Posts Tagged ‘wolfdog’

dare wolfdog

One of the great controversies in the dog world is whether the German shepherd is a wolf dog. I will admit that I am agnostic on the subject. It might be, and one of the component regional German sheepdogs from which they were derived was rumored to have been crossed with wolves.

I have never been able to track down the exact truth of the wolf in the German shepherd, but I should note that lots of breeds have wolf in them and not all of them are as lupine in phenotype.  Several French griffon hounds, one of which was crossed into the otterhound, were mixed with wolf, because the French houndsmen believed such crosses were better hunters of wolves. The Plott hound is said to have at least one wolf crossed in at some point in its history, and various livestock guardian breeds, including those in Georgia and Turkey, are known to have wolf blood. And we know that Norwegian elkhounds and related Scandinavian spitzes have wolf ancestry, and some Russians have crossed their laikas with wolves, too.

In the annals of this blog, I have documented wolves being used in much the same way dogs have. I have documented wolf and dog crosses that proved useful as working and hunting animals.

So I am not at all unwilling to accept that German shepherds are wolfdogs. I just need proof. The GSDs that I have had tested with Embark have all come back with “low wolfiness” scores. “Wolfiness” is just the amount of ancient wolf DNA that a dog might possess, but it can also be indicative of some wolf crossed into the dog’s ancestry.

I have hear rumors that the original SV (Schäferhund Verein) studbooks do list wolves in foundational pedigrees of German shepherds, but I have not seen them.

I have come across this dog on Pedigree Database. The name “Wolf Rüde” translate as “Wolf Male Dog.”  Its pedigree is mysterious. The sire line is the typical tightly-bred sheepdog strains that are the basis of the breed. But the dam line is a mysterious creature called “Gerta Hündin.” The terms Hündin and Rüde mean “bitch” and “dog” in English. I cannot figure out who these dogs were, but the name of one of them is tantalizing in that it might be the name of an actual wolf in the foundational pedigree.

People have been breeding wolves to German shepherd ever since German shepherds became a breed. We have several off-shoot breeds that are wolf-German shepherd crosses. Only the Czechoslovakian wolfdog and the modern Russian Volksoby have shown any promise as being able to do the German shepherd’s job as a military dog. And they aren’t nearly as good at it.

I do know of a story of a first cross between a German shepherd and a wolf in Czechoslovakia that turned out to be a superior working animal. This dog apparently passed all requirements for breeding a German shepherd in that former country, and it even made it as a guide dog.  I have been unable to track down the full story of this dog, but it has always interested me in that this creature might be the hopeful monster that could have led to greater crossings between wolves and German shepherds in some working dog programs.

Also, we must tease apart some of the eighteenth and nineteenth century zoological ideas about sheepdogs and wolves. Buffon believed that sheepdogs of France were the closest to the wolf. I have even come across accounts of collies and what became border collies in which the author mentions how wolf-like the dogs are. In that sort of intellectual milieu, it is possible that someone might mis-translate or even get lost on a flight of fancy that these German herding dogs were wolves.

Further, it is one thing to have independent working dogs like scenthounds, hunting spitz, and livestock guardian dogs with wolf blood. It is quite another to breed a wolf to a herding dog, and it is even more to expect that herding dog with wolf ancestry to become an extremely biddable utilitarian working dog.

I will just say I want the evidence. I actually do want to believe that these dogs do have wolf in them, but the evidence is lacking– at least in English.

I am also fully aware that when the breed was introduced to the English-speaking world, there would have been a definite reason to downplay wolf ancestry in the dogs. Most of the English-speaking countries were major sheep producers, and in Australia and North America, wild canids were heavily hunted to make way for sheep husbandry.

So if anyone has the goods. Please let me know. I am certain that German shepherd blood has entered the wild wolf population in Europe. German shepherd makes up a large part of the street dog population in Eastern Europe, where there are still lots of packs of wolves.  We now know that the majority of Eurasian wolves have recent dog ancestry, and German shepherd blood course through the veins of some of these wolves.

It just isn’t clear to me that the introgression went the other way.


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A black Italian wolf. The black trait originated in dogs and was transferred to Italian and North American wolves through introgression.

As long-time readers of this blog know, I consider dogs to be a form of gray wolf.  I do not consider Canis familiaris to be a valid taxon, because of cladistics and because of the gene flow between domestic dogs and wolves.

The extent of this gene flow was largely denied in much of the literature on wolves.  But last year, it was discovered that the majority of Eurasian wolves have recent dog ancestry. This gene flow has been going on for a while, and although people do get a bit worked up about domestic animal genes filtering into a wild species, it has been shown that the melanism in wolves that is conferred by a dominant allele originated in a Native American dog that was living in the Yukon or the Northwest Terrtories thousands of years before Columbus. Further, this melanistic allele is associated with higher immune responses, and there is evidence for natural selection favoring black individuals following a distemper outbreak.

