Chase-Chase Behavior: Looking Beyond What Meets the Eye

An incident was described by a woman to me this morning. I am attempting to understand and explain coyote behavior so that we may all learn to better deal with it. The general setting involved a park with a pretty regular set of dogs and their walkers, and, in this case, a resident female coyote.

The woman said that at sunset, about 6 weeks earlier, she had been sitting in a little open park with her dog — this was not the wild part of the park where one normally might see a coyote. Suddenly, a coyote came stalking up towards her dog, and chased her dog. The chase went back and forth. The coyote seemed not very afraid when the woman first tried to deter it, but finally, with flailing arms and lots of noise, it fled. Her dog is smaller than a coyote and is 11 years old. This is a leash-law park, but no one obeys that rule. This coyote has previously engaged in “short distance back-and-forth chasing” with several dogs before finally fleeing. There is never any harm done, but dog owners don’t like it. The coyote only engages in this behavior with dogs it knows. Please see my posting of February 4th: A short back-and-forth chase. But I want to look a little further.

My question to the woman was:  But what did the dog do? The woman said “nothing”. She thought something might be “wrong” with the coyote because of its behavior. I couldn’t draw out anything that her dog might have done. But she also told me that previous to this, there had been a number of times in which this coyote had followed her and her dog out of the park on a little-used trail. A coyote might follow a dog and walker if it is curious about the dog or if it is assessing it, or possibly if it is making sure the dog is leaving. It would do so if there was something threatening about the dog.

The little-used path is by a thicket area with little coyote-size exits, where I’ve seen a coyote enter into a secluded back area — my assumption has always been that the dens might be behind this area. A possibility is that when this coyote was “following” this dog, it might have been “escorting” the dog out of the park and away from an area it felt very protective of — making sure the dog didn’t enter the secluded area.

This coyote is an alpha female with a family. She has been seen frequently enough, sitting quietly on a hilltop, observing the world. I see her as similar to Ferdinand the bull in the children’s story — peacefully smelling the flowers.  But she has defended herself when chased by a dog, and she has run down to aid another coyote when it was chased by a dog: she is not one to just flee — at least initially. She also seems to communicate displeasure, or “oneupmanship” with a few of the dogs whose behaviors she has come to know, reminding them that “I’m here, so stop your threatening activity.” We humans would not know what the threatening activity might be, but almost certainly a coyote would pick up on these.

Someone recently suggested that dogs urinating at these underbrush exits may actually be provoking a defensive response from coyotes. The dogs smell the coyote and then urinate there — I’ve seen this often. Canines use urination to mark their territories. So a coyote might see this as a possible challenge to its claim on a territorial den area. In addition, over time I have become conscious that this female coyote appears to know most dogs individually that frequent the park. This coyote knows which dogs do what — as all canine’s do.

The dog and owner regularly have walked through that side area of the park — unleashed — and the dog may have regularly urinated by one of the underbrush exit trails the coyote takes to its den. So, the coyote’s behavior as described by this woman could have been a reaction to what this coyote has seen and knows about this dog. Leashing a dog might make it adhere to the path so that “territorial marking” does not take place.

Coyotes have rich family lives and need to protect their families, they also must protect themselves and they must protect their food source. They do not just eat vegetation which can be found everywhere. Rather, coyotes must search constantly for their source of protein…. other animals, such as voles, gophers, squirrels, rats. And they need to monitor their territories to insure that competitors of any sort — in this case dogs, especially dogs with certain behaviors that we may not fully comprehend.

Coyotes are not like domestic dogs — they are wild animals with instincts and rules of their own which they must follow to survive — rules that we may not know about and may not comprehend.

We know to guide our dogs through heavy traffic intersections with leashes. We all follow the rules because there is too much going on to make it work otherwise. Our parks are becoming more environmentally friendly, more natural and diverse: there is a lot going on, including new wildlife that has been attracted to them. Our parks are not back yards made just for our pets — but places to enjoy the out of doors in all of its diverse aspects. Dogs are not wild animals and don’t know how to deal with the wild. Dog owners need to deal with coyotes in the parks the same way they would with the traffic on the streets. Following some simple rules can make it work: please leash your dogs in coyote areas.

I wanted to add one other observation. The little dog in this posting is of the type that intently and hyperactively retrieves a ball. This is absolutely normal behavior, but in the coyote’s eyes it might be distressing because of the hyperactivity it entails. I have seen this coyote calmly watching all types of dogs walk by from atop a hill. She often reacts to the smaller, extremely active types — her attention becomes temporarily riveted on them and I’ve seen her get up and pace until they pass. So here is another “distressing” dog behavior which the coyote could have remembered when it engaged in its “chase-chase” or “oneupmanship” behavior with this dog.

Please read postings on December 12th: “Dog Reactions to Seeing a Coyote”, November 4th:“Some Reactions to Dogs”, November 17th: “ANOTHER Reaction to Dogs”, and December 1:“Significance of a Seemingly Unprovoked Challenge”.  “A short back-and-forth chase: coyote interaction with a large dog” 2/4/10. “Coyote Safety” of 11/3/2009. “Blatant Visual Message for Newcomer Dog” on 2/8/10.

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