Coyote – Canis latrans

How do you feel about Coyotes? The spectrum of possible responses to that question is varied and broad. Many people view Coyotes unfavorably, seeing them as little more than vermin. Others are fearful Coyotes, thinking of them as ruthless and cunning predators, worthy only of eradication. Some of these impressions are based on bad experiences with Coyotes–actual or perceived, and others are based on stories and anecdotes.

Other folks feel differently. These people tend to be more open to viewing Coyotes as important elements of a healthy ecosystem–urban or rural. They see Coyotes a beautiful animals with interesting and complex lives and behaviors. These views may also be based on real interactions with Coyotes, or they may come from a general inclination toward viewing all of nature in a more positive light.

Both points of view are worth of deliberation, but neither paints a complete picture. The real animal is much more nuanced and interesting, and in some ways, surprisingly familiar. All Coyotes–even those living in urban areas–engage in a complex set of behaviors that manifest in unique ways in different situations. Misunderstandings and old wives tales muddy the waters when it comes to appreciating the way Coyote actually behave, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

DISCLAIMER: None of what you will read in this article is meant to suggest that Coyotes never come into conflict with humans. They certainly do–on occasion. All wild animals have the potential to cause problems for people under certain circumstances. When issues do occur, it is perfectly legitimate to deal with a nuisance animal in anyway that is legal, ethical, and appropriate on a case by case basis. What is not ok is to subject an entire species to blanket vilifications and sponsored eradication efforts. It is imprudent to condemn an entire species due to limited and isolated unfortunate events.

Opinions on Coyote vary widely, and because of the discordance regarding Coyote behavior it is often difficult to separate truth from fiction. Developing an understanding about what really makes Coyotes tick takes a little bit of effort and an open mind. You may need to try to see them in a different light. A good starting point for gaining a new appreciation of Coyotes and the way they behave is to think of them as if they were dogs. It works, because that is what they are! Coyotes are dogs!

Well, not really.

Coyotes are not technically dogs. And to be clear, this article is not meant to suggest that Coyotes are domestic dogs, or that they can be treated like domestic dogs. No one should come away from reading this post thinking that a Coyote might make a good pet–it will not. In many places it is illegal to keep Coyotes–or any other wild animal. To reiterate for the sake of clarity, no one should attempt to keep a Coyote as a pet.

Taming vs Domestication

Any attempt to keep a Coyote as a pet is ill-advised because Coyotes are wild animals. They have never been domesticated. Coyotes can be tamed to a degree with specialized and expert care, but the required investment in time and effort is great–much more so than the average person can typically provide.

The process of domestication is different than that of taming. You can tame a wild animal by convincing it that it has nothing to fear from you. In addition, many animals are food motivated. Teaching an animal that it can rely on you for food also helps with the process of taming. But, a tamed animal will always remain wild at heart.

Domestication is more complicated. It involves selective breeding, and can take generations to achieve. Domestication in many animals seems to involve locking in certain adolescent traits and behaviors in order in endow an animal with adult size and abilities, while making sure it retains the agreeability and dependence of a juvenile. The process often results in a deep and ingrained reliance on human care for the animal being domesticated.

Scientific AmericanMan’s new best friend? A forgotten Russian experiment in fox domestication

Dogs are fully domesticated animals. Coyotes are, and will always remain, wild animals. And, as mentioned earlier, no one should ever attempt to keep a Coyote as a pet. Also to be discouraged is simply attempting to engage a wild Coyote in any way. Although Coyote attacks on people are extremely rare, it remains important to recognize that Coyotes are capable predators, and as such they deserve prudence and respect. Trouble with Coyotes should never be courted. No attempt to feed or otherwise befriend a wild Coyote should ever be made. Doing so is completely ill-advised.

Neither should anything you read here be interpreted as a suggestion that encouraging dogs and Coyotes to interact is a good idea. Any attempt to do so risks disaster–it is a very bad idea. The goal of this article is only to draw a correlation between the similarities in behavior between dogs and Coyotes for the purpose of providing context. We do this only in order to create a relatable frame of reference for illustrating some of the reasons why Coyotes behave as they do.

