A Coyote Takes The Initiative: Following & Leading

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Coyotes in our parks have been chased routinely by dogs — and they react to this. But coyotes themselves have choices. Coyotes have a choice regarding whether to remain out in the open where they can be seen or not. They also have a choice when it comes to following a dog, or to coming-in close to a dog — something this occurs if a dog has been antagonistic to the coyote or has chased it in the past. Why do coyotes behave this way? Why don’t they just stay out of view? Why don’t they just flee? Probably instincts for survival are kicking in. If we can learn the sequence of events leading up to the behaviors, and what the behaviors actually accomplish, we will be getting closer to answering “why” coyotes behave the way they do. It won’t be easy, since cause and effect don’t always fall into a neat line. The best example we have of this is our own human behavior!

Yesterday a dog and walker came down their habitual path. As they did so, a coyote pair — a mother and offspring — approached them on the same path from in front until the dog stopped — then the coyotes stopped. I was told by the walker that this happens frequently. When the dog stops, so as not to get closer to the coyotes, the coyotes turn around and actually lead the way down the path for a little way before veering off from the trail. Coyotes know the habitual path of all walkers who frequent their areas; by knowing a walker’s route, they can actually “follow” from in front! The distance I saw these coyotes keep away from this dog was short — probably about 25 feet. Since there has never been an incident between this particular dog and the coyotes (yes, the dog did get too close a couple of times), and since this dog minds its owner and ignores the coyotes, the owner hasn’t felt obligated to shoo the coyotes off.

Today there was only one coyote which met this walker — the dominant coyote.  Like yesterday, the coyote “led”, or what I call “followed from in front”. That in itself may have included a message that we humans are not able to read: some kind of warning. Maybe this coyote’s behavior involves a “teasing” or “dare” that this dog is just not responding to? Today this coyote made the message stronger. It actually turned around to face the dog antagonistically: hackles up, body bent over, crouched low, teeth bared, nose wrinkled, eye openings as slits. This “display” — very similar to the classical “Halloween Cat” display — is meant to look scary in order to be effective. It is a blatant message to ward off a dog.

This dog owner told me that the coyote “followed/led”  in this manner because it could not get in back of the dog — in this case due to people, the two of us, being right in back of the dog. Apparently coyotes prefer approaching a dog from behind — this way it does not have to face a set of teeth. This coyote has approached from behind in the past and nipped this dog’s tail, and the owner assumed this was the coyote’s intention now. I actually have a video of a “friendly” version of this same behavior taken a few years ago: CURIOUS. In both the antagonistic and friendly versions of this, whenever the dog faced the coyote, the coyote ran off. In the instance today, I’m trying to understand the additional antagonism.

The dog and walker had been minding their own business today, as far as I could see. This is a dog that has never chased any coyote and has always pretty much ignored them. These coyotes and this dog have always seemed pretty accepting of each other’s presence — although possibly they are more keenly alert when each sees the other. Notwithstanding, there may have been visual communication and cues that we humans could not have discerned.  It seems obvious that this coyote had been drawn towards this dog for a specific reason. Why had the coyote so purposefully approached the dog, first “following” it and then with this antagonistic message? Might the coyote have expected the dog to show some fear, or retreat? Maybe this dog was just on the “edge” of acceptable behavior for the coyote? Most dogs would show some kind of anxiety or antagonism towards a coyote — this one did not.

When the coyote turned around to face the dog, the dog didn’t run off, but stood its own ground by facing the coyote: this has always caused the coyote to back off. Facing an animal with an intense gaze constitutes a known “challenge”. The owner called her dog and the dog came immediately to her side. A coyote will almost never come in any closer to a dog if it is right next to its owner.

The coyote, then, continued “leading” us all until we came to a cross path where it veered off. Here the coyote again put on its display for the dog, and then, when the dog turned its back on the coyote to continue down the path, the coyote went into a full chase, coming in from behind the dog. We were sure it would nip the dog’s tail, but it didn’t get to. The owner saw this and called for her dog — the coyote backed off because the owner was now right next to the dog.

Please note that this owner does not leash the dog because the dog obeys verbal commands — even in the face of a coyote. However, it was not until the coyote behavior had progressed to this point that the owner even thought of picking up a stone to dissuade the coyote. This is as far as the antagonism went — it was all bluff and displays meant to impart a message — a message to ward off the dog. However, effectively, I don’t think any long-term message was imparted at all to this dog and walker — just that the coyote might have been having a bad day.

