German Shepherds are one of the most popular dog breeds in the world. Known for their loyalty and confidence, these dogs make amazing pets. Plus, they're intelligent enough to work alongside police officers, military members, and more.
In 2022, they were number four on the American Kennel Club's list of most popular dogs in the United States. The breed's appeared on this list for years, always cracking the top ten and getting as high as number two.
There's a lot to love about German Shepherds. But beyond their great personalities, this breed is appealing for their stunning good looks alone.
German Shepherds look strikingly similar to gray wolves. Ask any German Shepherd owner; they've probably had their dog mistaken for a wolf by young kids or fearful adults at some point.
Like all dogs, German Shepherds have close connections to wolves, sharing about 99.9 percent of their DNA with those ferocious wild canines. German Shepherds and wolves share a common ancestor, resulting in many recognizable physical traits.
Both wolves and German Shepherds have the signature pointed muzzle and ears. Both animals can look intimidating and go into defense mode when faced with trouble.
But despite how similar they look, German Shepherds and wolves are not the same. They differ in many ways. Let's take a look at some of the key differences between German shepherds and wolves.
Physical Size and Weight
Sure, wolves and German Shepherds look pretty similar when you look at photos of the two. But the differences become glaringly obvious when you see these canines side by side! Despite sharing a few physical similarities, German Shepherds are the smaller cousins of wolves.
German Shepherds are big in the dog world, but wolves dwarf them by a significant margin. The average adult German Shepherd tips the scales at up to 90 pounds. Males tend to be larger, weighing between 65 and 90 pounds. Meanwhile, females have a healthy adult weight of 50 to 70 pounds.
Where does a gray wolf stand on the weight scale? Males are between 80 and 180 pounds! Females are closer to adult German Shepherds, weighing 50 pounds on the smaller end of the scale. However, females can weigh up to 110 pounds.
Even smaller gray wolves are noticeably larger than German Shepherds. But it doesn't stop at the weight. There are height differences, too.
German Shepherds stand 22 to 26 inches tall at the withers. Males are often slightly taller than females, but the differences are minor. Once again, gray wolves make German Shepherds look downright small! Males and females can stand 32 inches tall, making them significantly bigger than German Shepherds.
Differences in Appearance
Beyond height and weight, there are many subtle and not-so-subtle physical differences between wolves and German Shepherds.
Let's start with the head.
Both canines have the same amount of teeth and the signature wedge-shaped head profile. But when you put the canines side by side, you'll notice that German Shepherds have a narrower head. Their domes are smaller than that of wolves. Wolf muzzles are proportioned to their bigger bodies.
There are some differences in the eyes, too.
German Shepherds have diagonally set almond-shaped eyes. The standard color for the breed is dark brown.
Wolves have similarly shaped eyes but can take on vibrant amber, green, and blue shades.
Wolves also have a unique biological difference. Their eyes have a thin layer of reflective tissue called the tapetum lucidum that causes the eyes to glow in certain lighting conditions.
Wolves also have shoulder blades that are closer together.
Their backs are straighter compared to the downward slope of a German Shepherd. The difference seems minor, but the unique biological differences in a wolf's build make them more agile and strong.
The same goes for the larger paws and straighter legs of a wolf. A wolf's paws are significantly bigger than a German Shepherd, making it more capable when hunting and taking down prey. More on that later.
Wolves and German Shepherds both have 42 teeth. However, a wolve's bigger jaw gives them a significantly higher bite force.
The average wolf has a bite force of up to 1,200 psi. What's the average for a German Shepherd? Roughly 238 psi. A strong German Shepherd can have a bite force of up to 400 psi or when acting defensively, but it's nowhere near as strong as a wolf.
A German Shepherd's bite is nothing to turn your nose up at. Compared to other domesticated dogs, this breed is one of the strongest. However, they couldn't go toe-to-toe with a wild wolf!
German Shepherds are one of the most athletic dog breeds around. That's why they're the go-to for working positions. These dogs are fully capable of going on military missions, helping police offers, and more. But there's no competition when you compare a German Shepherd's athletic prowess to a wolf's.
Wolves live in the wild and constantly face an uphill battle for survival. While apex predators, these animals must trek across long distances and tough terrain. They're built for their lifestyle.
Wolves have straighter from and rear legs. Their paws are bigger, and if you can look closely, you'll notice that wolves also have longer middle toes on their front legs.
The toes help provide greater traction in different terrains. Meanwhile, the longer legs enable them to tap into breakneck speeds.
Wolves can reach top speeds of 43 miles per hour (69 kilometers per hour) during a chase. Their average "cruising speed" is about 6 miles per hour, but they can tap into more endurance and strength to go significantly faster when hunting or faced with danger.
German Shepherds can run fast, too. However, their top speed is roughly 30 miles per hour (48 kilometers per hour).
You'd think a wolf would be more courageous than a German Shepherd. However, the truth may surprise you.
German Shepherds have a reputation for running into situations without fear. Their bravery is unmatched as their loyalty to humans takes over. This breed is an amazing house pet, guard dog, and worker.
They are fearless and will put humans above their safety, jumping into action whenever necessary to keep you safe. If you have a German Shepherd, you know that the breed is incredibly loyal and will get between you and a stranger they think will bring you harm.
That's not the case with wolves. While wolves certainly face their own scary situations, they're naturally more shy and cautious. Wolves will run the other way when faced with danger. When push comes to shove, they can and will defend themselves. But wild wolves are smart and won't get into altercations if it's avoidable.
