• Christopher Mounsey

Wolf or dog?

Updated: May 8, 2020

Here in the southern Balkans we share our mountains and forests with the grey wolf. Their populations are small and it's rare to see them, even for the shepherds who are out on the mountains in all weathers and seasons.

And because these same mountains are also grazed by sheep, goats and cows, there are far more dogs here than wolves. And these big sheepdogs have similar sized feet. So it's a real skill to tell the difference between the prints and faeces of wolf compared to dog. There are a few points to keep in mind though, so that you can make an educated guess!

On a walk last week we came across some interesting poo ('interesting' is subjective here!), which we placed a glove next to, to get an idea of the size.

It's not huge, but it's bigger than that of a fox. Looking at it closer below, we can see it is made up of many hairs and some small bones.

The hairs are good signs that it is wolf, as most dogs are fed dog food. However, it's not a guarantee, as the sheepdogs may also eat a dead animal that they find in the wild.

Another indicator is the smell. Dog faeces smells really bad, whereas wolf is quite mild. We had a good smell of this sample and it wasn't too bad at all. (Note: for obvious hygiene reasons, you should never touch poo with your hands; we opened it with a stick. And don't get so close when trying to smell it.)

The next thing to do is look for footprints. Sure enough, a metre away was a line of prints.

Wolf or dog? It's really difficult to say because they're not very fresh or clear. The key distinction is how they walk. A wolf wastes very little energy and their tracks are nearly always in a straight line. Have a look at the diagrams below (they are exaggerated to make a point. Wolves won't be completely straight, and dogs won't look so drunk).

Dogs are domesticated and feel safe when travelling in the day or night. They're not in a rush and will move from left to right, back and forwards, smelling the path.

We followed these tracks for 200m and they never once moved to the side to smell something.

Further, wolf paws have only a small offset between the front and back paws, so look for a narrow trail with basically in-line footprints. Whereas a dog's rear foot rarely falls within the print of the front foot.

As we continued our walk we stumbled on some more tracks, although they were over a kilometre away on a different road.

What do you think? Wolf or dog?

Another thing to keep in mind is how the pads splay. The external pads and nails of a wolf paw print tend to pointing forward, whereas in a dog they tend to splay more and point outwards. This isn't 100% as all animals pads splay more as they run.

The other big factor is location. If you are very close to villages then there's a good chance that it's domestic dogs that belong to a shepherd or are stray. If you see lots of sheep and goat tracks, then possibly you are near a grazing site and again, you should consider whether it's more likely to be a dog. Alternatively, if you're in the high mountains during snow, the livestock are down near the villages in their stables, so it's unlikely to have sheepdogs. But are you in a place where people hunt with dogs? With the two photos above, we were very, very close to the village and a grazing area, which makes it much more likely that these are dog... but they were in a very straight line, all along the road. And the front and back prints landed inside each other.

As for the poo and prints that we found, we are pretty certain that it was a wolf as we actually have a camera about 50m away, which has recorded two wolves passing by a few times in the last month.

But it's always good to examine each sign independently. After all, there's no reason why dogs aren't walking near the camera too.

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