition of the German Shepherd dog, the most notable ones being the dwarf German Shepherd and giant German Shepherd. 

On the other hand, wolves can reach heights of about 23 to 32 inches and can weigh anywhere between 60 and 110 pounds. Similar to German Shepherds, male wolves often have larger builds than females. 

Physical Features

German Shepherd vs. Wolf appearance

Coat Type and Color

The short-haired German Shepherd is considered the default variety of the GSD breed. While long-haired variations exist, they are not as well-known and are rarely bred.

Most German Shepherds are double-coated, with short, dense outer fur that sits close to their skins. They also have thick, wooly undercoats, which serve as their main protection against environmental elements. 

German Shepherds also have a wide spectrum of possible coat colors, with the sable color being the most well-known. Other common color combinations often pair black with reds, creams, and silvers. 

There are also German Shepherds with solid colors across their coats, including isabella or pale gold, blue, black, and liver.

Like German Shepherds, wolves are double-coated, sporting long, coarse outer coats and soft inner coats. Since they are more exposed to the elements and harsh weather, their coats are thicker and more robust.

Unlike the color variations of the German Shepherd, the colors of a wolf’s coat are usually combinations of gray, white, brown, and dull yellow. These colors provide camouflage in the wild.

Another notable difference between the two canines is that German Shepherds usually change coat colors as they grow older. Although wolves shed coats depending on the season, their colors do not usually change. 

Head and Eyes

Wolves have wedge-shaped, angular heads that are quite large in comparison to the rest of their bodies. They also sport pointed ears and long muzzles, with black or dark-colored noses at the end. 

German Shepherds have a narrower version of the wolf’s wedge-shaped head. They also have pointed ears and long muzzles like the wolf, although both are considerably smaller in size. 

While both canines have almond-shaped eyes, German Shepherds usually have brown to dark brown eyes. On the other hand, wolf eyes can be amber, pale yellow, or even green. 

Both the wolf and the German Shepherd have a layer of reflective cells in their retina called the tapetum lucidum, which makes their eyes glow in the dark. 

Skull and Jaw

Unsurprisingly, wolves have larger skulls. These have a distinct 40 to 45-degree orbital range from their eyes to their ears, with a flat top that slightly slopes to the back of the head. 

Meanwhile, German Shepherds have a similar yet narrower skull shape, and their orbital range is anywhere between 50 and 60 degrees. This means, surprisingly, GSDs can pivot their eyes to a wider range.

Shoulder and Back

German Shepherds sport longer backs compared to most dogs, with a distinct and noticeable downward slope from their shoulders to the base of their tails.

Wolves also have long backs, although it is relatively straighter than the German Shepherd. A wolf’s back also slightly tapers, beginning from its shoulders to its tail. Thus, wolves appear narrower than German Shepherds.

The wolf’s well-angled shoulders are positioned very closely together, which contributes to their mobility and agility. This differs from the wide-set, diagonally-angled shoulders of the German Shepherd. 

Legs and Paws

Wolves have long, straight, and powerful fore and hind legs, which allows their tracks to look like a singular line. On the other hand, the German Shepherd’s crouched hind legs create a zig-zag pattern when walking. 

The length and power differences of their legs contribute to the contrast in running speeds of these two canines. 

Paw sizes can also be used to further illustrate their dissimilarity with one another. Wolf paws are almost twice the size of a German Shepherd’s and have two protruding middle toes that give a favorable spring to their step. 

Origin and History

German Shepherd

As their name indicates, German Shepherds hail from Germany and are direct descendants of the gray wolf, which is primarily the reason why they have a strong resemblance to wolves. 

The breed originated from Max von Stephanitz, a former veterinary student who believed that dogs should be bred for work. In his pursuit, he bought a wolfdog named Hektor, who became the first registered German Shepherd.

The German Shepherd breed gained international recognition after serving alongside soldiers in the first world war. However, their popularity declined after the second world war due to anti-German sentiments. 

Interestingly, by the early 90s, German Shepherds returned in favor of the public and rose as the third most popular breed in the United States. Today, they are still well-loved for their intelligence, agility, strength, and loyalty. 


The standard wolf the world knows of today is more formally known as Canis lupus — and, more familiarly, the gray wolf. It is said that the first gray wolf appeared somewhere in Eurasia around a million years ago. 

Unlike other species of wolves, the gray wolf survived bouts of mass extinction and migrated to North America, eventually becoming the prime canine predator of the domain until today. 

Behavior and Temperament

Fully grown German Shepherd resting on the grass

Although German Shepherds are descendants of early wolves, centuries of domestication have made them more suitable for human companionship compared to their wolf ancestors. 

As pets, German Shepherds are fiercely loyal, protective, and affectionate towards humans and even other domesticated pets. Aside from their sociable nature, they are also highly intelligent and easy to train. 

These reasons are primarily why German Shepherds are one of the most popular and well-loved breeds around the world. 

However, the same cannot be said for the temperament of undomesticated wolves. These canines tend to avoid socialization with other creatures and can get viciously aggressive when approached or provoked. 