Coyotes and Dogs

The argument can be made that Coyotes and Domestic Dogs are very similar animals. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it is very close. Coyotes and dogs are both members of the canine family. Coyotes are a distinct species and have been given the scientific name Canis latrans, while Domestic Dogs are though of as a subspecies of the Gray Wolf and go by the scientific name Canis lupus familiaris.

As a brief aside, its worth noting that people love dogs. We love our dogs, maybe more so than any other animal companion. But, people feel differently about wild canines like wolves and Coyotes. It is odd that the domestic animal that we seem to admire the most, draws the most ire in its wild form. Few animals have been persecuted and targeted more intensely than wolves, Coyotes, and the like.

Coyotes and dogs share many characteristics and behaviors. There are certainly a number of important differences as well, but it’s easy to see that Coyote have more in common with certain breeds of dog than some breeds of dog have with other breeds of dogs. See the pictures below and judge for yourself!

Great Dane compared to a Chihuahua

Great Danes and Chihuahuas belong to the same species–Canis lupus familiaris.
Could they be any more different?

Coyote compared to a Border Collie

Coyotes (right) are very similar to Border Collies (left) in size, weight, form, and function

Dogs readily recognize their shared kinship with Coyotes, and they have even been known to take up and associate with wild Coyotes when a suitable opportunity presents itself. Dogs need friends, and Coyotes will evidently suffice in a pinch. The fact that Coyotes will sometimes tolerate the presence of dogs is very revealing as well.

A dog working hard to befriend a lone Coyote. The Coyote is not so sure.
Thanks to Kari Waddle for the video share.

Science tells us that Coyotes can even breed with Domestic Dogs and produce fertile offspring. The same is true for all North American species in the genus Canis. Gray Wolves, Mexican Wolves, Eastern Wolves, Red Wolves, Coyotes, and Domestic Dogs can all interbreed and produce fertile hybrids. All of these species already possess a certain amount of shared DNA, making them all hybrids to one degree or another. Of course, there are behavioral, physiological, and environmental obstacles to interbreeding in the wild, but it is still possible, and it has occasionally been documented.

National Library of MedicineAssessment of coyote-wolf-dog admixture using ancestry informative diagnostic SNPs

Shared Behaviors

Coyote droppings including persimmon seeds–Persimmons are a favorite food of Coyotes where available

When observing wild Coyotes its not difficult to notice physiological similarities they share with dogs. Lanky bodies, long tails, large swiveling ears, and extended narrow snouts filled with sharp teeth. Both animals are primarily carnivorous, but Coyotes and dogs are more than willing to consume vegetable matter under certain circumstances. Fruits and beans are favorites.

Coyotes are social animals, but to a slightly lesser degree than dogs and wolves. Still, they rely on group dynamics to enhance survivability. Animals operating in social groups support each other and act as force multipliers. Social animals have special behaviors that help them thrive as members of a group. Things like social hierarchies and gender roles are important and innate survival mechanisms.

Social carnivores, in particular, must rely on especially strong bond-relationships, such as friendship, loyalty, love of mate, familial love, and tribalism. Because carnivores are killers by their very nature, they require enhanced feeling of attachment to override their potential danger to each other. They form deep and lasting attachments with other members of their group. Social predators might otherwise be a danger to each other if bonding emotions did not run interference with their instinct to kill.

A Coyote raiding a cache of apples.

You can see a glimmer of these enhanced bonding-behaviors every time you offer your pet dog a treat. When you hand your dog a treat–a small piece of chicken, for instance–your dog somehow knows where the chicken ends and your fingers begin. Dogs have a great deal of respect for that boundary. It’s remarkable, really. A piece of chicken and your fingers are basically made of the same stuff. Both are meat, and both can serve as food quite readily. Dogs know not to eat their family members. Coyotes do too!