The owner and dog, glued together, kept walking, while the coyote stayed back and watched them. I continued on with the walker and the dog. Within about 1/4 mile, we saw the coyote again. It stayed away now, possibly because there was another walker and dogs coming up another path. This dog and walker continued hiking out of the park, and I stayed back to watch what the coyote might do next.

The coyote went up a hill to observe the two unleashed dogs that appeared on the scene. These both, upon seeing the coyote, immediately pursued it. I do not understand why the owner doesn’t keep his dogs leashed in this area where his dog constantly encounters and chases a coyote. The owner was able to retrieve his dogs and leave. While doing so the coyote left the scene.

Later on I again observed this same coyote relaxing on a hill. It watched several unleashed but calm dogs on a path below, and then saw the coyote curl up so that it was barely visible — this is its normal reaction to unprovocative dogs. But then, a walker came by whose dog has gone after the coyote in the past. The dog was leashed, but the coyote decided to follow them — it hurried down the hill, keeping about 100 feet back. What was the coyote’s purpose? All I could think of was the coyote’s need to keep tabs on a dog that had previously intruded upon it — to monitor it. Maybe it just wanted to know “what are you doing and where are you going?” This coyote had definitely chosen this particular dog to follow. When the coyote came to a clearing where there were more dogs and more people, the coyote stopped to observe and then disappeared into the bushes. I did not see it again.

The “following” is very purposeful, it is from behind, and the coyote slows down at points in order not to be seen. The coyote almost always, eventually, gets noticed when it follows a dog and walker. This “following” behavior is almost exactly the same as the “leading” behavior I described above, however, in the latter case, I’m wondering if the coyote might be inviting or forcing the dog to follow it, explicitly so the coyote could impart its message? Could these be instances of a coyote’s needing to put a known dog it in its place? Or are these behaviors extensions of monitoring?

I should mention that everyone whose dog has “interacted” positively with a coyote is always so pleased that their dogs have befriended a wild animal. Beware that this might not be friendship. If it is a dominant coyote, the coyote will be antagonistic always towards ALL dogs. There is a reason: coyote packs do not allow outsiders into their groups. Outsiders create competition for territorial resources and shelter, and are a threat that might divide up the pack — and an outsider might even claim dominance.

Please notice that the photos in this posting are almost exactly the same as those in the posting: Coyote Agitated At Being Intruded Upon published May 11, 2010. The difference is that in that posting, the coyote was blatantly intruded upon. There are causes and purposes for the behaviors I’ve described today, even though I have not firmed them up fully. They are more subtle, less direct, and less readable by us humans. Any insights would be very welcome!!

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Charles Wood
    Jul 06, 2010 @ 13:21:02

    Perhaps your pack alpha, being female, is kinder and gentler on dog/human intruders than my alpha male? The home range for my pack is quite small and because small, perhaps more is at stake than in your bigger area. The 4 pups here this year have also raised the stakes. I’ve abandoned my walks in the field that is their home range. And also, I now won’t walk on that field’s bordering river bed bank/bike path without the dad coming after my dog and me. The male’s behavior I wanted to describe is in my mind more aggressive than defensive/assertive display. Twice I’ve had the male come out of the field to stalk us via a hole in the fence that runs along the field and the river bed. Neither of those two days did I see him at all until his sorties. Both days he waited until we passed that hole and then he came up on us in stealth from behind. The first time I saw him within 30 feet and scared him off. The second time he got within 15 feet and only backed off after I made eye contact, caring little that my friend and our two dogs had previously seen him and alerted; I was the last one to see him. When I made eye contract he retreated a comfortable distance to perform a dirt scraping display, his second choice, having lost the opportunity to possibly bite. It makes sense to me that if he had it in his mind to bite a larger foe, it would be by stealth and the advantage of surprise. So I’m thinking that in your bigger park the coyotes are able to create enough distance to diffuse human/dog encroachment and indeed work hard to do so. And the temperment of your alpha is perhaps more mild. With less space and more aggressive leadership things might possibly turn more serious. I’m speculating that a coyote you can see is one you really don’t have to worry about if you manage your reactions wisely. My gut reaction to my alpha male coyote is that he will defend his family and territory against human intrusion using all necessary and escalating force if sufficiently pressed. Sufficiently pressed: my mistakes are as follows: 1.) frequent incursions into home range over a year; 2) allowing unleashed dog to hunt in the home range; 3) possible that my unleashed dog while hunting harrassed alpha male’s shy female; 4) being investigated by momentarily unsupervised coyote kit; 5) returning to home range after alpha male’s territorial displays; 6) persisting in sneaking around borders of range to view puppies; 7) continuing to allow dog to forage on borders of range (alpha male marked dirt my dog excavated digging for moles along river bank). I never made the mistake of feeding a coyote though. I should also say that a few years ago, in a different area, my encounters with coyotes were more as you have described in your blog, where I seemed irrelevant and my dog was the focus of encounters. In my present area the alpha male makes all his eye contact with me and ignores my dog, and all the eye contact is unfriendly.


