Welcome to the first part of our two-part series on how to effectively communicate with your pet coyote. This installment discusses the crucial aspect of coyote body language. I would be lying if I said pet coyotes are as safe to keep as pets as domestic dogs. While they can be captive-bred and tame, coyotes are not and cannot be domestic animals. Even a well behaved domestic dog can hurt you just as bad as a coyote can. However coyotes are more likely to act out than domestic if you make them unhappy as they have not been domesticated over thousands of years. If you want to get a pet coyote and actually enjoy and feel comfortable around your animal, you must learn to read their body language.
Why Understand Pet Coyote Body Language?
I have never felt unsafe being alone in an enclosure with a coyote. They are about the same size as a husky (maybe even smaller), and are incredibly playful animals. The real reason I am sure of my safety, however, is the fact that I can read their body language. Coyotes aren’t evil monsters who are going to attack you for no good reason. If your pet coyote is upset, they will let you know before lashing out, you just have to learn to speak their language!
The issue comes with the fact that many people think coyotes communicate in the same way domestic dogs do, which can lead to misinterpreting what the animal is trying to tell you. Understanding coyote body language is not just about safety, either, It’s about deepening the bond between you and your pet. Misinterpreting a coyote’s body language can lead to unnecessary fear or aggression, putting both the animal and the owner at risk, but there’s more at stake here. An owner’s failure to understand playful gestures as expressions of joy and companionship, and instead viewing them as threats of aggression, can lead to a lack of interaction that deprives your coyote of much-needed enrichment and attention.
Decoding Coyote Body Language
This is an example of coyote body language that is very simple to understand. It’s easy to see this coyote is happy! He has a big smile on his face, wide eyes and an unfurrowed brow, and erect ears. Although the photo does not capture it, this coyote is also wagging his tail.
Happy Coyote Body Language and Ears
Don’t mistake laid back ears for aggression or fear! Happy and playful coyotes lay their ears back too. The image below is an example of a happy coyote with it’s ears laid back. Context is key when it comes to coyote body language. This is a photo taken during playtime that can be compared with other body language examples below.
When a coyote is showing outright aggression, it will heavily arch its back, lower its head, and keep its tail down. This is a sign you need to back off because an attack is imminent.
This is an image of a young, frightened coyote.
When your coyote is afraid or distressed, it will do something known as a “jaw-gape” where the it opens its mouth slightly, as well as flatten its ears back against its head and lower its tail between its legs.
This coyote is uncertain about what is going on. It’s standing up with its ears erect, head lowered slightly, brow furrowed and eyes looking forward, and tail hanging low. In cases like this, it is best not to approach the coyote, but instead to back off and sit down quietly to let it know you are a friend. Treats are always helpful, but do not try and force contact when a coyote looks like this.
This coyote is playing and having a good time, but is feeling possessive of his ball. When you see coyote body language like this–with a furrowed brow, raised hackles, and ears tilted back–do not attempt to take what it has. That is how you get bit!
Understanding Coyote Play Behavior
Signs your Coyote Wants to Play
Generally, when domestic dogs as you to play with them, they will perform a “play bow” and then pounce. When coyotes want to play, however, they will still do a play bow like dogs, but then move their head side to side, spin around rapidly, and then dive to the ground and do something similar to a summersault. Often times, an invitation to play from a coyote may be accompanied by them leaping up at you and nipping after its spins and dives.
Aggressive Coyote Body Language While Playing
There are often cases where coyote body language may be mistaken for aggression to the untrained eye, with play being one such case. While engaging in play, a coyote’s ears alternate between a flattened state and an upright position. Its lips retract, forming an expression almost identical to a submissive grin, but the corners of its mouth raise to form a “play face.” The eyes of the coyote become slightly squinted as the outer corners rise. Although the coyote’s mouth is partly open, showing its teeth in a way that could be mistaken for an aggression, this is actually a sign of playfulness! Coyotes will lunge and bite with controlled force, signaling their intention of playful combat rather than actual aggression.
Why Do Coyotes Play Fight?
Play fighting in coyotes is for more than amusement; it is crucial for the development of coyotes, who still retain all of their wild instincts, unlike domestic dogs. As Linsey spoke about in our red fox October Crazies article, wild animals born in captivity aren’t aware they no longer need their wild instincts. To the coyotes, play-fighting still serves as essential practice for the skills they need for survival.
Fox, M. W. (1970). A Comparative Study of the Development of Facial Expressions in Canids; Wolf, Coyote and Foxes. Behaviour, 36(1-2), 49–73. https://doi.org/10.1163/156853970×00042
Silver, H., & Silver, W. T. (1969). Growth and Behavior of the Coyote-Like Canid of Northern New England with Observations on Canid Hybrids. Wildlife Monographs, 17, 3–41. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3830473