The Issue of Coyote-Dog Habituation

Some people have been concerned about the possibility of coyote habituation to humans in our parks. Of course coyotes will become used to humans by the circumstance of us all being together in the parks.  However, with many hours of watching time, I have to say that I have never seen a coyote approach a human — I have only seen coyotes flee as humans get nearer to them. My belief is that unhealthy habituation is caused by an interaction — an exchange. Coyotes are not interested in interacting with humans. The one circumstance which I have read “forces” an interaction between coyotes and humans is humans feeding them. It is against the law to feed wildlife. Feeding coyotes is the one factor which has been implicated in coyotes becoming aggressive towards humans. Please do not feed coyotes.

However, I’m sure everyone has noted that coyotes have become habituated to dogs in our parks — not in the same way they have to humans. With humans, coyotes guard their distance. This is not so with dogs. Coyotes have approached some of the dogs. It is only some dog owners who have had issues with the coyotes in our parks — and these have always been unleashed dogs.  If we keep our dogs leashed, that would help a lot. Nonetheless, we cannot prevent the visual contact and body language that inevitably go on between some dogs and coyotes as they watch each other from a distance over time — this is a communication, it is an “exchange”, it is an interaction. Dogs and coyotes, through regular visual contact with each other, do learn each other’s behaviors and they become “familiar” with one another. We’ve all heard that familiarity breeds contempt — well, maybe a little of this is going on with the coyotes and dogs? I’m trying to make sense of the behaviors I have seen so that we all may know how to deal with them. This is what I am seeing.

So coyotes have approached some of the unleashed dogs in our parks, not viciously, but in an almost “testing” manner — something between “testing”, “taunting”, and “play” — with a kind of “I’m playing, but I mean it” attitude — and this appears to happen with dogs which the coyote has come to know, mostly through visual observation on a regular basis or from a previous interaction of some sort, such as the dog’s having chased the coyote or approached it. There is an aspect of oneupmanship in the coyotes’ and the dogs’ behavior. The coyote actually ignores the human who is with the dog, unless the human sees the coyote soon enough to make an effort to shoo it off. Note, again, that these coyotes have never come towards a human who does not have a dog: the interest is in the dog. If you keep your dog right next to yourself and leashed, a coyote is unlikely to dart in.

The most common coyote behavior towards a dog which I’ve seen involves a short charge-and-retreat sequence which seems to say: “note that I’m here, keep away from me and my kin.” It is not vicious, but there is a display and bluff that can be intense. At its core is probably the issue of territoriality: that this is the coyote’s turf. After all, dogs come and go all day long, whereas a coyote is in the park all the time and depends on the park for its very survival: for food and shelter and raising its family. This behavior is not something that a coyote carries on and on with. Rather, I’ve seen a coyote engage one dog this way and then remove itself from the area. The dog is always one which happens to be in the coyote’s immediate vicinity at the time. This behavior does not happen often, but I have observed it a handful of times. The dog will often respond to the coyote so that the behavior ends up being a  short “chase-chase” sequence back and forth before it is over.

The blatant display described here, as I’ve seen it, is always carried out by a dominant breeding female coyote. A couple of times younger coyotes have tentatively approached a calm, uninterested dog — one which they have observed is unlikely to chase them — it is a friendly approach, purely out of curiosity. These younger coyotes don’t approach dogs in a “testing” sort of way and always back off immediately if shooed away.

Please note that we can prevent this kind of physical interaction by keeping our dogs leashed in the first place, and by loudly and blatantly shooing off a coyote which comes too close for our comfort. You will not be able to prevent the visual communication between the coyotes and dogs which actually sets the groundwork for this behavior — though the communication can be minimized by leashing. This is because dogs very often direct their attention to the extent that their leashes allow them to go, and coyotes have little need to communicate with a calmer dog. If we take our dogs to parks where there are coyotes, this sort of habituation is inevitable. What we can do is be aware of the behavior so that it is not unexpected when it occurs. If we are prepared, maybe even with a shake-can, a possible unhappy incident might be prevented.

If anyone has further insight and observations on this behavior, I would love to hear from you! As I said, these are my own observations of a behavior I’m trying to make sense of.

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