In a paper released this week in the European Journal of Wildlife Research found extensive crossbreeding between dogs and wolves in agricultural landscapes in Central Italy.  The authors estimate that about half of all wolves in this region have recent dog ancestry, and they think it is because humans have disturbed wolf habitat to have agriculture.

Of course, humans, wolves, and dogs have been living in Italy alongside agriculture for thousands of years. Dogs and wolves have been mating ever since there was a population of somewhat domesticated wolves.

Further, European wolves are much better adapted than North American wolves to living in agricultural areas.  It may simply be that North Americans are much more likely to kill wolves that appear in agricultural areas and that this is what has created this asymmetry. But North American wolves tend to be in remote areas, where they rarely encounter dogs. Thus, there is not as much gene flow between dogs and North American wolves as there is between dogs and Eurasian wolves.

There is a lot of gene flow between dogs and coyotes in North America, and this finding does make sense. Coyotes do live in agricultural and urban areas much more easily than large wolves do.

I don’t think it worth becoming alarmed that dogs and wolves are mating in the wild.  Dogs have lots of interesting mutations that could be of great use to wolves as they adapt to more and more human-dominated planet. If the dog alleles are deleterious, nature will select against them, but if they are advantageous, they will help wolves thrive into the future.

So it is quite short-sighted to think of wolves as being a some sort of pure entity that must be kept free of “foreign” alleles.  If it were more widely accepted that dogs were just a domestic form of gray wolf, we would have a much easier time accepting a more holistic understanding to how these populations can continue exchange genes and adapt to new challenges.


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Collie and wolf cross

From The Wolves of North America (1944) by Stanley Young and Edward Goldman.

And that’s how they made German shepherds. LOL.

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tazi mating with wolf

This image appeared on a Kazakh instagram account. 

The wolf appears to be a steppe wolf (Canis lupus campestris). In Kazakhstan, people keep wolves as pets and “guard dogs” fairly often, and according to Stephen Bodio, they are obsessed with wolves.

The dog is a tazi, a sighthound of the general saluki breed complex, that has quite a few wolf-like characteristics. The breed is usually monestrus, like a wolf, coyote, or a basenji, and females engage in social suppression of estrus and sometimes kill puppies that are born to lower ranking bitches.

I wonder if the wolf-like traits of this breed are somehow reinforced by occasionally crossings with captive and wandering wolves like this. As far as I know, no one has really looked into the genetics of the Kazakh tazi, but it is an unusual dog that lives in a society with a very strong tradition of keeping captive wolves.

We know that gene flows between Eurasian wolves and dogs is much higher than we initially imagined, but I don’t know if anyone is looking at breeds like these for signs of hybridization. The only study I’ve seen looked at livestock guardian dogs from the Caucasus, and it found quite a bit of gene flow-– and it was mostly unintentional.

It would be interesting to know exactly how much wolf is in Kazakh tazis. I would be shocked to learn that they had no wolf ancestry.

I seriously doubt that this is the only time a captive steppe wolf and a tazi were found in this position.

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jack russell wolf

Yes. For real, apparently.

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This is dubbed in English, so you can understand the method. They don’t believe in closed registries out on taiga. The dogs they use in the crosses don’t even have to be domestic!


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This dog’s image comes from a site that says it is 40 percent “Timberwolf” and 60 percent “Norwegian elkhound.”

I don’t know if those percentages are accurate or if this dog has any recent wolf ancestry at all.

But it is said to howl. Norwegian elkhounds really don’t howl. They are know for their barks. I remember my grandpa’s elkhound would rake his back on the lower rung of a split-rail fence in the front yard, and he would bark each time he raked his back against the rail.

I don’t know why anyone would puff an elkhound as being part wolf.

All Norwegian and Swedish elkhounds can have relatively recent wolf ancestry. 

I am skeptical that this particular dog is of recent wolf ancestry.  It might be. It looks more like a wolf than the F1 poodle/wolf crosses that Erik Zimen bred.

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The dog on the right is a cross between a low content wolf dog and a Labrador. The dog on the left is his son, produced through mating with a black Labrador mix.

Here is the low content wolfdog with his grandson and “daughter-in-law.”

My guess is the majority of the litter were black, but this one wasn’t. There also had to be a gene for the black mask in the Labrador mix mother.

NB:  I use the term “wolfdog,” rather than wolf hybrid.  Dogs and wolves are part of the same species, Canis lupus, and can’t technically be hybrids.  However, crosses between dogs and coyotes and crosses between wolves and coyote would be hybrids.

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German shepherd dogs were deeply rooted in the German identity. Adolf Hilter exploited the German shepherd's identity for propaganda purposes. This particular dog is a German shepherd with wolfish coloration, which further adds to the mistique. This dog is not Blondi, Hitler's pet GSD. She was an entirely different color and size.



