Significance of a Seemingly Unprovoked Challenge: Coyote reactions to Dogs

I’ve come to realize that all coyote behavior has significance. Figuring out what the significance is, is the challenging part!  Last week there was a dog/coyote encounter with all sorts of possibilities for interpretation which I will consider here. If the owner had walked away from the coyote instead of towards it, the interaction would not have taken place. The coyote described here is a dominant one — the boss. The coyote instigated the interaction with lots of “challenging display” activity, but it did not attack. The display was a strong communication about territorial ownership and to try to make the dog leave. The dog’s owner could easily have shooed the coyote away, but decided not to because of the dog’s mild reaction — the dog did not feel terribly threatened or in danger. Even though the dog hadn’t felt threatened, the coyote obviously had — that’s why it *messaged* the dog with it’s challenging display: the best solution would have been to create distance between the dog and a coyote by moving away from it.  After this initial four minutes or so, the day became a totally peaceful one for the coyote — I was able to watch it for several hours.

For about 4 minutes: Early, a coyote appeared suddenly on a path in back of a dog walker — I was able to observe this from my position further back on the path. This dog is one who shows no interest in coyotes but has growled when he didn’t like the way a coyote approached — that has been the extent of his reactions, as far as I know. However, subtle communication and challenges are hard for a human to pick up on. The dog is a large intact male Labrador. In the past, this coyote has shown a curious interest in this dog, walking a short distance in the dog’s direction and watching him from off to the side — I don’t know how much of this behavior was provoked/invited/caused by the dog itself in its own subtle ways. Today this coyote did not just curiously observe. The coyote approached the dog, not at all casually. Rather, it went into its “challenging” state with a message which seemed to say “don’t mess with me unless you want to deal with this”. It was scratching the ground, hunched over, lips were pulled back, head lowered, teeth bared, nose wrinkled, and its hackles were up. The dog appeared to remain totally calm, keeping its tail up and slowly wagging, but it did not retreat. And I noticed tongue movements in both dog and coyote during this encounter: the tongue sticking out in various degrees — a little like a snake’s — what might that mean? That the coyote’s behavior was to communicate something was very obvious.

So, the pawing behavior (kicking the dirt) occurred as the coyote approached the dog, and the dog growled with a look in his eye that said “back off”, and the coyote did so. Then the dog proceeded casually, tail still wagging slowly, towards its owner — the owner thought the dog did this either for protection or because he needed approval: the owner keeps his dog under tight verbal control, and he’s been told to stay off the coyotes. As the dog walked in the owner’s direction, the coyote came up again, this time from behind the dog, coming in almost close enough to touch the dog. The dog sensed this — he was facing the other way — and turned around. The coyote again backed off, in a bouncing retreating manner when actually faced by the dog. This same behavior was repeated a second time before the coyote headed off a greater distance not to return. Maybe it sensed that the “message” had been received?  In this challenge display there may have been many messages. In addition, I noticed that the coyote looked towards the brush area several times during pauses in the action of this encounter. I wondered what other coyote family members might have been hidden in this brush area. The message had clearly involved a “warning” — was it a warning that was possibly supposed to protect this coyote’s nearby family?  Other coyotes which we have seen early in the morning have slithered into this or other hiding areas at about this time. Or maybe this coyote’s sideways glances were just for planning an escape route in case the dog got fed up?

A professional dog walker told me that intact males seldom display any more aggression than any other dog. BUT, the problem is with the OTHER neutered male dogs: the other neutered male dogs all pick up on the hormone scent of the intact male and they are the ones that show hostility and aggression. Dog walkers have to be very aware of this. HOWEVER, female dogs, especially older females, tend to get excited and dance with glee around intact male dogs. This was not going on in this particular coyote/dog situation.

This coyote is a dominant one, I have come to see, who controls the family pack and its territory. In this instance, the coyote’s warning might have been telling the dog to move on -– the owner, and I standing next to him, had stopped and were lingering on the path after the coyote’s first approach. It might have been a warning to “not mess with me.” The coyote might have been making sure that it had the power to fend off this dog if it needed to? It might have been a “test” to see if the dog might turn on the coyote — even thought provoked. Could its challenging display actually have been for the benefit of those that might be in the brush area — could it have been a warning to them? Might the coyote be trying to “show” other coyote family members that it doesn’t like them dealing with this dog? This last is a question which comes to mind since two other coyotes from this group have come up in quite a friendly way to this same dog — never too close — it seems out of curiosity and with good will. We have felt that once, when there were two coyotes which approached this dog — one of which circled around so the other could approach from behind — that this was a coyote “training” session. This dominant coyote knows this dog is harmless, so I’ve tried to address the possibilities of why this coyote might have tried to challenge it. The coyote/dog interaction here took place within a span of about four minutes. The day became totally calm after this.

For 2 hours: The coyote then went off to the side of a hill where it lay down, even though the dog was still there on the path. By doing so, was it claiming this patch of ground temporarily? At this point, the dog walker and dog decided to move on, to leave and continue their walk. For the next forty minutes the coyote relaxed, keeping its eye on two thicket areas. After half an hour, the coyote sat up, just for a moment, when another dog walker passed in the distance. After yawning and stretching, the coyote repositioned itself a few feet over, and again lay down, continuing to watch the brush area in-between bouts of dozing, but nothing ever appeared from the thicket: were the other coyotes in the thicket?

For 45 minutes: After about two hours of being curled up in the same spot, the coyote got up and meandered up to a path, sitting down to watch a couple of dogs and four people in the distance coming up the same path — these may have been the reason for the coyote to move. The coyote walked several hundred feet up to an area where I have seen it relaxing before: not hidden, but next to growth where few people would notice it.  Here it lay down and calmly watched the few dogs and walkers that passed, none of which noticed the coyote. The “challenge” behavior earlier in the morning seems to have been an isolated incident, and specifically meant for that particular dog. After about half an hour the coyote got up, moving slowly, lapped up some water in a culvert, urinated and defecated, and then ended up on a sidewalk outside the park for three minutes before returning to a thicket where it was hidden from view.

For 45 minutes: The coyote meandered about in the thicket for a short time. It casually looked around, probably for any sign of gopher movements in the ground. It dug up what appeared to be a grub, carrying it off a few feet in its mouth. I assume it was eaten. The coyote then lay down sphinx-like, watching for activity which I could not see. After half an hour, the coyote moved on again. The coyote’s route included the same stretch of sidewalk as before, before it casually walked down into an open field in the park .

For 15 minutes: The coyote wandered in the open field, casually searching for food for about fifteen minutes, until voices could be heard. At this point the coyote stood fairly still by some bushes, moving its head just enough to take in and assess the sounds: maybe it was assessing where the sounds were coming from and the number of voices involved. As the coyote trotted off, several individuals could be seen on the several paths the coyote could have taken to leave, so the coyote leaped up over some rocks and then vanished for the day. I had been able to watch this coyote for about four hours.

For additional coyote reactions to dogs see three posts: “Dog Reactions to Seeing a Coyote” on 12/07, “Some reactions to dogs” on 11/04, and “ANOTHER reaction to dogs” on 11/17. Also, please see the entry on Coyote Safety” of 11/3. “Blatant Visual Message for Newcomer Dog” of 2/8/10. “A short back-and-forth chase: oneupmanship verging on play” of 2/4/10.

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