    • janet kessler
      Jul 06, 2010 @ 19:08:55

      Dear Charles — Thanks for this. It is good to hear about your coyote experience, especially since it contrasts in intensity with the behaviors I have seen. It is important for people to read about this more extreme reaction to dogs and even people.

      The motivation of all dominant coyotes is the same: they have to keep dogs and people away from their families and territories, and I guess they do so with different degrees of intensity. New pups up the ante on the behavior, as you said. The dominant female I saw last year was much more adamant in her behavior when there were new pups — for a full year.

      Interesting what you said, I’m speculating that a coyote you can see is one you really don’t have to worry about if you manage your reactions wisely.” And I also agree that your previous “encroachment” on the coyotes, unintentional though it might have been, is what pushed the coyote to its present state of behavior towards you. This male coyote obviously knows you and your dogs, has had run-ins with you and is on the lookout for you. You and your dogs are probably seen as a pack, and you are the alpha — that why the coyote communicates with you via his gaze.

      I’ve seen a dominant female “keep her eyes on” dogs which she has had previous run-ins with — be these chases, intense barking or even, lately, being given “the evil eye” — as you say, an unfriendly gaze. In the case of the female, I think her behavior is less about wanting to actually tangle with dogs than about conveying the message: “leave” or “keep away.” However, this one has nipped a couple of dogs that came after her.

      If you have more “coyote behaviors” I would love to hear about them!! Your comments here are fascinating!

      Sincerely, Janet

      PS: I loved seeing your photos of birds and coyotes!

    • Charles Wood
      Jul 06, 2010 @ 23:51:04

      Thank you and I do have more behaviors of the male and female with kits in the small field. March 20, 2010 I photographed the male and female together. I didn’t see either again until May 30, 2010 when I began to see just the female in the afternoons, lactating and without puppies. I believe she would show herself as a way to encourage us (my dog and me) to leave the area. I did notice a couple times her following us from cover as I wandered through her home range. On one occasion she left fresh scat in an area we frequent, which deposit my dog noticed from a distance. I observed her hunting along a dirt road. She hid in cover along the road and was wating for an uwary rabbit to come her way as it fed on shoots in the road. I should mention that though off leash, I usually have had my dog in my sight and that when I see a coyote I leash him immediately. After June 6, 2010 I didn’t see her again until July 4, 2010, and I have never seen her with her puppies. On June 8, 2010 I instead started to see the alpha male during the afternoons and he was with at times 1, 2, 3 or puppies. I first photographed him in July 2009 and at that time he lacked the scarring now present on his muzzle between the tip of his nose and his stop, apparently healed lacerations. In July 2009 his lower right canine tooth was intact whereas in June 2010 that tooth had the top 2/3rds missing. The female’s individuating features are he softer eyes and drooping right ear. On June 6, 2010 I observed her take to cover when she was buzzed by two passing crows. On July 4th, 2010, I observed her in the field while I was standing at my vantage point on a road. I collapsed my tripod and sat down to photograph her. When I sat down, she sat on her haunches for a couple minutes looking at me before retreating into cover, from which she watched. Note that if my dog doesn’t remain calm in their presence I make him so. On June 8, 2010 one puppy investigated me as I was taking photographs in their field. It took cover when it realized it was observed. A few minutes later the male showed up and went into the brush where the pup had hidden. As I left that area he came out from cover, defacated, scratched the ground and paced in front of us. My dog, leashed, would not look in the coyotes direction and whimpered briefly. As we moved away the coyote vocalize extensively, barking and yipping. About a half a mile later, he met us again at our usual exit point, had gotten ahead of us and was moving in and out of cover in front of us. My usual way out is through a path of shoulder high brush and I didn’t feel comfortable leaving through what would be for him good cover. I tossed a golf ball in his direction as he was still advancing on us. He ran away from the approaching lobbed ball, side stepped it and reapproached. I stared him down and when he would look away, I would turn, walk several feet, turn back and stare him down again, making my way out by an alternate and clear exit. My turning and staring him down several times was probably unnecessary as he had stopped advancing and was at least 100 feet away. His response to a direct stare was to turn his head 90 degrees and look to his right. On June 17, 2010 I observed his puppies from the river bed bike path and did not see him. On June 19, 2010 I observed one puppy and did not see him. One June 20, 2010 I saw him briefly without any puppies. On June 21, 2010 I saw him with one puppy and again with all four who upon seeing me, all ran away. On June 25, 2010 I saw 3 puppies playing and did not see him. On June 22, 2010 I saw him with 4 puppies as I watched from the road. He saw me and alerted his following pups who then became agitated. One bolted forward running away from the group. He had alerted the puppies following behind him by raising one front leg, partially bowing and turning his head back to look directly at them. I didn’t hear any vocalizations. The puppies immediately knew something was up and nervously scanned the area. He alternated between looking at me and looking at the three puppies behind him, and looking foward down the path towards the puppy that had fled ahead. He looked at me and curled his lips into a snarl and then retreated, with three puppies, abandoning the fourth that had fled ahead. A few minutes later the abandoned puppy fled full speed back in the direction the others had left. My impression was of an very angry dad and an alerted, agitated brood. I saw one puppy on June 24, 2010. I saw 2 puppies and the dad on June 25, 2010. He stared at me continually. I saw 3 puppies on June 28 from the river bed bike path and did not see him until he sneaked up on us on the river bed a little later. On that same day a little later, from the road, I saw him discipline a stray puppy. He pawed the ground with a front foot, barred his teeth and the puppy closed its eyes and dropped to the ground in submission. Then he left with the pup following him. On June 30, 2010 I saw him without puppies and he escorted me as I walked on the river bank. I saw him on July 1 with two pups. On July 2, 2010 on the riverbed he sneaked up on me, two dogs and a friend, was spotted, and then retreated to perform a dirt scrap display, and then left. On July 4, 2010 I saw his female and I won’t observe them again. Especially since hearing that Janet noticed hightened response for a year with the children present. I perhaps should have known to simply leave a wild animal and its young alone.