Great post at Borderwars.

I need to mention that I have repeated the line about the wolfd0gs of the Rhine many times on this blog. The mention is supposedly in Tacitus’s  Germania

I did so without checking the primary source, but because so many credible dog authorities used this stories, I posted it verbatim.

Those authorities got their information from other credible authorities, so no one checked the primary source.  I don’t blame anyone for making this mistake. It is often very hard to find credible historiographies of dogs. Many dog histories are about making fantastic claims.

The golden retriever historians are to be commended for their very good historical research, and the widespread acceptance in the breed societies of the verified breed origin stories. As far as I know, this is the only breed where the actual historical record was used to debunk a myth about the retrievers being derived from Russian circus dogs and for this debunking to have such broad acceptance. All too often, breed fanciers hold onto fanciful stories, even if the history seems overly fantastic and requires many assumptions– and contradicts the genetic evidence.

For the record, one of these sources did not claim any relationship between these “wolfdogs” and the German shepherd. It was just mentioned as a type of dog that was in Europe. I figured that it could have been laika-type spitz or one of the early German herding spitz breeds.

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Garry was registered with the Kennel Club as an “Esquimaux dog” and was exhibited at the Alexandra Palace Exhibition and the “Birmingham dog show” (Crufts?) in 1876.  He was said to be an “Eskimaux [dog] bred in the far north of Lombardy.”

This depiction of him comes from Hugh Dalziel’s British Dogs (c. 1880).  Dalziel was of the opinion that he was not a wolf or wolf hybrid. However, I have a certain amount of skepticism about Dalziel’s reasons for assuming that Garry was a pure dog, which I shall get to in good order.

Dalziel reports the description of Garry from his own C.E. Fryer:

Mr. C. E. Fryer, whose notice of Garry we reproduce from The Country, entitled him a “North American wolf dog,” and we find the idea that these dogs, or at least special varieties of them, are produced by a cross with the wolf rather commonly entertained, but there is no better reason for it than his general wolfish appearance. Garry is decidedly typical of the Esquimaux family of dogs, and on the subject of his breeding we have little to add to our sub-note to Mr. Fryer’s letter at the time it first appeared.

Mr. Fryer says: “The accompanying engraving represents one of these curious dogs, which are so much prized by the natives and inhabitants of North America, and so difficult to obtain in this country. The cut is taken from a photograph of a dog lately owned by a member of Oxford University, who gave me the following account of it: Garry, the dog in question, is about eighteen months old, and has been in this country seven months. He was brought from the Saskatchewan Mountains, Manitoba, in the far north-west of Canada.

Fryer’s geography is a bit off. Manitoba is in the middle of Canada, and I have never heard of any “Saskatchewan Mountains” in Saskatchewan or Manitoba.

Dalziel describes Garry’s origin:

The Indians take great pride in rearing a pure white wolf dog, and when they manage to secure one they have a feast in his honour, called the ‘ Feast of the White Dog.’ I refrain from attempting the native names, lest I should display my own ignorance and do some damage to my readers’ jaws. Garry is said to be the produce of an Esquimaux bitch, crossed nine times by a prairie wolf. The Indians chain up the Esquimaux mothers in the neighbourhood of the wolves, to whose kind attentions they leave them. The dog Garry has travelled many thousand miles over the snow, drawing a sleigh, and is quite tame, following his master closely through the streets without chain or muzzle. Sometimes he is treated to this latter sign of ‘civilisation,’ under which he is very patient, though he continually endeavours to free himself from it. His food is plain dog biscuit, which he eats without complaint, though at first he ate raw meat ravenously. His master, however, finding his blood was getting too hot, gradually reduced him to one meal per day of dog biscuits. He is very tractable and docile, and but for his enormous size would not give any idea of ferocity.

This would have made Garry a very high content wolfdog, and judging from this depiction of him, I would have no reason to doubt that he was either a high content wolfdog or even a possible pure wolf.

His behavior appeared to have been quite wolf-like:

His owner tells me he does not bark, but utters a low growl when enraged, and at night howls piteously.

And his teeth sound as if they were those of a wolf, not a domestic dog:

His mouth would easily take in a man’s leg, and his teeth are a caution to dentists. Whether he feels flattered by being told that we are possessors of developed ‘ canine ‘ teeth I can’t say.

Wolves and coyotes have much more robust teeth than domestic dogs do. The big game hunting specialist wolves have particularly large teeth, and if Garry were a wolf or a wolf hybrid, he would have been of this type.