You should never approach a wild wolf. If you ever find yourself in the presence of a wolf in the wild, it'll bare its teeth and growl to scare you off. It's a terrifying situation you don't want to find yourself in. But you'll be happy to know that getting that close to a wolf is rare.
Most wolves will run away at the first sight of a human. Experts believe that wolves fear us because of a long and violent history with humans. Humans have hunted wolves for thousands of years, so they've become hard-wired to fear them.
Furthermore, humans stand tall on two legs. It's something that wolves aren't used to seeing with other predators, so they become fearful and cautious.
In terms of bravery, German Shepherds come out on top. They will go on the attack to protect others without blinking an eye. Because they are around humans so often, most German Shepherds do not fear them like wolves do.
Prey Drive and Diet
Another way that German Shepherds and wolves differ is in how they eat.
German Shepherds are domesticated omnivores. They have a long history of standing by and serving humans. As a result, their ability to process food changed. Modern German Shepherds need meat to thrive, but they do exceptionally well on processed commercial foods. A high-quality kibble is all they need to stay happy and healthy!
In the past, German Shepherds likely had no problem processing raw meat. However, that's not the case today. It's possible to feed German Shepherds raw diets, but you need to have the guidance of a professional.
This long-domesticated breed can't ward off pathogens as effectively as its wild counterparts. As a result, they can easily succumb to foodborne illnesses!
On the other hand, we have wolves. Wolves are pure omnivores that need raw meat to survive. They eat significantly more than German Shepherds, scarfing down 20 pounds of meat daily! Because they don't have humans to provide them with meals, wolves are constantly on the hunt.
These animals hunt in packs and often work together to take down prey several times their size. They can easily hunt large mammals, small birds, and anything else they can get their paws on. Wolves eat much less than German Shepherds, so they hunt what they can get!
Both German Shepherds and wolves have a high prey drive. When walking your German Shepherd, it might get distracted by a stray squirrel and attempt to chase it up a tree. But a wolf's prey drive is insatiable. They need food to survive in tough conditions and will hunt down whatever they find.
German Shepherds and wolves have similar gestation cycles. Both canines have pregnancies that last about 63 days. However, that's where the similarities in reproductive cycles end.
Wolves have specific breeding periods. Females can only get pregnant once per year, between January and April. Typically, wolves have a smaller litter including up to five pups. It also takes longer for wolves to reach sexual maturity.
Most are not ready to have babies until they're two or three years old. One unique thing about wolves is that they raise pups as a family. Both males and females care for youngsters, helping them learn and stay healthy.
German Shepherds can reach sexual maturity by 18 months old. They can also reproduce twice a year, year-round. These dogs aren't limited to seasonal breeding like wolves are. Furthermore, they have massive litter sizes.
The average female German Shepherd has about eight pups at once. But they can give birth to up to 15 babies at once! Usually, the female is the only one to raise the pups. Males don't participate much when caring for newborns, unlike wolves.
Have you ever wondered why humans haven't domesticated wolves? It's because of their low trainability. Also called tractability, wolves aren't easy to control, handle, and direct.
It is possible to train wolves to some extent. But even with great socialization and access to amazing resources, wolves tend to have low tractability throughout their lives. They're wild animals and are less inclined to follow commands.
There are many theories as to why that is. Some believe it's due to their natural fear and caution around humans. Others say it's because they're hard-wired to be free, and listening to commands goes against their nature. Whatever the case, wolves aren't good with training and domestication.
German Shepherds, on the other hand, are impressively tractable. Once again, that's why you see so many German Shepherds in working positions. Their loyalty to humans and eagerness to please pushes them to follow commands.
German Shepherds are also very intelligent. They can pick up commands quickly, learn hand gestures, and follow the rules. These dogs are one of the easiest breeds to train.
German Shepherds and wolves have some similarities in temperament and behavior. Both canines can get territorial and ultra-defensive over their food. But German Shepherds can socialize with other dogs, humans, and animals of different species.
They're protective over human family members and do well with kids with proper socialization. That's not the case with wolves.
Wolves are protective of their pack, but that's it. They will fight other wolves who threaten them, and they're naturally fearful of human interaction. While some wolves living in wildlife refuges and shelters can learn to get along with humans, they're more aggressive and territorial.
Relationship with Humans
Finally, we have the canines' relationship with humans. As you can probably infer from the previous differences between German Shepherds and wolves, the former loves humans!
Centuries of domestication have forged a deep love and understanding. Of course, all dogs are different. But German Shepherds have adapted to living among humans. These dogs can show affection, become intensely loyal to their human families, and even display emotions.
Studies show that German Shepherds can gaze into the eyes of a human to communicate and strengthen their bond.
Wolves, however, will take eye contact as a threat! Wolves fear humans and don't have that attachment that German Shepherds do. They fend for themselves and their pack. Wolves don't rely on humans for survival, so they're less inclined to forge those bonds.
Even wolves living in captivity and spending considerable time with humans don't see human interaction as necessary in the same way that German Shepherds do.
Final Thoughts: Similar Yet Different
Wolves and German Shepherds have many shared traits. Both share a common ancestor and have many similar physical characteristics. However, a long history of domestication has softened the German Shepherd!
These dogs need us as much as we need them. Beyond the physical differences, German Shepherds' human connection is the biggest difference between wild wolves. They've evolved to be around humans and are forever grateful to be around us.
These dogs always show it with their willingness to listen to commands, stand by our sides, and protect us. While wolves are beautiful and majestic in their own right, they're not the same as a domesticated dog. They're incapable of being humans' best friends, which is why German Shepherds are so special.