The most notable aspect of wolf behavior is their loyalty and protectiveness towards their kin. A group of wolves — known as the pack — will form a social hierarchy among themselves which they strictly abide by. 

Wolf packs are fiercely defensive when it comes to their packmates and territories. This is one similarity they have with German Shepherds, who can also be aggressively territorial when threatened. 

Lifespan and Health Problems

The American Kennel Club (AKC) reported that the average lifespan of a German Shepherd is 7 to 10 years, but it is possible for these dogs to live past this life expectancy.

Like other breeds, this life expectancy is determined by many factors. This includes gender, environment, lifestyle, diet, genetics, and health conditions. 

Take a look at some of the health issues commonly developed by the German Shepherd:

  • Bloat: Due to this breed’s large size and deep chest, bloat is a common ailment for German Shepherds. This occurs when the stomach significantly enlarges due to excess gas or food material. In some cases, this causes the stomach to rupture, which can lead to serious harm or sudden death. 
  • Hip Dysplasia: Canine hip dysplasia refers to the abnormal formation of a dog’s hip socket, which results in a loose joint that will be vulnerable to degenerative diseases. This condition is extremely common for large-sized dogs such as German Shepherds.
  • Degenerative Myelopathy (DM): Also known as chronic degenerative radiculomyelopathy (CDRM), this disease is caused by the degeneration of a German Shepherd’s spinal cord, which often results in limb weakness and paralysis. This condition is caused by a genetic mutation and often strikes middle-aged to senior dogs. 

Despite these health conditions and relatively shorter lifespans, German Shepherds are not unhealthy dogs. Given the right diet, ample exercise, and regular visits to the vet, these dogs can live up to 15 years. 

The lifespan of a wolf is longer than a German Shepherd. Wild wolves can be expected to live around 8 to 13 years, but in captivity, they can live upward of 15 years. 

Because these canines live in the wild, their lifespans will depend on different factors like geographic location, sustained injuries from other animals, and vulnerability to diseases and parasites.

Here are some of the most common health issues common in wolves:

  • Natural Injuries: Because wolves live in the wilderness and hunt to survive, wolf injuries are somewhat inevitable. Even with their massive strength, larger prey can attack them in self-defense and cause serious harm. Man-made traps can also injure or kill wolves.
  • Canine Distemper: Canine distemper is a viral, highly contagious disease that attacks the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems of wolves. Infected canines will show a variety of concerning symptoms such as fever, reduced appetites, muscle twitching, convulsions, and vomiting. 
  • Sarcoptic Mange: The most consequential ectoparasite of the wolf is Sarcoptes scabiei, which burrows into the skin of its host and causes extensive irritation, crusty lesions, and extreme hair loss. Its circulation among a variety of wild animals has been observed as a significant cause of the decline of wolf populations. 

As seen above, the differences in health issues between the two canines are significant. 

Diet and Nutrition

Wolves feasting on their prey

As a prime canine predator, it is no surprise that wolves are predominantly carnivorous. Wild wolves are scavengers and hunters whose usual prey consists of rodents, rabbits, beavers, sheep, and deer. 

Furthermore, because they travel and hunt in packs, they are also able to take down larger mammals such as elks, bison, and bears. 

While wolves may occasionally consume plant food, their digestive systems are genetically predisposed to process meat better. 

This is entirely different from the diet of German Shepherds. As with most dog breeds, German Shepherds are omnivorous. Ideally, their diets should consist of both meat and plant products to sustain their nutritional needs.

Unlike their wolf ancestors, German Shepherds process raw meat poorly. As a result, they are more susceptible to food pathogens that may be present in a raw diet

Dependence on Humans

Years and years of domestication have made German Shepherds very dependent on human care. These dogs have evolved to adapt and thrive in life among humans, especially for basic needs like food and shelter.

As pets, German Shepherds can even form strong attachments to their owners to the point where they may develop behavior problems like separation anxiety

Wolves, on the other hand, can hunt, feed, and fend for themselves in the wilderness without human assistance. Instead of humans, they rely mainly on other wolves in their pack for survival. 

Running Speed

Two German Shepherds running

Because of their physiological differences, a wolf can run at greater speeds than a German Shepherd. Wolves have long and straight hind legs, but their speed is also owed to the fact that they walk and run on their toes. 

Wolf paws are also spaced more apart than German Shepherds, making them more suitable for running in all kinds of environments and terrains. 

On average, wolves can run up to a whopping 48 miles an hour, which is substantial compared to a German Shepherd’s running speed of 40 miles an hour. Both can achieve their respective peaks at short bursts at a time. 

Strength and Bite Force

As mentioned earlier, wolves are larger and more formidable than German Shepherds in terms of size, weight, and physiological features. This greatly contributes to the overall strength difference between the two canines.

In a fight, the average wolf can easily overpower the average German Shepherd. A wolf’s bite force is capable of exerting 400 to 600 pounds of pressure per square inch (psi)

This is almost twice the German Shepherd’s bite force, which only averages around 238 to 400 psi.

