“Coyote Behavior 101” for Dog Owners

Coyote Behavior In Our Urban Parks for Dog Owners To Be Aware Of: Based my own first-hand observations of coyotes in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Coyotes are shy — they don’t really want to confront dogs, and much less so do they want to confront humans. They prefer maintaining their distance and normally will run off when they see you. If you happen to see a coyote, it is because it is “passing through” the area. However, all coyotes, as all dogs and all humans, don’t follow a single norm — there are variations. I will try to explain some possibilities here.

A coyote may stop to observe you and your dog from afar, especially if you yourself stop on a path to look at it — and especially if your dog “looks” at the coyote.  A coyote may even come towards you a way to see “what you are doing” and “where you are going”. If a coyote approaches as close as 25-50 feet, it would be a good idea to shoo it off. You should know that it is not out to attack you, it is curious about its world which you and your dog are a part of.  Only a handful of times have I seen a coyote actually come in close to a dog. Be assured that the coyotes in our parks have never specifically approached humans — it is your dog which the coyote is curious about.

At their core, coyotes have a natural shyness, or “fear” of humans. Along with the curiosity always will be the fear. Even though most of us move away from what we fear, sometimes we may try getting a little closer to what we fear to “test” it, maybe even to test ourselves. Maybe we should see such a parallel between ourselves and the coyotes. The coyote’s curiosity about the dog may be pulling stronger than the fear repelling it away from the human owner.

Regarding dogs, we all need to know that for the most part, coyotes keep “outsider coyotes” out of their areas and out of their tightly knit family group. Dogs are in this category. Coyotes do not want the dogs interacting with them. I do know that loner coyotes have solicited play from dogs for short spurts of time, but when there is a coyote family this is less so, the dogs are not welcome — coyotes will vex these dogs.

Dogs are often “monitored” and kept track of in certain parks by the alpha coyote — always the mom — of a coyote group. I’ve watched as this same coyote even moved to a better vantage point to watch until the dog group left the area. The reason dogs are monitored is because they are the coyote’s chief threat in an urban setting: dogs have chased coyotes, and are often seen as competition for the available resources in the park. Resident coyotes are treating the dogs as they would any other coyote intruder. But also, once a coyote has been chased by a dog — and therefore has seen the dog as an aggressor — the coyote will forever be leery of this dog. Dogs, as opposed to coyotes, are not responsible for their own survival since we take care of them. Dogs often think such chasing as “play”, whereas for a coyote the chase is much more serious. But dogs also often feel protective of their owners or the group of dogs they are with, so they may chase a coyote for this reason.

Note that a coyote “pack” is always a tight-knit family group — not similar to classic “dog packs” where unrelated dogs get together for mutual survival needs — these dogs are more on the level of a “gang”. A group of coyotes is really a family — and from what I have been able to observe, a very warm, affectionate, caring and mutually supportive family — one we would all be proud to have around.

There are exceptions to a coyote’s keeping its distance, depending on the coyote AND on the situation and the “history” of a particular coyote’s interaction with particular dogs. The dominant female in any coyote group is going to take charge of keeping her family safe. This coyote will actually come to the aid of the other coyotes if she sees dogs getting too close to one of her family members.

Few humans are aware of the communication going on between our own dogs and other dogs. Well, the communication also is occurring between coyotes and dogs, through eye contact and body language and activity level. Keeping our dogs next to us and leashed lessens this communication. We humans are too absorbed in our own conversations and activities to catch the subtle messages between our dogs and the coyotes. It is important to minimize interaction, even eye communication, to prevent it from escalating. At the crux of what dogs and coyotes are communicating is their feeling of safety, and safety very often has to do with personal space. Predation is another area involving communication via body language which we humans are not always attuned to [Aloft]. Keeping a large distance between a coyote and you and your dog, and keeping the dog leashed will minimize the dog-coyote communication since communication is normally carried on at a closer range, and will lessen the possibility that any communication might be acted upon.

If a coyote has been chased by a dog, or even “intruded” upon by having the dog come too close — and the coyotes are the ones that decide when this is the case — it may begin an intense high pitched, distressed barking session. The barking session is a complaining, but also a signal to the dog that “I’m here and not to be messed with.” If the dog doesn’t back off, the scenario intensifies, with the coyote engaging in sequences of darting at the dog and retreating, and finally, if the coyote can get away with it, with a nipping at the haunches of the dog to herd it away from itself, cattle-dog fashion.

