“Thoughts on Dogs and Coyotes” by Charles Wood

Over the last year the encounters between my dog and “my” coyotes have escalated into confrontations.  A year ago I could unleash my sixty pound dog in their field and successfully manage their infrequent interactions.  I’ve come to understand that my past success was influenced by chance and happenstance to a greater degree than I previously thought.  Today I consider my entering their field as potentially unsafe and provocative.  In contrast, other people use that field at times and have told me they have not seen coyotes there.  Young boys use a part of the field for bicycling, having built earthworks for that purpose.  Transients at times sleep there.  Groundskeepers make their appointed rounds.  Teenagers party.  Towards these other field users, the coyotes have remained a “ghost species”, perhaps because they don’t bring dogs with them.  My dog and I have caused the coyotes to single us out for increasingly confrontational treatment.  It took a year for those changes to develop, a testament to the coyotes’ natural tendency to avoid people.

By chance and happenstance I mean factors that influence coyote behavior.  At root their behavior is about food and reproduction.  Coyotes live mostly in family groups.  Consequently, if you see one coyote there is a good chance there is at least one more present nearby.  It doesn’t seem likely that one coyote and an equally or greater sized unleashed dog will seriously injure each other.  My opinion is that mature breeding coyote pairs together are smarter and stronger than one dog of their size or larger and that coyotes don’t play by the rules that a typical pet dog expects.  The encounters between a larger unleashed dog and such pairs seem to me to be advantaged to the coyotes.  The proximity of a human and the degree of human control exercised over the dog become critical to the outcome of such an encounter.

An unleashed larger dog appears to a coyote as an interloper, and intruder.  Coyotes are known to be intolerant of interloper coyotes.  Coyotes will defend their food sources and their young.  Their options in so doing are legion and their choice of tactics is perhaps situational.  My situation is that my dog foraged, he did not simply walk through the area and/or chase my coyotes.  Also, my dog interacted with a mated pair.  My observations of my coyotes and my interloper dog took place over the last year or so.  The contact with the coyotes began with them simply showing themselves.  They seemed to be saying, hey, you’ve smelled me and my markings, why are you still here?  After a time of being in view, they would withdraw into the brush.  At some point later Dad would attempt to sneak up behind my dog, presumably to deliver a nip to his haunches, nips I could prevent by yelling.  As time passed and I ignored these messages, Dad escalated to warning bark sessions after which he would return to the brush.  Barking sessions were later replaced by more aggressive displays of marking, scraping and mock charging followed by partial withdrawals where he remained in full view.  If we didn’t leave, he would begin those aggressive displays again.  Later, to those types of aggressive displays, Dad at times seemed purposed to separate me from my dog where I read his intent as to engage my dog in combat.  Mom recently temporarily separated me from my dog although we were on opposites sides of a chain link fence.

These behaviors developed over about a year, and about a month ago, Mom also began mock charges, marking and scraping without retreating from view.  I should mention that the zone of intolerance increased beyond their field and into other areas where my dog and I had never had problems with them.  My read of my dog is that he would not visit those coyotes of his own accord and that he has felt that way for some time.  Also, much of the time when we walk along the river bank or go to the bridge, we don’t see any coyotes.  When we do, many times my coyotes don’t behave aggressively.  I can’t predict when they will or when they won’t.  When I do see them, it is for an insignificant fraction of their day and I never know what kind of day they had.

Several years ago in a different area, at dusk, two coyotes followed my dog and me as we were leaving.  On the crest of a hill, one of the coyotes ran out in view of my dog while the other remained behind crouching.  My dog stupidly chased the moving coyote down the hill out of my sight.  The crouching coyote did not follow my dog, perhaps because I was present.  Perhaps the coyotes were practicing, but clearly my dog was at risk of being defeated in a frontal and rear attack.  I hadn’t visited that other area very often, yet those other coyotes engaged my dog at a level it has taken a year for my usual coyotes to approach.  Once, in that other area, my dog was off leash and out of my view.  I called him and he didn’t come.  I began to look for him and soon saw him running full speed towards the exit which is located about a mile from where we were.  I called him, he momentarily paused, missed one step in his galloping gate and looked me in the eye.  His look and body language said to me, “Forget it, I’m outta here buddy!”  It took me a while to catch up to him near the exit.  I believe he was responding to some wildness directed towards him by a coyote, again, one of my first visits to that other area.  Here again I am speaking to the unpredictability of coyote behavior, the reason the experts advise us, upon seeing a coyote, to go the other way.  We can choose to do so.  An unleashed dog may decide to chase the coyote and the outcome may or may not be consequential to the chasing dog.

Part of the unpredictability of coyote behavior could be attributable to the fact that the circumstances in which coyotes find themselves change over time.  Food may be plentiful one year and scarce the next.  A female may lack a mate one year and acquire one the next.  One year there may be no puppies and the next there may be several that survive for months or longer.  I have no idea why the coyote I call Mom recently became aggressive when for the longest time she was timid and obsequious.

I want to reiterate that the behaviors of escalating aggression I observed over a year were behaviors that I elicited by ignoring the messages the coyotes were giving me.  My behaviors caused the increasingly aggressive behaviors I observed.  From the point of view of the coyotes, my behavior was that of a perpetual repeat offender.  I continually brought my dog, whom they perceive as an intruding competitor, into their home.  I had decided to give my 60 pound dog a little space with coyotes in order to find out for myself what would happen.  I don’t like what happened.  My behavior was to repeatedly intrude into their home range and seek contact and take pictures.  My unwise dog used the space I gave him to seek food and to disturb the coyote family.  The coyotes’ home range contains their children and their food, the two things coyotes care most about.  They responded accordingly.  After all, coyote behavior is rooted in food and reproduction.