A mother Coyote entertains attention from her young pup deep in the woods

Both Coyotes and dogs engage with other members of their group in similar ways. Expressions of greeting, submission, and dominance are virtually identical in both species. Dogs and Coyotes play in the same way. They share many scent marking behaviors–such as the habit of kicking and scratching the ground after elimination, and urinating on vertical surfaces or piles of vegetation.

A pair of Coyotes greeting each other on a suburban golf course.
Coyotes scent marking their home territory
A Coyote pup plays keep away with his litter mates using a discarded plastic jug as the prize

Self-Domestication

It has been suggested that dogs are essentially domesticated Gray Wolves. Some schools of thought proffer the idea that Gray Wolves actually self-domesticated–slowly becoming dogs because they had an innate affinity for humans. Likewise, people also find canines uniquely appealing. Canines value family and loyalty. They posses bravery and a strong work ethic. These are traits people admire. Coyotes possess these traits as well.

Further, there is a mutual benefit to the association. Humans share resources like food and shelter, and dogs/Wolves contribute special abilities like alertness and hunting skill. A positive feedback loop developed over time that encouraged an ever deepening relationship between canines and people.

PBS NatureWhat caused the domestication of wolves?

Self domestication may have happened with other animal as well. Examples of it may even be occurring in modern times. Some believe that Red Foxes in United Kingdom are deep into the process of self-domestication. It seems possible that urban Coyotes in North America are currently at some stage of doing something similar. Coyotes also appear to have a natural affinity for human populations. They have adapted readily to urban survival, which allows them to thrive in our cities and suburbs. There is something about human communities that exerts a powerful draw on certain canine species. The affinity appears to be ingrained.

Smithsonian MagazineLondon Foxes Show Early Signs of Self-Domestication

A Coyote passing through a suburban neighborhood

So, will the Coyote self-domesticate in the same way Gray Wolves did? It’s improbable. The kind of accommodation required seems highly unlikely to happen, and would require a radical shift in human attitudes and behaviors. It’s doubtful that modern humans will ever be willing to bring Coyotes into their lives in the same way our ancestors were able to with wolves. It’s just not a practical thing to do in modern society.

Urban Coyotes

Coyotes have adapted well to urban and suburban areas. In Dallas/Fort Worth you can expect to find Coyotes almost any place you choose to look. We have thousands of Coyotes in the metroplex. They survive in our neighborhoods, parks, greenbelts, and golf courses. Coyotes can be found in urban downtowns and in places like business parks, school campuses, and warehouse districts.

A lone Coyote in a urban greenbelt park

It turns out that urban areas can actually be good Coyote habitat. To be clear, initial development is often very hard on Coyotes and other wild animals. We cannot build anything in North Texas without putting everything under a bulldozer first. The disruption to the resident wildlife is immense. But once development ends and a community begins to mature, our more adaptable wildlife will readily move back in–Coyotes included.

Many of our long-established neighborhoods–with their extensive landscaping and trees–are basically forests with houses. Business parks and other similar developments usually include lush landscaping and are often built around systems of lakes and ponds. These kind of features create excellent ecosystems for Coyotes and many other species of North Texas wildlife.

Wild animals cannot survive in places that do not have enough resources to support them. Further, Coyotes are very mobile creatures–if a certain location does not provide for them adequately, Coyotes are very capable of moving on to someplace that does. If Coyotes are present in any given area, it can only be because that place provides for them in a way that meets their needs.

People surround themselves with abundance–its one of the things we do well. Coyotes quickly learn to leverage that abundance to their own advantage, as do many other wild animals. Other examples include rabbits, rats, squirrels, and waterfowl. Many of these smaller critters are plentiful in urban areas, and it just so happens that these critters are also preferred prey species for Coyotes. If your neighborhood has any of these animals, then you can be reasonably sure you have Coyotes in your midst as well.

Coyotes have also adapted well to challenges posed by traffic and other human activity. They learn where and when it is safe to cross busy streets. Further, Coyotes are highly motivated to avoid contact with people, and they work hard to find seclusion in places that few people visit–such as vacant lots or forgotten corners of public parks. Coyotes typically hunker down during the day, preferring to come out at night to patrol and hunt–but daytime activity is never out of the question.