The problem is that although coyotes tend to “go home” shortly after dawn, this is not always the case. I have seen coyotes out at all times of the day: 10:00 am, Noon, 2:00 pm, 4:00 pm — these are not the times one would expect to see a coyote, and although the chances are less at these times, the possibility is still there that you might encounter one. So a coyote might be just around the bend on a path or hidden behind a nearby bush where it will surprise you, and you will surprise it. This is another reason why it is important to keep our dogs leashed in coyote areas. Although a young coyote would normally just flee, the mother will stand up for herself and for her pups, grown though they be. This kind of surprise encounter could easily lead to a charge-and-retreat sequence. If your dog is leashed you can hurry off, rather than let your dog react.

Another behavior I have seen, the significance of which I’m still working on, is the short “chase-chase” behavior — this seems to occur only between a dog and a coyote which know each other, either through previous visual communication, or because of a chasing episode which they both remember.  In this case the coyote will be traveling in the same direction as a walker and his/her unleashed dog, and will come in close with a little “darting in” and “retreat”. The dog will return the behavior. It is almost a “dare” or oneupmanship” with no other intention than just this — it verges on play. A leashed dog can easily be led away from this to prevent its reacting.

A mother coyote may come to the aid of one of her full-grown pups and the two will work as a team to vex a dog to get it to leave: one coyote will distract the dog, the other will come around to dart in from the other side. This coyote behavior can be quite intimidating because of its intensity.

Pupping season is upon us — April for birthing and May through October for raising the young. We all need to know that all of the self-protective and defensive behavior coyotes display throughout the year will be intensified during pupping season. A coyote will be defending a den and a large area around it, and she will be more sensitive to rambunctious or intimidating dog activity. Please be especially careful during this time about keeping your dog leashed and calm in coyote areas.  A coyote will leave your dog alone if your dog leaves her alone and gives her the space she needs to feel safe. A dog off-leash cannot do this on his own. He needs your help and guidance in coyote areas.

With all of these behaviors, leashing the dog creates a barrier of sorts: it calms down the dog — and this can be seen by the coyote. But it also  keeps the dog right next to the owner which serves to deter the coyote from coming in closer. Coyotes do not want to tangle with humans.

Also, if you are walking in an area where there are several coyotes who are either sitting on the lawn, hunting, or headed in a certain direction, it is best not to intrude upon them, but to leave — why test this situation with your dog. By simply being there, they have claimed the area temporarily.

There are various types of dogs that upset coyotes — that cause them to react. It is mostly the more active dogs that appear to arouse the coyotes. Leashed dogs are calmer and the coyote picks up on this. There is an exception to this: if a dog owner becomes anxious, he communicates his anxiety, via the leash, to the dog and this causes the dog to become even more actively anxious. If you know you are an anxious type of person, maybe you could walk in a different park.

Small fluffy very active dogs seem to cause an instinctual adrenalin rush in the coyotes: I’ve seen a coyote monitoring when such a dog passed on a path — the dog and owner were unaware of the coyote perched on a ledge above the trail. The coyote stood up, hackles raised and began trotting back and forth on the hilltop. In this case, the dog’s owners moved on quickly, but the little dog was not leashed. Most dogs are calmer when they are leashed. I’ve actually seen a coyote calm down as a dog was leashed. Two different dog owners told me that when their dog sensed that a coyote was around, they actually “asked” to be leashed by hugging against their owner’s legs! Leashing gives a sense of protection to everyone.

Any extremely active dog may arouse a coyote. I’ve seen a calm, resting coyote jolt up to attention when it saw this kind of activity, even from the distance. I think this may be because coyotes themselves are not at all hyperactive unless it is in a predator type of situation. It might be that seeing hyperactivity, such as that engaged in in dog-play may arouse predator and defensive instincts in a coyote.

What do coyotes do when dogs are not around? Life is exquisite for them in our urban parks which are full of small rodents and sources of water! I’ve seen young ones play, I’ve seen them all hunt, I’ve seen them sleep, and mostly, I see them resting on hilltops, basking in the sun, just like the little bull Ferdinand. Ferdinand was discovered by his captors as he sat on a bee: he was taken for being the most ferocious bull in all of Spain, when in fact, he just wanted to sit in a field and smell the flowers. Coyotes, too, are not aggressive, but they will defend themselves from dogs. Dogs are a coyote’s main threat in an urban area. Thanks for reading this.

