Although directly related to our beloved domestic dogs, coyotes, wolves and foxes are truly wild animals that are not suitable for domestication. While there are people that have had pets of these animals, this is really the exception to the rule. However, understanding the natural behavior of wolves, coyotes and foxes can provide some insight into why domestic dogs behave the way they do and how they have changed from their earliest ancestors.
The coyote has a huge natural range, spreading from the southern parts of South America, through Central America and up to the northern edges of Canada and Alaska. There are many different subspecies of coyotes and each subspecies typically has a very specific geographic location where they travel and are consistently found. Coyotes tend to have a set territory, although their range will depend on food, water and environmental conditions.
The coyote is one of the unique species of the Canidae family in that it did not start in Europe and then spread to North America, it actually evolved in North America. Unlike the wild wolf populations, coyotes actually have adjusted to living around humans and many actually live in close proximity to large metropolitan areas and even smaller cities and towns. This ability of the coyote to tolerate human presence and actually adapt to living around people has helped them survive and thrive in areas where other predators have long since abandoned.
Coyotes, unlike wolves, tend to prefer to travel in smaller groups, typically including related coyotes. Many hunt only in pairs and the pack only increases in size until the pups are old enough to branch out on their own, usually at under one year of age. While living in a pack the hierarchy is developed by size and dominance, with a dominant or alpha male and female as leaders then juveniles and pups. Aggression is moderately high within the loosely formed pack that is relatively unstable and highly volatile. Although coyotes are largely nocturnal they are seen in the daylight hours, especially early morning and evening. Coyotes are commonly heard in the spring and fall and these calls signal to others mating status and locations. It seems through studies that coyotes can learn from observing other animals, a trait that some but not all domestic dogs also seem to have.
Coyotes can occasionally breed with domestic dogs, resulting in a hybrid known as a coy-dog. These animals almost always inherit the hunting instinct of the coyote and are not considered to be trainable in the same way a domestic dog is. Often these hybrids have significant genetic health problems and many do not live to breeding age. Coyotes may also breed with wolves, and this cross seems to be very healthy and typically resembles the much larger wolf.
The North American wolf is also known as a gray wolf or a timber wolf, depending on where you are located. These are the largest members of the still existing ancestors of the modern dog, evolving some 300,000 years ago in the Late Pleistocene period. It is interesting to note that there is now some question as to how related dogs are to wolves, however there is a genetic compatibility that very strongly suggests a close common ancestor.
Wolves are less adaptable than the coyote, but they still can be found in many areas of the United States, Canada and even into South and Central America. They are also found in many parts of Europe although their natural range is rather rapidly being depleted in many areas. In some countries wolves are protected by law while in others they are still hunted or even considered to be nuisance animals by farmers and livestock owners.
In general wolves are about the size of a large breed dog, weighing between 50 and 80 pounds, however some may reach weights of over 150 pounds. As a species they have a very thick, heavy double coat and can be found in a variety of colors from solid white or black through to the gray colorations and tans found in the Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes.
Wolves are very social animals, tending to stay together as a family in a pack that is much more structured and stable than that of the coyote. The alpha leader can be a male or a female, and fighting is relatively uncommon within the pack. The young wolves typically remain with their parents in the pack until they mature at two years of age. At this time they still remain submissive to the dominant parent pair and will leave the pack rather than challenge the alpha pair. It is theorized that domestic wolf groups do challenge the parent leaders only because the young adults cannot get away to claim their own territory and establish themselves as a breeding alpha pair.
Studying the body language of wolves including their dominant and submissive stances and postures is almost like looking into the mirror of any breed of domestic dog. They tend to have highly visible expressions that clearly signal fear, excitement, relaxation and challenge. In addition wolves are much more playful with each other, romping and playing with other members of the pack even into maturity. In this aspect they strongly resemble how dogs interact with both companion animals and humans in their life.
Wolves also have a wide range of vocalizations ranging from a haunting howl through to growling and even barking. These vocalizations are clearly a way of communication between wolves and may also be understood by other related species such as dogs and coyotes. Howling is actually encouraged soon after puppies emerge from the den, establishing communication between pack members.
Understanding how wild relatives of domestic dogs interact in their natural environments has become more possible due to advanced types of technology. Through these types of observations scientists and researchers are learning about natural behavior, which is often very different than what is observed by caged or captive wolf and coyote populations. Continued research into the true socialization and behaviors of wolves, coyotes and to a lesser degree foxes and other related species will only enhance our understanding of dog psychology and dog behavior.
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