Wolf or Dog? It's a Gray Area.

Wolfdog rescue sees a fair amount of animals who "could be all dog" (usually husky, malamute, or shepherd mixed) or "could have a little wolf". We call these "low/no's". There is so much overlap between wolves and dogs, and especially between wolfdogs and certain dog breeds, that it is genuinely impossible to tell for sure whether some animals are low content wolfdogs, or wolfy-looking 100% dog mixes with no recent wolf heritage. I know it's frustrating to have that be the answer, but that's the only TRUE answer there is. Without seeing the parents, the heritage remains a mystery. Maybe these photos will help clear up why that's so.

These are wolfdogs of known, verified heritage. They are all approximately 30% wolf, second generation (one grandparent was a pure wolf), which is called an "F2". (*For sake of argument, "pure" refers to an animal reported to be pure, who has all structure and traits of a full blooded wild wolf, and whose relatives also look & act like pures.)
They are from five different litters; however, the last two are full siblings!

Compare them to some purebred huskies:

and malamutes

and a malamute/husky mix!

How about these beautiful shepherds?

(Yep, that last one's a Belgian.)

Remember, those were also full-blooded dogs. When you mix them (Siberian husky to shepherd, malamute to Alaskan husky) you sometimes end up with something even less obvious...and more wolflike in appearance. Check out Petfinder, for some interesting "husky mixes" or "malamute mixes" that will make you wonder. ;-)

This animal is a wolfdog, third generation (the offspring of two of the 30% F2's above). Does she look more like a wolf than the purebred dogs?

THAT'S how quickly, how easily, the wolf blood can be hidden. "Maybe they're not wolfdogs anymore, once they get to the 3rd generation," you might suggest. Then again...check out the animals at these links, below.

These are several generations from pure--just carefully bred.

Also several generations out.

These guys are in the F3 to F5 range...
...and there are plenty of other F3+ animals who are very obviously of recent wolf heritage. There are many factors in the apparent makeup of the animal, including selection, breed cross, and sheer luck.

Here is a collie/wolfdog cross pup..."Look at the big ears!" you say. "Can't possibly be part wolf!" But, the fact that those huge ears have thick enough ear leather to stand, at such a huge size, is actually something caused by a little wolf heritage. (Also, the pup will grow into those ears, to some degree.)

Here's a second-generation mix, around half wolf--the rest mainly German shepherd. Some wolf heritage is fairly apparent if you know what to look for, but to the untrained eye, a shepherd/malamute cross will look almost the same.

This animal was shown to rescue because one of his multiple owners in his young life thought he was part wolf (because he was highly active and destructive)...but (according to both phenotype AND his original owner) he's actually a husky/Akita mix.

For comparison, this is an actual Akita/low content wolfdog mix.

Colour is another thing that often throws people. They see a sable coloured dog (all dog) and think "wolf"...or they see an oddly coloured wolfdog and DON'T see the wolf. For instance, merle is just one gene. This animal

threw a merle puppy, when bred to a merle Aussie. She's got a fair amount of wolf heritage and her pups would rightly be considered wolfdogs...but one pup was marked like his dad!
This is not her puppy (I can't find that pic) but one similar to him.

Blue eyes are also a dog trait--but two wolfdogs who carry (but don't express) blue eyes can produce a blue-eyed wolfdog pup.

Odd breed mixes can also throw you. This dog had one pure wolf parent; the other was a labrador.

So did these dogs! One parent was a poodle.

None of these look wolflike, but they are half wolf and what's not there in looks will still be there in personality. ;-)

Here is what it looks like when you cross two of the above dogs together. In the second generation, pups are not consistent at all, and you get all sorts of traits showing up. Now, mind, you, these are 25% F2 wolfdogs, verified.

These two pups came out of a high content (mostly wolf) female; dad was a pitbull terrier.

Here are some more dogs who had a pure wolf parent--the other parent was a German shepherd.
Would you like your 50% F1 wolf/shepherd in black:

or tan?

Colour sure makes them seem like different crosses...but all three are littermates, and pretty much identical except for colour.
Try the tan one in shades of gray:

These two came from a shepherd crossed to a pure or nearly-pure arctic wolf.

or white?

Here are some lower content wolfdogs. (These are actually pretty noticeable, once you know what to look for.)

Age also affects the look. Check out these senior wolves:

This is the wolf directly above, when he was young!

Here are some more young wolf/old wolf comparisons.

This old girl had a pure wolf mother, and a mostly-malamute dad.

Tracking the looks and behaviour of the offspring of *lots and lots* of known animals is the best way to get a feel for how this stuff works...but Wolf Park also has an excellent demo on wolf content and genetic inheritance. Check it out here. :-)

This site also shows comparisons between low content wolfdogs and various dogs.

Summary: in rescue, we phenotype a lot of animals that a shelter or someone's veterinarian thought was "a wolf", or mostly wolf. Most of them turn out to be MUCH less wolf content than suspected; many have no wolf traits whatsoever. (Any "papers" or claimed percentages that came along with the animal are generally useless, since most breeders--accidentally or intentionally--misrepresent their dogs' content as much higher than it really is.) It's not uncommon to come across a "low-/no-" content animal: one who we honestly can't say for certain is "a wolfdog" or "all dog". There really is a gray zone, and because of the extensive overlap, you can never be 100% sure. If you have a "gray area" dog, rest assured that you'll see NO behaviours not commonly found in a shepherd/husky mix (though possibly an untrained and undersocialised one)...so, my advice would be to get "good at dogs", and love him for who he is.
Hope this helped you to better understand this genetic 'blurred line'. :-)
For more info on working with dogs, especially Northern crosses, c'mon over to the Wolfdog Project!