      My encounters with coyotes over the last 6 years began because I sought undeveloped locations for my dog to be off leash. I’ve found that the ideal areas for my dog are also ideal coyote habitat. The areas my dog likes to play are areas where coyotes are making their living. In the field where I had the above encounters, I once saw a younger couple running their pointer at dusk. I spoke with them about my coyotes and mentioned that there was a possibility that the coyotes would attack their pet. The young man pulled a battle knife from his pocket and said he would kill any coyote that messed with his dog. I mentioned two other open areas nearby in which I had never encountered a coyote and which would be a better place for his dog to exercise. I did not mention that a coyote would have an easy time drawing his unleashed dog far away from him and that any fight would happen too far away for him to help his dog, knife or not. The young man’s wife did seem to be hearing me. My experience with fights between dogs is that they are hard to break up, the animals are too quick and purposed.

      My dog has played on a golf course with a solitary female coyote, chasing. In the Bolsa Chica wetlands, formerly spacious, I’ve noticed several times a coyote approaching my unwary dog from behind and I’ve called off the coyote with success each time. Once my dog was foraging in high brush and came across two hidden coyotes who, from my dogs yowling, I gather thumped him pretty good, though they left no lacerations and withdrew of their own accord. As far as coyotes directing themselves against the interests of my dog, it hasn’t mattered if it was dusk or full day. My sense of a coyote when it is sneaking up on a dog is that the coyote is focused and that yelling at it breaks its concentration and causes it to consider how badly it wants to pursue the dog anyway. One time my dog and I at dusk were being followed by two coyotes on our way out of the Bolsa Chica wetlands, formerly spacious. On the side of a clear hill, one coyote ran out parallel with us about 50 feet away and my unleashed dog took off after it and chased it down the hill out of my view. The second coyote, when the first ran out, crouched and waited and watched my dog pursue the first. It was a battle plan, and I think without my presence the second coyote would have taken up the chase from behind and the two would have done whatever they felt like to my dog. In a battle of wits between a dog and a coyote, a dog is an unarmed man. A dog in the field must look ridiculous to a coyote who seems to consider its every move. A dog generally runs in a way that flushes game every which way willy nilly, giving the hypothetical prey every advantage, creating an impression in the coyote’s mind of a dog who is puppy-like and ineffectual. As Janet mentioned, some dogs respond to eye contact communications in a mature way, some don’t seem to get it and may be perceived by a coyote as behaving like an undisciplined child. My observation of the alpha male coyote metting out discipline to a wayward pup and leading it away is a ritual the coyote probably perceives accurately as being acted out between people and their dogs. Even a chase is followed up by a person restraining their dog and leading it away.

