The Wolf-Like Dog

This is not a German Shepherd

The Wolf in the Dog

Hand in hand with the ancient origin lie, is the wolf component of German Shepherd ancestry.  All dogs are wolves, this is a tautology, but the superficiality of appearance makes dogs that still look most like wolves evoke romantic ideas that such animals either have recent wolf blood or are more primitive and atavistic, perhaps even more authentic.

The mix of dogs that are believed to compromise the GSD recipe include dogs from Thuringia, Wurtemberg (possibly the old German Hovawart), Spitz and Laika types, and a solid mix of dogs with unknown origin.  And if being named Woelfi von Wolfsnest [this name just reeks of trying too hard] is enough to prove wolf heritage, perhaps even a wolf or two.

That certain strains of Alsatians do contain wolf blood can be taken for granted, if only on the authority of such a great expert on the breed as Monsieur Otto Rahm, of Wohlen, Switzerland, who has told us that the great-granddam of the well-known Hector von Wohlen was the product of a mating between a dog wolf and an Alsatian bitch.  Captain von Stephanitz, the president of the world-famous Verein fuer Deutsche Schaeferhunde (German Sheepdog Club), and author of that notable work, “Der Deutsche Schaeferhund in Wort und Bild” (the German Sheepdog illustrated), asserts, however, that the much-discussed cross between wolves and Alsatians had taken place a long time before the occurrence mentioned by Monsieur Otto Rahm, and that the great-granddam of Hector von Wohlen, whose name was Mores-Pheningen, had a great-grandsire who was the result of a cross betwen a wolf and an Alsatian at the Stuttgart Zoological Gardens about the year 1881.

-The Alsatian Wolf-dog, G. Horowitz

So what we do know is that the amount and recency of wolf blood was contentious and poorly documented even at the founding of the breed.  The GSD is a decidedly un-wolflike dog in terms of temperament.  They are neither fearful of people or other dogs, they are independent thinkers and can provide protective guard services for both individual humans and for property.  They bark instead of howl. They are disciplined and not prone to outbursts.  They can be kenneled and left alone.  The most damning evidence against significant recent wolf blood in the GSD is the purpose of the breed: wolf temperament is entirely unsuitable for herding, livestock guarding, obedience, protection, police and schutzhund work.

Clearly too much Wolf

Australia outlaws the import of German Shepherd Dogs

The dog was constructed as an icon: what was said to be true was more important than what was true.  For example, despite being called a shepherd dog, we have no indication that the dog was ever supposed to play a role in the German livestock industry and since its inception it has failed to in any substantive way have an impact in that arena.  And why would it? No one hires a wolf to tend the sheep.

This mixed image, as both a “wolf-dog” and a shepherd didn’t convince the authorities in Australia who make their living raising livestock.  Partly out of anti-German sentiment and partly out of the image of the dog as more wolf than shepherd, a popular backlash happened soon after the first GSDs made their way to Australia.

The bane of all farmers and ranchers are wild canids: be they fox, coyote, dingo, or wolf.  Having already developed dogs and techniques suited to minimize predation on their stock from dingoes, the possibility of a wolf-dog being allowed to freely enter the country and the risk of those dogs escaping into the wild and hybridizing with the dingo was too much to entertain any benefit these new dogs offered.  The farmer and rancher lobby was powerful enough to force a ban on the import of the dogs as seen at left.

The Menace of the Alsatian Wolf-Dog; Australian Barkers and Biters, Robert Kaleski

This is the obvious response from a nation going through an agricultural revolution highly dependent on raising healthy livestock in pasture under threat from predation by local canids.  One drop of wolf is too much and there’s no forseeable benefit of importing such a dog.  Notice how the concern is not with actual evidence of GSD behaviors or even anecdotal evidence of stock worrying by the dogs, but the name, the look, and the image of the breed was sufficient to worry actual shepherds.

Not enough Wolf

The Saarloos Wolfdog, more wolf than GSD

The problem with bogus breed histories is that some people actually believe them.  In the case of the German Shepherd dog, two separate communities bought into the recent wolf ancestry story so thoroughly that they actually turned to wolves as out-crosses for their GSD populations when seeking to treat two separate health issues.

Only two decades after the establishment of the GSD breed, a Dutch breeder Leendert Saarloos started cross breeding a GSD to a female Eurasian Wolf (from a zoo) under the theory that wolves were immune to distemper and that he could create a GSD that was immune.  His theory failed on both counts, as the first litter was wiped out by the disease and he ended up with a hybrid that was significantly more like a wolf than a GSD.

