Most people are aware that dogs and wolves share some genetic similarities. But the more research evolutionary biologists do, the more we discover about just how the modern dog came to be so different from their wolf ancestors.
German Shepherds, like all domestic dogs, share the wolf as a common ancestor.
But because of the German Shepherd dog’s appearance – the lean and rangy body, long legs, alert ears, and long muzzle – often people think that German Shepherds are more closely related to wolves than other dog breeds.
Is this true? Or is the German Shepherd’s very wolf-like appearance just a coincidence? We are going to delve into this mystery right now. Are German Shepherds closely related to wolves? Let’s find out!
When Did Your German Shepherd Become a Dog?
The question of precisely when the wild wolf became a domestic dog and a companion to humans continues to be hotly debated.
Because dogs are so universally loved, every year it seems new research comes out disproving former theories or at least shedding additional light on the why and how of verified facts.
But there is still a ton of research left to do to sort out a theory from fact.
The most recent data suggests that all domestic dogs, including the German Shepherd, began to diverge from their wild wolf ancestors between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago.
Earlier research data points to the exact time period as being closer to 40,000 than 20,000 years ago.
This still seems like a pretty wide range of time, but not in evolutionary terms. To make matters even muddier, as this short YouTube video on the Origin of Dogs explains, conflicting studies continue to pop up suggesting wolves were domesticated more than once in more than one region of the world.
Maybe this is just an example of a great idea that was too good to limit to one time period and region.
But what exactly does this mean when we look at the German Shepherd’s genetic relationship to the wolf? Part of the confusion here starts with this dog breed’s name!
The Alsatian Wolf Dog Becomes the German Shepherd Dog
As the American Kennel Club (AKC) explains, the German Shepherd dog was at one point renamed as the Alsatian Wolf dog.
This was in the post-World War I period when all things German temporarily fell out of favor.
But the new breed name didn’t stick. It lasted only long enough to cause lingering confusion about how closely the German Shepherd is related to the wild wolf.
Underneath the very wolf-like appearance of the modern GSD, the fact remains that German Shepherds and all other dog breeds share the designation of Canis lupus familiaris, the domestic dog, an offshoot of Canis lupus, the wolf.
Why Some German Shepherds Retain More Wolf Qualities Than Other GSDs
As the German Shepherd Rescue Elite charity explains, German Shepherd dogs today are bred for two main reasons: appearance and work.
In this section, we will take a much closer look at the traits of each breed line.
Working German Shepherd breed line
Only the working GSD breed line, however, remains relatively true to the original German Shepherd dog as developed, bred, and popularized by the breed creator, a German cavalry leader named Captain Max von Stephanitz.
Captain von Stephanitz meticulously bred his German Shepherd dogs for their work ethic, high pain tolerance, strong prey drive, and protective instincts.
Interestingly, there are some account entries in Captain von Stephanitz’s early studbook (breeding record book) that seem to suggest the Captain crossed his early GSDs with actual wolves, perhaps from the local zoo.
But this is not known for certain, since the word “wolf” was also in use at that time to denote a certain type of coat color and pattern.
However, as PetMD points out, the captain later wrote a book and issued a strong word of warning against trying to use wolves in dog breeding programs.
So if Captain von Stephanitz did use wolves at any point in his GSD breed line development, it is clear that he did not view the experiments as successful or advisable.
These early German Shepherds were all work and no play, serving tirelessly in jobs ranging from livestock herding and guarding to military and police duty, bomb detection, search and rescue, and later Schutzhund athletics.
Working German Shepherd dogs are bred purely for these temperament traits and not for the way that they look. Outer “beauty” is not considered important at all.
They are not bred to be companion canines to people in the “pet” sense of the word “companion.” They are bred to be trustworthy work partners.
Because German Shepherd dogs are so incredibly smart and quick to learn new skills, they also became popular as movie dogs. Rin Tin Tin, Strongheart, Ace, Rex, Sam, Charlie Barkin, Max, and Danny Boy are just a handful of examples of famous GSDs in Hollywood.
Seeing the German Shepherd dog in films sparked an interest in the general public to own these dogs as pets and to show them in dog competitions.
Show German Shepherd breed line
The show or companion canine breed lines immediately began to stray away from the strict temperament standards of the working GSD breed lines.
The new breed lines of GSD dogs were selectively bred for different temperament traits.
As one expert German Shepherd breeder and canine veterinarian explain, they were gentler, calmer, devoted to their people, friendly in general, lower energy, and quite easy to train for obedience.
These German Shepherd dogs exhibit traits that might have been present to some degree in the very earliest wild wolves that self-selected to cohabitate and, later, collaborate, with humans.
But the actual result would have been an early companion canine that behaved much more like the original working GSD breed line dogs rather than today’s companion and shows German Shepherd dogs.
German Shepherds Are Not An Ancient Dog Breed
German Shepherd dogs may be the second most popular choice for a companion canine in America today, but they are not considered an ancient dog breed.
Quite the contrary, as a matter of fact. Captain von Stephanitz only began to develop the breed we now call the German Shepherd in the 18th century.
In a landmark genetic study comparing the genomes (genetic material) of 85 modern domestic dog breeds to the genome of their shared gray wolf ancestors, researchers discovered 14 breeds that are more genetically similar to wolves than other dogs.
These breeds are the Siberian Husky, the Egyptian Saluki, the Alaskan Malamute, the African Basenji, the Asian Shar-Pei, the Asian Chow-Chow, the Asian Shih-Tzu, the Asian Pekingese, the Asian Akita, the Tibetan Terrier, and the Asian Shiba Inu.
These dog breeds are considered to be the most ancient of all domestic dog breeds and thus the closest living relatives of ancient wild wolves.
As National Geographic points out, these ancient breeds from Asia and Africa may perhaps be the modern domestic dog’s closest genetic link to the ancient wolves the dog is descended from.
However, when you think of the dainty Pekingese or the Shih-Tzu, with their long hair-like coats and tiny size, it is very easy to see how people might assume the large and imposing German Shepherd is more closely related to wolves than either of these breeds!
This just goes to prove that looking at a dog often can’t tell you much about the genetic makeup of that breed.
While there is little room for interpretation in this detailed and scientifically rigorous genetic analysis, it is important to remember that there is still much to learn about the canine genome (genetic code).
For example, just dissecting how a German Shepherd inherits a particular coat color can represent a lifetime of study.
So while evolutionary biologists have learned how to trace the direct genetic code of different dog breeds back to the modern dog’s original wild wolf ancestors, it may be less straightforward to trace temperament and talent genetically.
In fact, in Germany, before a pedigreed purebred working German Shepherd dog can be bred, the dog must first pass both a breed temperament test and successfully complete Schutzhund dog training.
Passing these two tests ensures the dog breeds as true to Captain von Stephanitz’s original GSD as possible – a breed the Captain’s own stud notes indicate may have been developed from crossing dogs with wolves at some point in the breed development.
The German Shepherd could just be the best ambassador for wolves, a much-misunderstood wild canid species that is only now beginning to be appreciated for its role in keeping local ecosystems balanced and healthy.
By modeling the fierceness, protectiveness, hunting and athletic prowess, independence, devotion to family, work ethic, keen senses, and survival instincts of wolves, the German Shepherd reminds us to honor and value the modern dog’s wild ancestors as well.