      I don’t think it a good idea to have dogs off leash around coyotes. In fact, it is a really bad idea. My dog with just me, off leash, when confronted by a coyote, submits and cowers, leaving himself vulnerable to whatever the coyote wants to do. My dog with a companion dog has an elevated opinion of himself and hankers to give chase with his buddy to the same coyote he cowers to when alone. In such a contest, even though the coyote may be smaller in body, the coyote is not smaller in mind. The other advantage the coyote has is precise and inimate knowlege of his range, every confusing meandering path, every hiding spot, every piece of ground and its merit to offense or defense. The coyote has the advantage of battle experience, of how to separate one dog from another, and a coyote is extremely fit, a high performance athlete and gladiator. Dogs tire readily and coyotes don’t. And dogs generally have unfit companion humans winded after a 50 yard sprint at comparatively low speed. I do feel that coyotes will go a long way to avoid a confrontation. A dog generally has little idea of what is at really at risk in an encounter and eagerly gives chase; yet a coyote won’t readily chance injury to its ability to make a living. Greater part of valor and all that.

      Coyotes foraging away from their home range haven’t seemed to me to be anything but wary. When spotted they are likely to run away. There are reports here of small dogs taken, and I’ve found a cat’s head in a little league park nearby, a sign of coyote predation. I’m nearing 60 years, and as a child I would spend some summers at my grandmother’s farm in the deep south. At that time there were no coyotes I’m aware of and the farm dogs had free range of the hills and forests. They were not feral, but could roam and swim at their own leave, and visit neighbors. I made a visit there a few years ago and all had changed. Coyotes had arrived, donkeys now milled around with the cattle to protect them for their dislike of canines and ability to kick, and dogs were confined to pens and houses in that still rural area. The dogs were confined to protect them not from coyotes, but from the donkeys that guarded the cattle from all dog like creatures. Question whether coyotes were even bothering the cattle, and apparently dogs bothering cattle was previously accepted if not common.

      I have found a few open places for my dog that don’t have coyotes. I also run my dog along side of me as I bike after dusk down the river bed/flood control channel/bike path. One night I was doing so, my dog was loping along with me, I was biking at a good pace and I felt something was odd. I looked to my left and on the other side of the bordering chain link fence, a solitary coyote had joined us for the run, was loping alongside of us on the other side of the fence, tongue out, enjoying it thoroughly. For me that short moment was free, uninvited and absolutely the best. Yet there are breaches in the fence and I quickly became concerned, stopped and leashed my dog. My dog and I can feel wild, but we aren’t and the coyote is and should be, and we aren’t like him in that respect. I can feel something about what a coyote’s wild life is like, about maybe how life should be in some way for each of us, and for our dogs yet we are forever constrained in some ways, as is the coyote for its wildness. I think we best respect that distance and maintain it, stay within fairly clear boundries once those boundries are observed. Stay within those boundries and you won’t have to throw rocks. There is certainly no reason to make a day of rock throwing at coyotes, merely stressing the animals and perhaps making even more trouble for others. No reason to be uncivil. The coyotes make their living in the park and for us the park takes us away from how we make our livings: who has the superior claim?

      Other times, out with my dog, I’ve come across a coyote in a little league park or on the river bed, and it would just scoot by us with confidence, headed for another place for reasons, with an unmistakeable total lack of concern about us. Just another easy obstacle in its path, a greater purpose in its mind. Grappling with and trying to understand its purposes is compelling, rewarding and well worth the surrender of some of my territorial claims, worth the adjustments.

  2. janet kessler
    Jul 08, 2010 @ 00:17:04

    Dear Charles —
    I really love your observations and the way you have written them up! That a female might show herself to make you leave is something I’ll try to zero in on — it makes sense.

    I, like you, try to distinguish the coyotes to tell them apart: I’m finding that facial features and behaviors are what I use the most.

    Eye contact, with a fixed gaze/stare, is the main way coyotes appear to communicate — not through vocalizations, though I’ve heard very soft “grunting” sometimes. The “body language” communication between the papa coyote and the young ones which you wrote about and caught in images is absolutely fabulous! Thank you for allowing me to post these on my blog!

    I, too have seen coyotes often work as a team and seem to have “a battle plan” when trying to vex a dog to leave an area. Yes! I agree with your observation of how coyotes probably perceive dogs!

    Also, “that dogs seem to have elevated self-esteem when they are in a group”, and I’ve experienced that a coyote most of the time just ignores a human and dog it encounters on its path — it’s got its own agenda, and “a greater purpose in its mind.” It was fun reading about the coyote running alongside you on the opposite side of the fence, along with your thoughts about being wild and feeling wild. It was great to read every detail of your observations. Thank you!!

    Sincerely, Janet


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