Nature Stories: Tracking the Family Dog by Mary Holland
Identifying tracks in the snow can be daunting, especially if the snow is light and fluffy, leaving few details of the animal’s foot. However, on days when snow conditions allow nails and pads to be seen, there are ways of finding out what creatures have been active. While the dimensions of a track, as well as the length of the stride of an animal and the width of its trail are crucial aids to identification, there are other traits to take into consideration. A primer on the dog family illustrates the kind of observations that are helpful in identifying tracks.
There are four members of Canidae, the dog family, that you may encounter in the Northeast: domestic dog, gray fox, red fox and coyote. All of these canids have four toe pads that register in the substrate. They all have thick, unretractable nails, some of which also usually register. The track they leave is, as a rule, longer than it is wide, creating an oval impression (as opposed to a cat’s roundish track). In most cases, you can imagine drawing an “X” in the spaces between the toe pads and the large metatarsal, or heel, pad behind them. All members of the dog family share these characteristics, which can make their tracks relatively challenging to distinguish from one another.
There are a few helpful traits for telling a domestic dog, fox and coyote track apart. To begin with, although their ranges do overlap, you often find wild canid tracks on man-made trails and back roads, far from where domestic dogs would tend to travel. A look at the trail that the tracks make will help determine whether it’s a domestic dog or a wild canid. Because they know they don’t have to worry about filling their bellies, dogs are often quite aimless when they are out and about; their tracks tend to be less purposeful and wander all over the place. Foxes and coyotes are intent on finding their next meal, and don’t waste precious energy taking unnecessary steps. Thus, their trails often are less sloppy than domestic dogs’ and much straighter. In addition, foxes and coyotes have a tendency to direct register – place their hind feet exactly where their front feet have been. Dogs sometimes do this, but more often the front and hind foot tracks are not precisely on top of one another. A close look at the details of the track of a dog will show that the toes are splayed out, the nail of each toe pointed in a different direction. The toes of foxes and coyotes are usually tight together, with the inner two pointing straight ahead, and the outer two toes somewhat behind them.
Distinguishing fox from coyote tracks is a bit more difficult. The width of a fox’s trail (straddle) is narrower than that of a coyote, as foxes are considerably smaller. Foxes are very agile, and their tracks often go along fallen logs and stonewalls (gray foxes even climb trees); coyotes tend to be more grounded. Individual fox tracks have a delicate appearance, even in snow. They are small, and there is quite a bit of space between their toe pads and the metatarsal pad. Because they are very hairy, red fox feet do not always reveal this in snow, but in mud and in good winter tracking conditions, it is possible to see the imprint of a raised ridge on the back of the front foot’s metatarsal pad. This ridge can be straight or slightly curved, like a chevron, and can help distinguish the red fox from the gray. Both species of foxes have semiretractable nails, whereas coyotes don’t retract their nails. Consequently, coyote tracks will almost always show at least one or two nail marks – fox tracks may not.