A few subtle differences exist between wolf tracks and dog tracks, but they're similar enough that they can be difficult to distinguish. In fact, Western Wildlife Outreach, a wildlife conservation organization, says it is impossible to identify tracks as belonging to wolves or dogs with 100 percent certainty. To help distinguish between these closely related canines, investigate the size of the tracks, the spacing of the tracks and the path they take. Geography and other factors may help you distinguish between tracks made by the two animals.
Both wolves and dogs produce four-toed, oval-shaped tracks. While both are largely similar in gross appearance, one difference is sometimes visible: The middle toes of domestic dogs are slightly larger than the lateral toes are, whereas the four front toes of wolves are the same size. Dogs often drag their toenails when walking, which produces slightly messier tracks than the often-pristine tracks of wolves.
The tracks of wolves are usually larger than the tracks made by dogs. The average wolf track is about 4 inches long and 4 inches wide. While that's not an infallible method for distinguishing between the two, the majority of tracks measuring longer than 4 inches belong to wolves, not dogs. However, some very large dogs may produce tracks of about this size.
Path of the Paws
Dogs often wander about widely, nonchalantly traveling from one interesting smell to the next. By contrast, wolves seek to maximize their energy efficiency and move with a purpose. These behavioral differences can manifest in the tracks of the two canids. Whereas wolf tracks typically occur in nearly straight lines between resource patches, dog tracks may meander about wildly. Wolves usually travel single-file; in deep snow, each one may place his feet in the tracks left by the wolf in front of him.
The stride length of wolves is much longer than that of dogs, but because stride length varies with the pace of the animal and such factors as the grade of the land, it is not always a good diagnostic criterion. Trackers distinguish wolf tracks from dog tracks by noting that wolves "single-track": Their hind feet prints fall on top of their front prints. By contrast, dogs have proportionally wider chests than wolves do, which causes their rear feet to fall beside -- rather than on top of -- the prints made by the front paws. Additionally, the left and right tracks are often less than 6 inches apart from each other.
Take every possible piece of evidence into account when examining unknown tracks; besides the details of the prints, consider other clues that may inform your conclusion. First, consider the geography of the area -- wolves live in only a few locations south of the U.S.-Canada border, including parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Additionally, the habitat should provide some clues, as wolves seldom dwell in suburban or urban areas, preferring vast wilderness. By contrast, coyotes and dogs are common in human-altered habitats.
- Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife: About Gray Wolves
- Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife: Wolf Tracks
- Western Wildlife Outreach: Signs of Wolves
- Outdoor Life: Wolf Tracks: How to Tell if There Are Wolves in Your Woods
- United States Search and Rescue Task Force: Animal Tracking
- Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary: Physical Differences Between Wolves and Dogs
- LA Times: Gray Wolves’ History and Recovery