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This question got my thinking:

Did I see a wolf's paw print?.

I did a bit of Googling and it appeared that wolf paw prints and dog paw prints are very very similar. Is there any good way (given that the size of a dog and wolf can be very similar) to differentiate between them?

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    Aside size, ive been taught to look for a direct registration, the step of the hind paw is in line with the corresponding front one. another sign would be the claws that in wolves are normally longer and leave deeper marks than dogs, this can be fooled if a dog has always lived in the country as stray, though. Another element Ive been told is key is how the pads splay: a wolf paw print will tend to have the external pads with their claw markings pointing directly forward as the middle pads while in a dog they tend to point more outwards – Erik vanDoren Apr 27 '16 at 15:35
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    "given that the size of a dog and wolf can be very similar" Not on my experience, wolves are much larger (at least they are here in the Canadian Rockies) We have problems where I live with wolves taking down peoples cows, and I often meet people who have wolf-cross dogs, which are always huge. – ShemSeger Apr 27 '16 at 15:49
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    Btw, theres also something to say about front vs hind paws, the hind ones will splay more etc, the two sets dont look the same and to me the front ones are easier to read for difference than the hind ones – Erik vanDoren Apr 27 '16 at 16:00
  • In fairness @ShemSeger I live in a country with no wolves so I'm not really experienced in the subject! :~) It just peeked my interest. – user2766 Apr 27 '16 at 16:20
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    @Liam, Where I live there's a bounty on wolves. If you shoot one, you can take it to the county office and collect $500. – ShemSeger Apr 27 '16 at 17:04
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No, there's no chance to distinguish the print of a large dog from one of a wolf. However, you can still differentiate between them, if you have a whole track. Dogs walk remarkable different than their ancestors. Compared to a wolf, a dog draws a sinuous line like it was drunk.

The best way to determine if wolves are present is to find their tracks. Wolf tracks are fairly easy to pick out, as they can be more than twice as big as a coyote’s. They can sometimes be confused with the tracks of large dogs, but the key is in how they walk. Whether it’s on a packed trail, or through deep snow, a wolf wastes very little energy while traveling. Their tracks are nearly always in a straight line, with the left and right paws only slightly offset (usually 6 inches or less). Compared to wolves, dogs walk like they’re drunk. Their tracks are distinctly scattered, and often appear more “wandering.”

Also, even on hard trails, dogs tend to drag their toes when they walk, whereas wolves generally leave a cleaner stride. In deep snow, distinct tracks are rarely visible. Look for a narrow trail with in-line footprints. When a pack runs through deep snow, they usually step in the same tracks as the wolf in front of them, which leaves even more pronounced prints. Also, you can usually see where their bodies have pushed a trail through the snow. The way they travel often makes it tough to determine how many are in a pack.

From Outdoor-Life

Dog:

Dog pattern

Wolf:

Wolf pattern

The diagrams above are exaggerated but clearly show, what one should have an eye on. Thanks to David Richerby for pointing this out.

It can be impossible to distinguish a large dog from a wolf from a single track. Instead, if possible look for the pattern of the trail left by the animal. Dogs’ pattern of walking reflects their domestic lifestyle. They do not rely on stealth, and tend to walk erratically. Their hind foot tracks seldom register within their forefoot tracks. They may also approach strange objects directly. Wolves on the other hand, tend to walk more directly when travelling. Their trails reflect this, as the track of the hind foot is placed within or directly in front of the forefoot. Wolves will also approach strange objects cautiously, often circling widely to investigate rather than approaching directly.

From wildlife.ca.gov

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    The wandering can be misleading too, my german shepherd/husky mix is a stray rescued from a reservation, no wolf/coyote in her, she walks always straight like shes on a mission, even has the wolfie attitude to the point I have to keep her on a high visibility harness as people keep mistaking her for a coyote. Tracks of a very large stray dog that was born and lived always in the wild will be difficult to distinguish from a wolf – Erik vanDoren Apr 27 '16 at 15:45
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    "Wolves always travel in single file to hide their numbers." "Much to accurate for dogs, only Imperial wolves leave footprints so precise." "New strategy: Let the wolf win." (With apologies to the internet.) – wedstrom Apr 27 '16 at 19:00
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    Unfortunately, the "dog tracks" diagram appears to be exaggerated to the point of uselessness: four-legged animals cannot turn corners with a radius of only a couple of paw's widths. So, any actual dog tracks will be much straighter than that diagram and, presumably, actual wolf tracks aren't arrow-straight. So the diagram does very little to help people determine whether a realistically curving track might be from a wolf or from a dog. – David Richerby Apr 27 '16 at 20:17
  • @ErikvanDoren Just like I've written "No, there's no chance to distinguish the print of a large dog from one of a wolf." Is it something personal that you always have to grumble about my posts? – OddDeer Apr 28 '16 at 5:20
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    @DavidRicherby Thanks for the input. I liked the diagrams because they show off the difference one should look for. But you are absolutely right, that they are exaggerated. I'll add this to the answer - thanks! – OddDeer Apr 28 '16 at 5:21
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European version:

Diagrams (also with measurements in the [German language] text)

English description including photo of direct register trot.

  • single prints cannot be distinguished from large dog prints.
    (Here in Germany, I'm pretty sure we still have more Newfoundland and St. Bernards' dogs than wolves - although the wolf population grows by about 30 % / year right now)

  • distinction needs several 100 m of track: that's the scale where you can be pretty sure a dog isn't going all that straight (i.e. meanwhile gets another idea and explores something in another direction).

  • wolves have two modes of trotting: direct register (geschnürter Trab) and side trot (schräger Trab). Dogs typically side trot, although the swiss page linked above says that they can do the direct register trot, and may do so e.g. in deep snow. Wolves do both types of trot,
  • but if there's a long straight direct register track, that's a wolf track.

(Disclaimer: So far, the only wolves I've seen were in Canada [other than in zoos], and in terms of tracks, I'm aware only of dog tracks...)

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