Hunting Abilities

Wolf biting a rabbit

At their core, wolves are hunters and predators. Aside from their imposing size and strength, their sharp sense of smell and excellent hearing allows them to efficiently hunt and feed on prey.

Traveling with a pack of other wolves also gives them a larger advantage and success rate as hunters. 

On the other hand, modern-day GSDs are not bred to be hunting dogs, unlike other breeds. Although they do have good senses and strong prey drives, it is not enough to rival a wolf’s superb hunting abilities. 


German Shepherds typically reach physical maturity anywhere between 2 and 3 years of age. At this point, it will have reached its peak size and weight.

Wolves, however, mature even faster than this out of necessity. As early as 6 to 7 months of age, wolves begin to actively hunt with the pack. The sizes of these juvenile wolves are almost indistinguishable from adult wolves.

Reproduction and Breeding

Two German Shepherds on the forest

Generally speaking, German Shepherds are considered sexually mature at two years of age; however, they can begin breeding as early as 18 months old.

An intact female German Shepherd goes into heat twice a year. Their heat cycle has four stages, namely proestrus, estrus, diestrus, and anestrus. Fertilization occurs in the second stage of this cycle.

A German Shepherd’s pregnancy then has a 63-day gestation period, but it can give birth anywhere between 58 and 68 days. The average litter size is eight but it can reach up to 15 puppies.

Unlike German Shepherds, wolves only have a breeding season once a year. Normally, only the top-ranking male and female wolves per pack will mate with one another during this season.

Female wolves also have a gestation period of 63 days and typically give birth in early summer — roughly early April to late May. The size of a wolf litter is approximately four to six pups.


Although German Shepherd dogs currently rank fourth in the most popular dog breeds in the United States, some sources state that it is also the number one most popular breed in the world.

Approximately speaking, there are over 10 million German Shepherd dogs all across the globe, 3.5 million of which are found in the United States. German Shepherds make up 6.3% of the total dog population in the country. 

Unfortunately, wolves do not share this same exponential population growth. Living in the wilderness, they are more vulnerable to life-threatening diseases and elements as well as to local hunters.

As of 2003, the wild wolf population around the world is estimated to only be around 300,000. While there are wolves living in captive-breeding programs to increase the population, the number is not significant. 

Other Differences

Three wolves walking side by side

The significance of eye contact differs greatly between German Shepherds and wolves. 

For a domesticated German Shepherd, making eye contact with humans, usually its owner or family members, is a form of emotional bonding. This mutual gazing releases oxytocin within them, known as the love hormone.

Wolves, however, will see this as a threat. As much as possible, avoid establishing eye contact with a wolf as they might perceive this as a sign of intimidation and aggression.

Another notable difference between these two canines is their sense of smell. Both German Shepherds and wolves use their noses when exploring, hunting, and tracking. 

However, wolves have a slight upper hand in this area. They possess roughly 280 million scent receptors which allow them to smell as far as 1.5 miles away. For reference, German Shepherds only have 225 million receptors. 

Similarities Between German Shepherds and Wolves

As descendants of wolves, German Shepherds share a lot of traits with their ancestors. These two share physical features like pointed ears and muzzles, coat structures, and sometimes even coat colors.

Both are known hunters in their own right, with keen senses of smell and hearing. Both are also highly intelligent creatures that contribute greatly to their abilities as hunters and predators.

Finally, one of the biggest similarities between a German Shepherd and a wolf is their sharp protective instincts and remarkable loyalty to their respective companions. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Gray wolf walking on snow 1

Is a German Shepherd the Closest Dog to a Wolf?

The German Shepherd breed may have descended from early wolves, but strictly speaking, they are not the closest dog to a wolf. 

Some dog breeds have been bred with actual wolves to create a wolf-dog hybrid. Genetically and physically, these dogs share stronger resemblances and features with a wolf compared to other dogs.

One example of these breeds includes the Czechoslovakian Vlcak.

Can a Wolf Beat a German Shepherd?

A wolf has every means to defeat a German Shepherd in a fight. Wolves have larger, stronger physiques and greater senses than a German Shepherd — not to mention a more powerful bite force.

However, there are some conditions in which a German Shepherd may overpower a wolf in battle. If the wolf is already weak or injured, facing a healthy, fully-grown German Shepherd may not be in its favor. 

Can a German Shepherd Mate With a Wolf?

German Shepherds can be mated with wolves, and there are already existing dog breeds that are produced through this combination.

The German Shepherd Wolf mix, the Czechoslovakian Vlcak, and the Saarloos Wolfdog are all dog breeds that resulted from mating a German Shepherd with different species of wolves.

Final Thoughts

It is easy to mistake a German Shepherd for a wolf, especially for an untrained eye. However, these two canines are vastly different in more ways than they are similar.

Although once a descendant of the mighty wolf, German Shepherds are now universally loved pets and companions. However, we should also recognize the beauty and majesty of the wolf — from a safe distance.

After everything you have learned in this article, do you think wolves and German Shepherds are more alike or more different? Kindly share your thoughts on the differences between German Shepherds and wolves in the comments section.

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