Saarlooswolfhond Breed Characteristics

This dog is only for the lover of the old canine ways, as it retains in a limited state some of the wolf-like and /or ancient canine ways – including an intense pack instinct, tendency towards shyness, and a need to roam or at least have adequate space. They need to be taken for daily pack walks to satisfy their insticts. They are exceptionally strong-willed and do not take well to obedience or schutzhund work. They are still pack-oriented and need a strong leader and a social atmosphere. Not recommended as a child companion. They are not suitable for kennel life. Seclusion intensifies anti-social behavior, and the dogs panic if locked in an enclosure.

The temperament description of this dog clearly shows how antithetical significant wolf blood would be to the goals of the German Shepherd founding gene pool.  How useful would a police dog be if it was intensely pack oriented, shy, had wanderlust, could not be kenneled, was strong-willed, and incapable at strict obedience and schutzhund work?  Saarloos’ assumption that the GSD needed more wolf blood also speaks against the position that these dogs were significantly and sufficiently wolf-blooded within a few generations of the founding of the breed.

The Czech Wolf-dog

The second community to seek a wolf-backcross for their GSD dogs was in post-war Czechoslovakia where GSDs were bred to four Carpathian wolves during an experiment to determine inter-fertility and establish the possibility of the wolf being used to replenish the GSD gene pool after the war and the iron curtain left the breed in shambles.

Like the Saarloos wolf-dog, the initial experiment didn’t produce the expected results, the offspring here were sufficiently distinct from the GSD to preclude their use as a go-to out-cross to preserve the GSD, but they did survive the experiment in the form of a new breed.  But this new hybrid demonstrated characteristics that are clearly wolflike and not found in the GSD.  The dogs howl and growl more than bark, they mature much later than GSDs–often in the 2-3 year range, their estrus cycles align more with the wolf than the dog, they are considerably more mouthy, they dig primitive dens, and they are more fearful and less tolerant of people and dogs than GSDs.

Apparently some of these wolfdogs have sustained progeny in the Czech GSD gene pool, along with the expected negative side effects:

Per DNA studies I’ve read about, there is NO wolf in the mainstream GSD lines, and none in the German imports either.
The only place it’s been verified by DNA test is in some of the fairly recent (post-1980) Czech lines, and per what I’ve seen written about imports from those lines — one very experienced breeder of performance GSDs wound up replacing ALL of them for extremely unstable temperament (mainly unpredictable, unwarranted aggression) and stopped importing Czech-lineage GSDs as a result.

As expected for a breed with no significant wolf blood, the introduction of new wolf blood into the GSD created offspring that were decidedly outside the platonic form for what constitutes a GSD. The formation of two new breeds speaks to the significant difference these breeders saw even though both experiments were heavy on GSD blood. If wolves were really reincorporated into the Czech stock, it didn’t pass muster with the traditional breeders.

Not really Wolf at all

That's right, Shih Tzu's are more wolf than the GSD.

Although many GSD breeders like to classify their dogs along with the Alaskan Malamute and Siberian Husky as being decidedly wolf-like, current science places them more in the “wolfy looking, but no recent wolf heritage” pile along with the Samoyed, Norwegian Elkhound, Laika breeds, Greenland dogs, etc.

While mtDNA studies look only at the singular maternal line and it’s certain that future genetic studies using a more diverse set of markers will illuminate the genetic history of all breeds, the German Shepherd Dog was in no way clustered with the Grey Wolf.  In fact, the groundbreaking study showed that the GSD clustered with the mastiff breeds at the other end of the spectrum.

The new third cluster consisted primarily of breeds related in heritage and appearance to the Mastiff and is anchored by the Mastiff, Bulldog, and Boxer, along with their close relatives, the Bullmastiff, French Bulldog, Miniature Bull Terrier, and Perro de Presa Canario. Also included in the cluster are the Rottweiler, Newfoundland, and Bernese Mountain Dog, large breeds that are reported to have gained their size from ancient Mastiff-type ancestors. Less expected is the inclusion of the German Shepherd Dog. The exact origins of this breed are unknown, but our results suggest that the years spent as a military and police dog in the presence of working dog types, such as the Boxer, are responsible for shaping the genetic background of this popular breed.

It’s Never Lupus

Breed lore and perhaps even the original studbook speaks to wolfdog ancestry in the GSD, and there’s nothing preventing this physically or historically.  Sadly, even this documentation is several generations removed from dogs we have pictures of and known matings.  Wild wolves were completely absent in Germany by the time the breed was formed and no documented evidence exists of a mating with a zoo wolf like we have for the two satellite breeds, only a guess put down as hearsay by a show judge in his book written 44 years after the supposed event.  The photos of the original stock also speak to a dog that was decidedly smaller and less wolf like than even the current GSD breed.  So we’re ultimately left with hearsay and romance and a complete lack of genetic evidence.  For now this will remained an unanswered question.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.