Phenotyping: Wolf, Wolfdog, or Dog?

By Kim Miles

With wolfdogs gaining in popularity in the ‘90s, we have seen more and more of these animals being sold in newspapers and online, walking in our parks, and visiting our vet clinics. Unfortunately, many of these animals—whose owners proudly claim that they are wolf “hybrids”—are nothing more than mixed-breed dogs, with as much recent wolf in them as Golden Retrievers.

These (sometimes knowingly, sometimes unknowingly) erroneous claims cause problems in trying to accurately determine the numbers of wolfdogs currently owned in the United States. The National Animal Interest Alliance (NAIA) is able to provide only a very general estimate of the numbers of wolfdogs residing in the U.S.—between 300,000 and 2.5 million.

Unfortunately, many of these animals are dogs—many of them mixed northern-breed dogs—being touted as wolfdogs. Is it any wonder, then, that veterinarians, animal control personnel, and the average citizens are a little confused as to what is or isn’t a wolfdog?

As a rescuer who has been involved with these animals for almost a decade, I have seen owners proudly display white, blue-eyed, curly-tailed canines as 90%+ wolf—a genetic impossibility. I have seen 30-pound, 12”-tall, floppy-eared canines referred to as wolf “hybrids” when the nearest wolf introduced into the line was more than likely a minimum of two centuries ago. I have seen unethical breeders give away pups from a litter of mutt dogs, culling the wolfiest looking from the litter and selling those as wolfdogs for more than $500 apiece.

The phenotyping of canines is the science (or art) of determining the wolf content in an animal—if any—based upon its looks and behavior. Because it is not an exact science, it can be very difficult to perform with accuracy. However, since there are no conclusive genetic tests that can determine if an animal is a wolf, dog, or wolfdog, phenotyping is the next best thing.

With all of the dogs that are passed off as being “wolf hybrids,” many people unaccustomed to dealing with wolfdogs on a regular basis may erroneously determine that an animal is a wolfdog simply because it may look “wolfy” in their rather limited experience or contact with actual wolves and wolfdogs. Many of these people forget that agouti Huskies, Inuit dogs, and a host of other dogs and dog mixes can often yield a pseudo-wolfy-looking animal and, yet, still be nothing more than a 100% bonafide dog.

Florida Lupine Association is often called to evaluate animals in Animal Control shelters, Humane Society shelters, and veterinarian’s offices. While many of these animals actually are wolfdogs, some of them are nothing more than wolfy-looking dogs, lacking any of the behavioral or phenotypic qualities usually found in wolves or wolfdogs.

But when a veterinarian or Animal Control officer, one not accustomed to dealing with wolves and wolfdogs on a regular basis, determines that the animal is a wolfdog (sometimes negating FLA’s evaluation), FLA rescuers are then forced to take in these ‘dogs’ and place them simply because they were erroneously declared to be wolfdogs.

The problem of inaccurately identifying dogs as wolves and wolfdogs is not isolated to Florida, however. It is a problem encompassing all of North America. Last year, Animal Control confiscated and destroyed a Texas man’s champion malamute because a neighbor had complained about the “wolf” next door; wolfdogs were illegal to own in his county. The case was settled out of court.

In August of this year, Dwayne Gauthier lost his pet Siberian Husky due to a similar erroneous determination. Three weeks after his dog, Kiley, had escaped from his yard, Gauthier received word that someone had found her a week earlier and had turned her over to the town’s Animal Control.

When Gauthier tried claiming his dog, he learned that Animal Control had declared it a wolf and had contacted Alberta Environment officers. After searching Kiley for a tag or tattoo and finding none, the Environment Officers concurred with Animal Control and decided that, as a wolf, she should be ‘released’ back into the wild.

Alberta Natural Resource Services officer Stuart Polege explained in a statement to the press that Kiley was mistakenly released into the wild approximately 15 miles from Edson, Alberta, Canada. Gauthier was still looking for Kiley in September.

Fewer mistakes might be made pertaining to wolfdogs if those who specialize in these animals—wolf sanctuary owners, Fish & Game personnel, wolf and wolfdog organizations—are contacted to verify that an animal is or is not a wolfdog. Although phenotyping is not an exact science, it is the best method for identifying a wolfdog, but only if performed by someone with experience in dealing with wolves and wolfdogs. 

—Reprinted from Florida Lupine News, Fall 2000

Copyright © 2000 Kim Miles. Reproduction of any  part of this article is prohibited without prior written permission. For more information, contact the FLA Editor at