If you’ve ever seen a strange, hyena-like dog and wondered what kind of breed it is, you’re not alone. Some dog breeds bear an uncanny resemblance to hyenas in their appearance. In this article, we’ll look at some of the most hyena-like dog breeds and what makes them so similar in looks to the hyena species.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Yes, several dog breeds like the Airedale Terrier, Tosa Inu, and Basenji share physical traits with hyenas like large upright ears, thick necks, broad skulls and tan coats with dark markings.

These similarities are due to the shared ancient ancestry between dogs and hyenas.

We’ll explore the history and origins of hyena-like dogs, analyze their physical features, and compare them side-by-side with true hyenas. You’ll also learn some fun facts about these unique breeds along the way.

Whether you’re curious about a dog you saw that reminds you of a hyena, or just interested in rare dog breeds, read on to satisfy your curiosity!

Background on the Shared Ancestry of Dogs and Hyenas

When Dogs and Hyenas Diverged Evolutionarily

Dogs and hyenas may seem very different today, but they actually share a common ancestor from many millions of years ago. In fact, dogs are more closely related to hyenas than they are to cats or bears.

The evolutionary divergence between dogs and hyenas began around 55-60 million years ago during the late Paleocene or early Eocene period.

At that time, a small carnivorous mammal called miacids lived in woodlands and forests. The miacids eventually gave rise to two distinct lineages – one leading to modern dogs and the other to hyenas. So while they evolved separately over many millennia, dogs and hyenas inherited similar physical and behavioral traits reflecting their shared ancestry.

Remnants of Common Ancestry in Dog and Hyena Features Today

Despite tens of millions of years of separate evolution, some remnants of the common miacid ancestor can still be seen in certain dog and hyena features today:

  • Powerful jaws and teeth adapted for crushing bones and consuming meat
  • Claws that do not fully retract, unlike felines
  • Excellent sense of smell for tracking prey
  • Similar vocalizations like laughter, yelps, and whines
  • Matriarchal social structure
  • Ability to run for extended periods at moderate speed

The shared miacid ancestry explains why a few dog breeds like the Borzoi and Basenji closely resemble hyenas in their appearance. It also accounts for behavioral similarities, like the propensity of some dogs to “laugh” when playing.

While hyena-like dogs are uncommon, they offer a glimpse into the distant evolutionary past tying these iconic African scavengers to our canine companions.

Dog Breeds That Resemble Hyenas

The Airedale Terrier

The Airedale Terrier is a medium-sized terrier breed that originated from the Aire Valley in Yorkshire, England. With their thick, coarse coats, erect ears, and longer muzzles, Airedale Terriers bear some resemblance to hyenas.

Their tan and black wiry coats and alert, intelligent expression add to their hyena-esque look.

Airedales make loyal, protective pets and working dogs. They were bred to hunt vermin and small game by the River Aire in the 1800s. Today, they work as police dogs and search and rescue dogs. Their high energy and working drive make them better suited for active homes.

With proper socialization and training, Airedales get along well with children and other pets.

The Tosa Inu

The imposing Tosa Inu is a rare Japanese mastiff breed renowned for its large, muscular build. They make intimidating guard dogs and have historically been used in dog fighting. Weighing over 135 pounds at maturity, Tosa Inus are one of the largest breeds in the world.

With their broad heads, cropped ears, and brindle coats, Tosas have an undeniable hyena look to them. Their massive size and protective temperament only enhance their hyena-esque appearance. Despite their ferocious looks, Tosas can be calm, devoted pets with proper training and socialization.

But their strength and powerful bite make them better suited for experienced dog owners.

The Basenji

Hailing from Central Africa, Basenjis resemble small deer or hyenas. They have pointed ears, tightly curled tails, and athletic frames coated in short, sleek fur. Basenjis don’t bark but make distinctive yodeling vocalizations.

