You and your buddies have spent a long day on the trail. It's been a tough hike, and you're ready to pitch camp for the evening. But as you're scouting out a nice location, you hear a snarl from nearby and notice a dark form huddling next to a dead animal. You back away, realizing that you've come face to face with an angry canine. But is it Fido or Lobo? Maybe a coyote? Some kind of hybrid? Your decision may very well determine your reaction.
This article will help you identify wild canines, by providing a brief primer concerning the physical attributes, signs, abundance, and range of the canine species, hikers and other outdoors people are likely to encounter in the U.S. Its best to start with coyotes, the most common and widely distributed of the North American wild canines.
Coyotes are medium-sized canines, most often grayish brown in color; distinguishing features include a black-tipped tail and a black line across the shoulders. The coyote bears a marked resemblance to a smallish German Shepherd-collie mix. These tough little critters will eat just about anything they can handle: mice, squirrels, birds, grasshoppers, and the occasional cow or sheep carcass (it's this habit which has gotten them in trouble with ranchers everywhere). Coyotes are spread throughout most of North America. Unlike the tracks of wolves and feral dogs, coyote prints tend to be long and narrow.
Two wolf species are recognized north of Mexico: the red wolf and the gray (or timber) wolf. Both once ranged throughout much of the United States. Today, red wolves are restricted to a small area of southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana. Gray wolves are also extinct in most parts of the continent, except for Alaska and parts of Canada and the northern U.S. Wolves tend to be larger than other canines, although some dog breeds can exceed their size. These varieties, however, are usually easily recognized. Gray wolves are white to dark gray in color; reds are a rusty red-brown. A sure sign of the presence of wolves is their large, heart-shaped prints, too large to belong to coyotes and most dogs.
Wolves are intelligent big-game hunters and should be treated with caution. However, because wolves are listed as an endangered species in forty-seven of the lower forty-eight states (in Minnesota, they are regarded as "threatened"), they're protected by federal game laws and shouldn't be killed or molested, unless you want to risk a heavy fine or jail sentence.
Feral dogs are simply dogs that have gone wild. Some are free-ranging pets that never went home, some were abandoned by their owners, and others are descended from such animals. Whatever their origins, they're among the most dangerous predators existing today. They're smart, crafty, and usually lack the healthy fear of humans that other wild canines exhibit. Their wolf-like pack behavior makes them especially threatening.
Feral dogs usually live on the fringes of human society -- one thing that our civilizing influence has done is render them incapable of fending entirely for themselves. Garbage dumps are often havened for ferals. These animals can be difficult to distinguish from other wild canines; particularly confusing are plain mixes such as German Shepherd-collie, which can resemble the coyote. However, common sense and a sharp eye can serve to distinguish feral dogs from coyotes and wolves.
Because dogs, wolves, and coyotes are closely related, they can all crossbreed with each other and produce fertile offspring. Recent evidence indicates that red wolves, for example, are the result of extensive crossbreeding between gray wolves and coyotes. Crossbreeding can also produce "coydogs" and "wolfdogs" of varying degrees of parentage. Coydogs and wolfdogs exhibit physical and behavioral traits that are a mixture of their parents. Some of these mixes are quite dangerous. Wolfdogs, popular among many breeders and pet-owners, are particularly vicious; they have been known to kill and maim children.
Whether it's a coyote, wolf, feral dog, or hybrid, a wild canine can be unpredictable and intimidating -- so be careful if you encounter one. Never forget that canines are among the most intelligent and dangerous predators in the natural world, and they're especially effective when working in packs. Your best bet is to leave a wild canine alone. Very few wild animals will bother you unless you bother them first. Just admire this prime example of nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw, then slowly back away and go along your merry way.