I’ve wondered, considering how little territory my coyotes occupy, how it was that rabbits were always present.  Why weren’t the rabbits depleted and why hadn’t the coyotes moved on?  One reason is rabbits reproduce rapidly.  Another is that other rabbits nearby come in and take over the space formerly occupied by rabbits that the coyotes ate.  The same kind of habitat seeking applies to coyotes.  Removal or extermination creates empty habitat for other coyotes to find and occupy.  The idea that “something must be done” about coyotes is simply an idea that is obsolete.  Coyote survival in urban and suburban areas doesn’t depend at all on how many are removed or killed.  Their ability to find and use habitat in urban and suburban areas depends on how we behave towards and think about coyotes.  Understanding the nature of coyotes helps us to manage our lives in ways that minimize unwanted contacts with them.  Coyote presence requires us to change a little.

Coyotes Differ from Dogs

A coyote might resemble a small German Shepherd when you first spot it. Western coyotes are relatively small, averaging about 25-30 pounds, with a 26″ height and a 5 foot length including the tail. The tail, which is a key distinguishing characteristic, is very full and cylindrically shaped and is not normally held up high: rather it is always lower than horizontal. The tail ends in a black tip.

Coyotes are tri-colored, including white, black and brown — the brown runs from reddish to yellowish. Their over-all look from a distance ranges from brownish to grayish, and they often have distinctive patterns of color on their backs, but always with variations of a black and white fan-shaped stripe across the upper-mid back. A coyote has a thick undercoat plus outer weather guard hairs. In the fall and winter coyotes gain a much fuller coat which make them appear larger than they do in the springtime, when they can look very, very thin, after loosing these winter coats. The coyote’s underbelly, inner legs, and chest area in front of its front legs are white.

Compared to dogs, coyotes have a much longer snout, they are very thin and lithe. The long, thin snout may help them retrieve gophers and voles from burrows — I have actually seen a coyote “dive” head first into such a hole after the rodent has stuck its head out. Their thin and lithe bodies make them very quick. Cheek fur actually makes the coyote’s face look wider and emphasizes the thinness of the snout. The coyote’s bones, tendons and muscles are made so it can run after prey, leap and twist when pursuing quick moving small prey, and lope a long period of time without tiring.

Their high intelligence, aided by their very keen senses — hearing seeing and smelling are very acute —  has helped them survive in the wild and adapt to entirely new environments. They use their ears, which are triangular shaped and point up, to communicate with each other. Backs of their ears are a rusty red. They have yellow eyes, which can see in very dim light.

Coyotes are very secretive and and are very evasive, which is why most people don’t see them. They are naturally fearful and cautious of humans. However, you may see a bolder one right out in the open, quite unconcerned, maybe on a hillside. They keep their dens well hidden, keeping several of these as alternatives. This way, when fleas build up, or if the coyotes feel a threat is nearby, they move on to one of their other dens. They dig these themselves sometimes, but sometimes they just fix up hollows which they have found. Only 5-20 percent of coyote pups survive their first year.

The coyote’s front footprints can be distinguished from that of a dog, because its two middle toes actually point inwards, compared to those of a dog. Coyotes walk only on their toes!

Coyotes have the same teeth as dogs: four canines for holding on to prey. The teeth behind these, the premolars, are used for tearing prey. And they have molars for chewing, but these are not used frequently by coyotes unless they need to crunch bones or nuts. One thing I’ve noticed is that a coyote’s tongue is very long and maneuverable — possibly more so than a dog’s: a coyote can curl its tongue way out, encircling its nose!

Coyotes in desert areas are active during the cooler early morning and twilight hours. In mild climates they are active during daylight hours. When food is plentiful they might hunt at night, sleeping during the day. All of these alternatives have been noted in San Francisco.

Coyotes yip, bark, huff, yelp, whine, whimper and howl: these are quite high pitched compared to a dog’s bark or a dog’s baying. Coyotes may engage in these vocalizations for a considerable period of time — sometimes 20 minutes or longer. No dog bark will ever sound like the high pitched and continuous bark of a coyote!

I’ve mostly seen coyotes hunt alone. But I did see two females dig at the same spot. It could have been that they were working as a team: one digging at a burrow, the other waiting for the rodent to emerge. Coyotes are opportunistic eaters, which means they will adapt their eating habits to food in the area. They eat small rodents, insects, reptiles, fruit and berries. Several of them will prey on larger animals, such as deer, when the rodent supply is down or in hibernation.

Aggression should be addressed here. Coyotes are not particularly aggressive animals. Most coyotes pose little threat to humans. However, they will defend themselves against dogs if they are chased or interfered with — defending and aggression are not the same thing. One needs to look at statistics to really understand the minor extent of danger to humans: as of this posting, there have been only two human deaths from coyotes ever reported. These were bizarre anomalies. Dog bites, however, including from one’s own pets, are in the tens of thousands, and deaths from dogs are in the hundreds. The relatively few coyote aggression incidents have mostly occurred in Southern California where they have been linked to feedings, even if the feedings were unintentional. Please, never feed or try to tame a coyote: feeding them has been isolated as the source of their aggressiveness towards humans. Once they have been fed, they begin pursuing humans for the food they think is owed to them. Also, please keep your dogs leashed in coyote areas, both to protect the coyote and your dog!