As one of the oldest domesticated breeds, Basenjis have a long history as hunting companions in central Africa. They exhibit their prey drive today in the form of chasing small animals. With their cat-like grooming habits and dislikes of moisture and cold weather, Basenjis are endearingly quirky pets.

Their alert, energetic nature makes them better suited for active households.

Other Hyena-Like Dogs

While no dog perfectly replicates a hyena’s appearance, some bear resemblances in their head shape, coat texture or coloration:

  • The Xoloitzcuintli (Mexican Hairless Dog) has a slender, deer-like build with pricked ears. Its hairless variety resembles a hyena’s coat texture.
  • Salukis, with their narrow faces, arching loins, and short fur coats, have movement and proportions like hyenas.
  • The Beauceron sheepdog, with tan and black coloration and erect ears, mimics some hyena markings.

But most hyena-like breeds exhibit common traits like alert, inquisitive expressions, athletic frames for running and endurance, and natural protective instincts useful for guarding and hunting.

Hyena-Like Characteristics in Dogs

Coat Markings and Coloration

Some dog breeds like the Chinese Shar-Pei and Pharaoh Hound have coat colors and markings that resemble those of hyenas. Shar-Peis often have a grayish coat with a black tongue and black markings around the mouth that look similar to the coloration of spotted hyenas.

Pharaoh Hounds have tan coats with white markings, giving them an appearance not unlike that of striped hyenas.

Erect Ears

Many dogs like the German Shepherd, Siberian Husky, and Australian Cattle Dog have tall, erect ears that stand upright on top of their heads. This ear shape lends them a wolfish or fox-like look but is also reminiscent of a hyena’s tall, pointed ears which help them localize sounds while hunting prey animals in the wild.

Broad Skull Shape

Some molosser breeds such as the Boxer and Mastiff possess incredibly broad, chunky skulls giving their heads a hyena-esque appearance. Their powerful jaws are also very reminiscent of a hyena’s incredibly strong bite.

Researchers have measured Mastiffs biting down with over 550 pounds of force, comparable to estimates for hyena bite force.

Muscular Necks and Shoulders

Heavily muscled working dog breeds like the Bulldog and American Pit Bull Terrier exhibit thick, muscular shoulders and necks similar to those seen among hyenas. These features are adaptations in both hyenas and these dogs for bringing down large prey using sheer strength and powerful bites rather than relying solely on speed.

Key Differences Between Hyena-Like Dogs and Actual Hyenas

Genetic Makeup

While hyena-like dog breeds share some physical similarities with hyenas, their genetic makeup is quite different. Dogs are members of the Canidae family, which includes wolves, foxes, jackals, and coyotes.

Hyenas, on the other hand, are members of the Hyaenidae family, making them more closely related to cats and mongooses. The two species diverged evolutionarily over 55 million years ago.


One of the most notable differences between hyena-like dogs and actual hyenas is their vocalizations. Hyenas are well known for their eerie, laughter-like vocalizations used for communication. Dogs that look like hyenas, such as the Abyssinian Sand Terrier, do not make the same sounds.

While they may howl, growl, and bark, their vocalizations are distinctly canine.

Hunting and Social Behavior

While hyenas are skilled hunters who live in complex clan groups with strict hierarchies, dogs are more reliant on humans for food and display more flexibility in their social structures. Hyena-like dog breeds may retain more primitive hunting instincts than some domesticated dogs, but they can be trained and do not display the same highly organized social behavior of hyenas.

Additionally, unlike hyenas, dog breeds do not typically hunt large prey through coordinated group tactics.


While some dog breeds certainly share physical traits with hyenas due to ancient genetic ties, their temperaments and instincts as domesticated canines set them far apart from true hyenas. Hyena-like dogs may resemble these wild creatures on the outside, but hundreds of years of selective breeding have made them perfect animal companions for humans inside.

The next time you come across a peculiar, hyena-esque dog, you can impress your friends by knowing exactly what kind of breed it is. And you may just decide one of these unique dogs would make a fun and faithful addition to your own family someday!

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