IN SUM

*coyotes are not aggressive, but may actively attempt to keep their territories safe for themselves and their pups. The biggest threats to urban coyotes come from our dogs. We can help keep both our dogs and the coyotes safe, and feeling safe, by keeping them well apart in our parks.

*keep dogs leashed in a coyote area

*avoid active “play” with your dog in a coyote area, such as catching a ball

*always be vigilant: if you even see a coyote, walk on and away from it with your dog leashed — keep your distance

*if there is an encounter with a coyote and your dog, leave the area for both animals to calm down.

*you are unlikely to see a coyote often, but when you do, it is best to know what behaviors it might exhibit.

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lisa
    Nov 03, 2012 @ 13:24:20

    Thank you for your beautiful site. I live in New Mexico. I have lived in this house for 20+ years and have always had a dog and cats. For 19 years the cats were safe outside if they were out between 10 and 2. One very elderly cat got taken by the coyotes last year. I think the coyotes are hungry because of our ongoing drought situation. After that, I looked out my window and saw the coyote sitting about 10 feet from the cat door, staring at it. Now I let my other cat go out for 15 minutes in the morning and I stay with him, about 3 feet away. My dog (big) stays with us. I have seen a coyote come pretty close during one of these outings. He wasn’t aggressive but it took going towards him to get him to move away.

    Also, for as long as I have lived here (and even during the periods when I didn’t have a dog), a group of coyotes has gathered about 100 feet behind the house and yipped and howled. You seem to indicate that this is always in response to an intruder. My neighbors has dogs outside in a fence. Does this count as an intruder? Of course, my dog wants to go out and bark at them because he sees them as intruders in his space.

    So, yes, I have let my dog bark and run toward the coyotes all these years. Now, after reading your site, I am re-thinking that. We have had one coyote who seems to call to my dog. He shows up and sits there yipping until my dog comes out and barks at him. They go back and forth for a little while and then I can see the coyote, who I named Yipper, sitting under a tree watching our porch. And my dog lies down on the porch and watches Yipper. The coyote initiates this, sometimes every day at the same time. What’s going on there?

    I do think we should co-exist. I recently had a conversation with a co-worker who had signed up for the coyote hunt. This guy and I are friends and I was astonished to hear that he was going to do that. He said that the population is multiplying quickly and we have to “keep it down”. Is there reading material that I could give him that addresses this concern?

    Thanks again. Love all your pics.

    Reply

    • yipps
      Nov 03, 2012 @ 21:01:43

      Hi Lisa —

      I’m so glad you love the photos!

      It’s very important to let your coworker know that, where coyotes are hunted and trapped, females produce more pups per litter than in areas where they are protected. By killing coyotes, he could actually be increasing the coyote population. This is how the biology works for these animals. Millions of these animals have been killed, but their population has not decreased. See http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/coyotes.html. I’ll try to find more articles for you.

      My observations are all in urban parks. In urban parks, a dog intruding on a coyote is one of triggers for coyote howling. Another is the sound of sirens. Once the howling response is elicited, the coyotes may communicate back and forth between themselves with their continued howls. But just because these are the triggers I have seen in urban areas doesn’t mean they are the only causes of coyote howling. I do know that when coyotes greet each other, they very often melt into high-pitched hipping and whining — not quite howling, but strong vocalizations. I would think that your neighbor’s dogs almost definitely have something to do with the coyote howling close to your house. Would they possibly be coming to your house because there is easy food access for them?

      As for the behavior of Yipper and your dog: from what I have seen, this could either be testing, daring, inciting or one-upmanship behavior between the two animals, or it could be a friendly, or at least not-unfriendly, game between the two. I would love to be kept updated! In the meantime, I’ll try to find out more. Janet

  2. Charles Wood
    Nov 03, 2012 @ 21:48:56

    Hi Lisa, It sounds like those coyotes are getting too close to human habitation for their own good. The Humane Society offers some guidelines on coyote hazing here: http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/wild_neighbors/coyote_hazing.pdf .

