Which Breeds of Dogs Are Closest to the Wolf?

By Simon Foden

A 2004 study into canine genetics conducted at the Fred Hutchinson Institute for Cancer Research in Seattle found that the oldest relatives of wolves, specifically gray wolves, the common ancestor of all domesticated dogs, aren’t necessarily those who most closely resemble them. In fact, the wolf’s oldest descendants are often the breeds who today look the most physically distinct from the wolf.

Ancient Asian breeds

Pekingese dog on a carpet.

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Ancient Asian toy breeds, such as the Pekingese and the Shih Tzu, both originating in China during the Tang Dynasty look nothing like a wolf, but are indeed among the wolf’s earliest genetic relatives. Such ancient Asian breeds, also including the Shar-Pei are considered to be the oldest of the modern canine’s lupine ancestors and as such, they have had the most time to physically diverge and evolve into the dogs we know and love today, explaining their distinct physical characteristics and small size.

Nomadic Hunters

The profile of a chow chow.

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Slightly more modern breeds, such as the Japanese Akita, chow chow, basenji, Lhasa apso, shiba inu, Siberian husky and Samoyed accompanied early nomadic hunters in their travels, migrating as far as North Africa and northern Europe from Asia. This lifestyle explains their geographical spread and subsequent evolution. Those who migrated to other parts of Asia, Europe and Africa, such as the basenji, chow chow and Lhasa apso, evolved physical features, such as short coats and flatter faces, to enable them to better survive in their new environments. The Japanese Akita is perhaps the closest in appearance to the wolf of these Asian-originated breeds.

Heading North

A Siberian husky lying in a wooded area.

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The breeds that traveled north from Asia toward the Arctic, such as the Siberian husky, Alaskan malamute and Samoyed, are the closest and truest physical examples of the relationship between dog and wolf. These breeds have the closest genetic relationship to the wolf. This is clear in their size and appearance. Long noses, narrow faces, thick and cold resistant fur and athletic, agile physiques point to a close genetic link.

Look-alike imposters

A Pharaoh hound standing on grass in front of houses.

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Some breeds that resemble the wolf, such as the Norwegian elkhound, Ibizan hound and Pharaoh hounds, despite theories to the contrary posseting a direct lineage from the wolf, are not closely related at all. Tomb drawings and folklore including these breeds may have given rise to the misconception that they are among the closest descendants of the wolf, when in fact they are merely distant descendants that look similar.