Urban Coyotes have learned how to manage the challenges posed by busy streets

When Coyotes and people cross paths, the Coyotes are most often encountered alone or in pairs. Two coyotes running together usually represents a mated pair. More that two Coyotes together most often represent a family group consisting of two mated adults and several nearly grown offspring.

But, Coyotes are so good at avoiding contact with people that they are very rarely seen–even in places where they are numerous. When a Coyote is observed in an urban setting, the Coyote will usually respond by trying to break off the contact by fleeing or otherwise increasing separation between themselves and the person.

The reaction of the person, on the other hand, is typically surprise and concern. When a Coyote is spotted, most people believe it is because the Coyote has just arrived on the scene. Many folks will report the sighting to authorities, assuming the Coyote is dangerous and that it must be dealt with.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In all likelihood Coyotes have been living in the immediate area for generations. If they were not causing trouble before they were seen, it is unlikely they will begin causing problems after they have been observed. Typically, municipal animal control will not respond to these types of reports, because most of the time encountering a Coyote is simply not a situation that requires intervention. Observing a Coyote does not imply that there is a problem that needs to be dealt with.

Coyotes are easy to miss in an urban environment

Problems with Coyotes

While the potential for problems with wild Coyotes is often exaggerated, the possibility does exists. Coyotes become problems most often when they come into conflict with our pets or livestock. On extremely rare occasions the problem may become even more serious, such as when a Coyote attacks a person.

The “biggest Coyote you’ve ever seen”
is only going to be around 40 to 45 pounds

Coyotes are wild animals, and they have the potential to be dangerous to people and pets under certain circumstances. But in general, there is little to fear from them so long as they are given the proper leeway and respect. Still, it is import to remember that different people have different affinities for animals. Coyotes can sometime sense this, and it can effect the way they behave in a close encounter. Caution and good judgement is always warranted when crossing paths with a wild animal.

In an ironic twist, the Coyote’s innate predilection for people is often countered by their natural fear of us. In urban areas, Coyotes are very cautious, and usually go to great length to avoid detection by people. Nothing illustrates this aspect of Coyote behavior better than attempting to photograph these animals. Coyotes that have not been habituated will almost always attempt to disengage just as soon as they recognize that they have attracted the attention of a person.

Maintaining this natural estrangement is an important key to successfully sharing our communities with Coyotes and other wild animals. This is one reason why most experts recommend never feeding Coyotes–or any other type of wildlife for that matter. Some will go even further and suggest avoiding engaging with Coyotes at all. It’s good advice. Direct conflict between people and Coyotes usually results from attempts to circumvent the cautious nature of Coyotes.

Feeding Coyotes is sometimes used in a misguided way to befriend or tame wild Coyotes. Some believe that feeding benefits the Coyotes, but nothing could be further from the truth. In-person feeding breaks down a Coyote’s natural inclination to avoid direct contact with people. Even worse, a fed Coyote will soon come to expect all people it encounters to provide food. Bold Coyotes will sometimes even approach people and demand to be fed. This is where the trouble begins. When direct conflict between people and urban Coyotes occurs, feeding is most often the root of the problem behavior. And once Coyotes and people come into conflict, culling of the Coyotes in question almost always follows. It’s like the experts say, “A fed Coyote is a dead Coyote.” Trying to engage, befriend, or feed wild Coyotes is always a bad idea.

Habituated Coyote – A Coyotes that has lost its fear of human due to people feeding the Coyote in person or otherwise engaging the animal in an inappropriate way.

Many folks also worry about Coyotes and rabies. But, Coyotes are not typically a rabies vector species in Texas. Normally the state only confirms one or two cases of rabies in Coyotes each year. In general, the threat of rabies being transmitted to people by Coyotes is very small, but it is not nonexistent. Coyotes can–and sometimes do–contract rabies. A Coyote bite should always be medically evaluated and reported to authorities.