    Part of co-existing with coyotes is maintaining our own space just like they maintain their space. A coyote can get confused about what is its space and what is our space. Sure there are areas we can share, close to or in our yards should be off limits unequivocally, including looking in and gawking.

    I think what is going on with Yipper is that Yipper thinks your dog is the one in charge of your space. It is probably a good thing to have taken away some of your dog’s authority over the yard, if I understand you correctly. But at the same time, it sounds like Yipper is now pushing it a little and getting too close. That is where hazing a coyote could do some good. Yipper has got to understand that it is your space, not your dogs, and that compared to your dog, you can be an absolute holy terror Yipper shouldn’t ever want to even look at!

    Reply

    • yipps
      Nov 04, 2012 @ 04:11:43

      My experience and understanding — so far — is that “hazing” is not the solution to all coyote problems and that it actually could contribute to more “habituation” if the coyotes get used to it. The verdict is not in about this. There have been no studies, per se, on the effectiveness of hazing, though it can be used to effectively keep an animal at a distance from individuals, or from individuals and their dogs. Behavior can vary immensely between individual coyotes and at different times of the year, but unless the coyotes are approaching a human, or fail to flee if charged by a human — this is the definition of “habituation” — they really are exhibiting normal behavior. Coyotes here in San Francisco have howled with dogs at the edge of property lines — no one thinks too much of it. The coyotes in our parks, of course, have become used to seeing people and vice versa — they have watched people and allowed people to watch them at a fairly good distance, but this has not caused them to approach people. They have approached some dogs, but they did that right from the start — it’s a territorial issue for the most part. We encourage everyone to keep their dog away from coyotes by leashing up. Please remember that most conflicts are related to feeding coyotes, either intentionally or inadvertently. If there really is a problem this would be the first thing I would address: make sure there is no food for them to find.

      Maybe I’m confusing the issue here, but I watched some large men employed by the SF Park Department charge at some coyotes aggressively with sticks. The coyotes had been sitting quietly on a hill. The men said they wanted to “scare” the coyotes away. First of all, there was no need to do that — the coyotes were bothering no one — they were resting off the beaten path. But, a lot of people think it is a coyote’s crime if it is merely seen. Secondly, unless you are trying to “correct” a specific behavior with very specific protocol, the coyote is simply going to learn to avoid the person doing the hazing. As I said, hazing is effective for keeping coyotes at a distance from individuals.

      I should add that the protocol for hazing must not be used indiscriminately, but should only be used on truly habituated coyotes.

  3. Charles Wood
    Nov 04, 2012 @ 19:19:34

    To me the issue is much about space. Coyotes sitting on a hill in the distance should cause us little if any concern. Also, in shared spaces, part of sharing is our willingness to leash our dogs and to move away from coyotes if we encounter them. Additionally, I don’t have the experience or training to give advice about how to manage coyotes who in shared spaces exhibit behaviors that meet the definition of habituation. For those problems I too would look to Janet and other experts for advice and choose from humane options.

    A coyote in our home space is another matter. From my point of view, instinctively, I wouldn’t want a coyote in my yard or close to my home. My yard is my space and a coyote doesn’t belong there. I would have shooed Yipper away the first time I saw him just as I would shoo away a neighbor’s dog coming around to contest with my dog. When shooed, a coyote that is acting normally will run away. For Yipper, the best result would be for him to never come back after being shooed away. Yipper belongs in wild spaces, not in or around a yard. Yelling, making ourselves large, shaking and banging things are methods for scaring a coyote away, techniques that are described more fully in the material on hazing available from the Humane Society.

    As Janet reminds me, the term hazing is a protocol, an overall strategy for dealing with habituated coyotes. Janet makes an excellent and important point. I agree that it is a different problem if a truly habituated coyote frequents a neighborhood.

    Personally, I’m pretty territorial. I even used to chase off the neighbor cats that would taunt my small kitty while sitting on “her” fence! When I would go out in the back yard to deal with an intruder cat, my mamma kitty would charge out in front of me and act tough when without me she had to run away. I felt pretty proud of myself helping my mamma kitty. In retrospect, it would have been a greater help to mamma kitty had I simply moved her food dish into the house and stopped feeding her outside. I didn’t realize it, but the food dish was attracting neighbor cats.

    Reply

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