Of course, Hugh Dalziel didn’t think that Garry was any kind of wolf or wolf hybrid:

The mystic story of Garry’s birth and parentage is very charming, but I fear the talismanic number nine would alone be fatal to it, as it is decidedly suspicious; and in these days of Kennel Stud Books we get awfully sceptical of unauthenticated pedigrees, and in such matters positively refuse as evidence the traditions of the Red Man, however pretty and romantic. I saw Garry in the flesh at Birmingham – where, by the way, he took a £5 prize – and I must pronounce him the very finest specimen of an Esquimaux dog I have seen, but I must differ from our esteemed correspondent when he says there is unmistakeable evidence of wolf blood in the dog. Dogs appear to approach nearer to the wolf type the farther they are removed from the higher civilised life of man, and that, I think, is the case with Garry, and, besides that, hybrids do not breed.

Actually, there have been wolves that have been imprinted upon people are quite docile animals. There is the story of Wags, Adolph Murie’s pet wolf, who was so gentle that he trusted her to play with his children. And she was not the only one. There are many accounts of socialized wolves that were very gentle with people. Not all imprinted wolves are extremely emotionally reactive and predatory animals. It is true that most imprinted wolves exhibit these behaviors, which is why we are so strongly warned against keeping them. But there have always been very docile wolves.

Dalziel is merely showing his Victorian racial views. The “Red Man” of Canada couldn’t domesticate a wolf.  Only Westerners could ever do such a thing.

But he really shows his error in that last line when he says that hybrids between wolves and dogs cannot breed. Of course, wolf and dog hybrids can reproduce. The two animals are now considered to be the same species, and as such, calling them wolf hybrids is no longer valid. The word hybrid denotes the breeding of two distinct species, and that is no longer the case when one discusses the breedings between wolves and dogs. This blog calls wolves “wild Canis lupus” and dogs “domestic Canis lupus.”

Dalziel also though Garry’s proportions all wrong, simply because they are all wrong for a sled dog.

But let’s look at what Garry’s proportions actually say:

Height at shoulder, 2ft. 6in.; length from centre between shoulder blades to centre between ears, 1ft.; from latter point to end of nose, 11in.; length from shoulders to setting on of tail, 2ft. 7in.; length of tail, lft. 4in.; measurement round head just behind ears, 2ft.; just above eyes, lft. 8in.; at point of nose, 10in.; his girth measured fairly tight, not outside the hair, 3ft.; his weight is 8st. 8 lb. His hair is long, straight, and pure white, which is his chief beauty.

Garry stood 30 inches at the shoulder and weighed 120 pounds (that’s how you convert from stones to pounds!)

That would make him a large wolf, not unlike an arctic wolf or perhaps an unusually large “Buffalo wolf” of the Canadian prairies.

No Canadian Eskimo dog (qimmiq) has these proportions. According to the breed standard, they are not to exceed 88 pounds and 28 inches at the shoulder. Qimmiq do look like wolves superfically, but because they have been bred for hauling, they are built very differently– much more bone and much broader chests.

W.D. Drury depicts anther “Esquimaux dog” that was a contemporary of Garry in British Dogs, Their Points, Selection, And Show Preparation (1903). Myouk was derived from dogs brought over by Sir John Franklin, and it is very obvious that he was a genuine article qimmiq:

Drury also takes exception with the notion that Garry could not have been a wolf or wolf hybrid:

Garry…was of a different type from many other Esquimaux that have been exhibited. He was sometimes called a North American Wolfdog, and was said to be a cross between a wolf and an Esquimaux bitch. It is a perfectly well-known fact that the wolf and dog will breed freely together, and the late Mr. Bartlett, of the Zoological Gardens, told the writer that the offspring will continue to breed – a fact that has been doubted by some [like Hugh Dalziel].

In addition to his different proportions from the qimmiq, Garry also appears to have larger feet in proportion to his body size than one typically sees in a dog. Northern wolves have large feet, which they use as snowshoes. They distribute the weight of the wolf out over the snow more evenly, preventing them from breaking through the crust and becoming encumbered. Sled dogs have similar feet, but they are not nearly as well-developed as those of wolves, which also have no sweat glands to produce moisture that will collect snow as the animal traverses snowy ground.

There is also quite a bit of evidence of indigenous people keeping wolves as pets. As a young boy traveling to the Canadian arctic as an assistant to his renowned ornithologist uncle to the artic of Manitoba, Farley Mowat encountered a native trapper with a live wolf pup. He implored his uncle to buy it, but he refused. The trappers wanted the bounty value for the pup– only $5– but his uncle seemed to think that such an animal would only cause trouble. It is possible that Garry or his ancestors had been collected in the same fashion.

Everything about Garry suggests that he was a wolf or high content wolf hybrid that was exhibited as an “Esquimaux dog.”  Compare the depiction of Garry with these arctic wolves:

The resemblance is uncanny.

Almost unmistakable.

Garry was a show wolf or high content wolfdog.

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