Bats and skunks are the rabies vectors in Texas… not Coyotes.
There were no documented cases of rabies in Coyote from 2020 to 2021
Click here for source document

People generally have very little to fear from wild Coyotes, but keeping our pets safe is a little different. Coyotes are opportunistic predators. Their lives are difficult and challenging. Securing enough food to survive another day is of utmost importance. If Coyotes are raising pups, the ante is upped even more. Hunting is a low-percentage activity. Even the best Coyote hunters have many more failed attempts than successes. What this means is that when the opportunity to secure prey presents itself, a Coyote cannot afford to pass it up.

Coyotes typically hunt individually, even when moving through an area as a group. Coyotes do not ordinarily hunt cooperatively in packs the same way wolves do. Because of this, the prey animals Coyotes pursue tend to be small in size. Rats, rabbits, waterfowl, and other similarly sized animals make up the bulk of their diets. In urban area small pets can sometimes become vulnerable to Coyote predation, if they are not properly supervised by their human owners. Feral cats can also fall prey to hungry Coyotes.

The key to keeping your pets safe in areas where Coyotes exist (which is everywhere in DFW) begins by first recognizing that is possible that Coyotes are present. Acknowledging this reality is simply another aspect of protecting and taking care of your pets. In the same way that you most take steps to protect your pets from disease, automobile traffic, poisons, being sprayed by skunks, snake bites, insect stings, serious injuries, ill-intentioned people, and other pets, you must also take step to protect your pets from Coyotes. Fortunately, on the list of critical dangers to pets, the threat from Coyotes is near the bottom of the list. Coyote attacks on pets are rare. Most pets and their owners will never experience a problem with Coyotes.

A pet owner encounters a Coyote. The Coyote is giving a wide berth in order to avoid conflict

Nonetheless, it pays to be prudent. Cats should be kept indoors (for a multitude of reasons–not just because of Coyotes). Walk your dogs on a leash and keep them close when outside. Know that Coyotes are present and that you might encounter one. Be prepared if it happens. Have a plan to increase the distance between you and the Coyote–and if necessary, be prepared to haze the Coyote if it continues to approach. Don’t leave your small pets unattended outside for long periods of times. Even pets in fenced backyards can be vulnerable.

Hazing – the act of making noise or making yourself appear larger or more threatening for the purposes of discouraging a Coyote from further engagement.

Old Wives Tales

There is one particularly tenacious old wives tale that pops up on the internet almost every time the subject of Coyotes and dogs comes up. The idea that Coyote packs conspire to lure and kill dogs is a deep seated belief held by many. The story goes like this, a pack of Coyotes will send out a lone member to tempt and entice a dog to follow. The Coyote will then lead the unsuspecting dog back to a place where the rest of the group is waiting in ambush with the intent to kill.

I’ve never seen any evidence that Coyotes ever engage in this type of behavior, much less do it on the regular. The idea sounds especially spurious when it is spelled out in this level of detail. There are a number of problems with the idea that Coyotes engage in this kind of intrigue. Perhaps the most important–as mentioned earlier–is the idea that Coyotes hunt in packs the same way that wolves do. They do not. Coyotes do protect territories as family groups, but they do not engage in cooperative hunting in the same way as wolves. Coyotes typically hunt singly or in pairs. Coyotes usually pursue small game, and they do so individually, even when hunting with a companion. Cooperation during hunting only occurs under certain special circumstances–such as when a large animal is injured or otherwise restrained.

Coyote Territories

Coyotes are motivated to seek out and hold the most productive territories they can find. This is especially important in urban areas. Places rich in resources such as seclusion, food, water, and shelter are the most desirable. When Coyotes do acquire prime territory, they will work hard to hold it. All the while other Coyotes may be working equally hard to displace the current holders in order to take over. It can be a very dynamic situation, and factors like age, injury, and disease can have a tremendous effect on outcomes. One thing you can be sure of is that in urban areas, territory ownership and boundaries are in a constant state of flux. And, Coyotes that lose their hold on a territory are at a decided disadvantage. Unfamiliar areas make hunting and navigation much more challenging. Roadkill Coyotes are often those that have been displaced and are not familiar with traffic patterns outside their old home territory.

Territorial Defense – Coyotes are in a constant struggle to gain and hold prime locations in urban environments. It is a very dynamic situation, and territorial boundaries are in a constant state of flux.

A Coyote family group lounges in a vacant lot–part of a business park in Garland, Texas

At any time, you can also expect a certain number of loner and transient Coyotes to be in the mix. These Coyotes may be looking for mates and/or territories to call their own. This situation makes Coyote on Coyotes encounters especially interesting. When Coyotes meet each other for the first time there are a couple of possible outcomes. The new acquaintances may meet each other in friendship and engage in play. In these types of situations Coyotes greet each other with licks and tail wags. There will be expressions of submission and dominance. In some cases they may go even further and become companions or mates.

In other case, Coyotes may engage each other with more ambivalence. Coyotes protecting their territory as a family groups are not always open to intruders. Engagements like these may be settled with demonstrations of dominance, or they may require varying levels of violence to resolve.

Dog owners may recognize their pets interact with each other in much the same way. Dogs meeting each other for the first time may become friends, or they may become blood enemies–quite often dog relationships settle out somewhere in between these two extremes. Only the dogs know the reasons why.

When Dogs and Coyotes Interact

When dogs and Coyotes interact with each other, the outcomes are virtually identical to Coyote-Coyote interactions–especially when the animals involved are close in size and weight. Relative size is an important factor; if the dog is smaller, then the Coyote will have the upper hand. If the dog is larger, the situation is reversed. Numbers also matter. More Coyotes have the advantage over fewer dogs. If the dogs outnumber the Coyotes, then the upper hand goes to them. Both Coyote and Dog behavior is affected by group dynamics. Just like with teenage humans, Coyotes and Dogs can become emboldened by the presence of their peers, and they may behave more rashly as a consequence.

When Coyotes and dogs encounter each other, both animals recognize their kinship. They communicate with shared body language and other behaviors. In many ways you can expect an encounter between these two species to transpire in much the same way as if it were a pair of dogs meeting each other. The encounter can be a friendly one. The animals may play and associate for extended periods of time. Dogs need friends, and they will sometimes stick with amenable Coyotes until a more appealing alternative presents itself.

A Coyote and dog patrolling together in a remote area near the Trinity River in DFW

It is also possible that encounters like these will produce a negative outcome. Dogs and Coyotes may even fight. Serious injury or death are possible, just as they are when dogs fight with each other. And finally, it is possible that the two animals will choose not to engage at all, and both will cautiously go their separate ways.

Almost certainly dogs perceive Coyotes as other dogs. Coyotes on the other hand are wild animals, and they see things a little differently. By the very nature of their existence they have to take life more seriously than dogs do. Coyotes are less inclined to engage in out of the ordinary behaviors than their more affable dog associates. That means that Coyotes are decidedly less open to accepting the company of a wandering dog. In ever case I have documented, the Coyotes only very begrudgingly indulged the dogs, and then broke off the association at the first opportune moment. Dogs also readily break off associations with Coyotes, often just as soon as a better option presents itself–like going home at the end of the day for dinner!

Conclusions

Attitudes about certain animals–once acquired–can be difficult to leave behind, but where Coyotes are concerned, it’s worth making the effort. Coyotes are so numerous and so adaptable that there is little chance that they could every be permanently eliminated from an area, even with a concerted effort. In fact, Coyotes are actually expanding their range all across the United States. Whether we like it or not, Coyotes will be sharing our neighborhoods and communities for the foreseeable future. That doesn’t have to be bad news. As you can now see, Coyotes and dogs are very similar animals. They share a large number of common traits and behaviors. There really are things to find appealing about these animals. Coyotes and dogs often behave in similar ways for similar reasons. If you would like to try and develop an appreciation for Coyotes, along with a deeper understanding of why they do the things that they do, you can begin by applying what you already know about dog behavior to Coyotes.

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