Communication And Intelligence, by Charles Wood

As a boy my friends and I talked as we rambled. Yet most of our communication was body language. We spoke about what we had just done. Talking contributed least to the communication. Most of our communication consisted of touching things and bumping and hitting each other. It was sublime. Dogs, wolves, and coyotes viscerally connect in the same way. Dogs and children instinctively know how to play together. They read each other’s constant motion. Each is physical and energetic.

My dogs jostle around together. They do focused sniffing, reading smells. Their vocalizations are infrequent declarations. They competitively pee. They alert when seeing rodents, ecstatic and wanting to chase. They stare up at treed squirrels for as long as I allow. If something moves elsewhere, they tell each other with gestures and barks. Never far from each other, they notice gait, posture, hesitations, head direction, tail position, every small change, and minutiae we will probably never see, smell or hear.

One night, I watched six dogs outside a dog park chase what at first appeared to be a cat. The dogs packed after the animal and treed it. They could have caught it. It was clear they didn’t want to. They didn’t even bother the animal when it was up in the tree. Chasing it, getting close to top speed, a quiver went through all the dogs. They pulled back just a enough. A flash of rump suggested they were chasing a bob cat. That information passed from dog to dog. The chase turned into a show. The dogs tried to conceal from their owners that they hadn’t done their best. Instead they had made a mock effort. There was face saving going on in that group that night. There was also a lot of palpable nonverbal communication.

I watched a documentary on wolves hunting deer. The humans were mystified. How did the wolves decide which of the deer to hunt? They studied the film. Eventually they saw that one of the deer was slightly lame. They agreed a human couldn’t easily see that tiny weakness in a running deer. The wolves spotted the deer’s injury. The decision by the wolves passed through the group in much the same way that those dogs each decided to not chase a bob cat. Canines are attuned to subtle variations in movement. Movement is rich with information and canines have excellent spatial intelligence.

For example, my dog Holtz remembers exactly where he saw cats while on our walks. He remembers regardless of when we last passed by. His demeanor anticipates arriving at a known cat’s range. I suspect Holtz has high value points mapped out. He zones in on an area when far from it, suggesting he relies on memory. For Holtz, a walk is a milk run with known special stops sprinkled along the way. He has also learned the local watering holes and drags me to them on our walks. On hot days he uses them to get soaked.

At a large park nearby, we always enter on the side opposite a ground squirrel colony. The colony is a quarter mile away and over a hill. Holtz has little interest going anywhere except the colony. A mile from the park, while walking along a street parallel to it, he tries at every cross street to go there. I don’t doubt he could travel alone from our house to the colony four miles away. It is a place he sees in his mind’s eye. He has a mental map to the park. It is a place remembered as opposed to one merely in his sight. Would he get the idea to go there alone? I don’t know, but he can form intent.


I observed Holtz act with situational intelligence at a dog beach. We were there with Lucas, his German Shepherd buddy. Holtz was off leash romping and I was working hard to control Lucas with a leash. Holtz flew by, looked at us, and clearly had an idea. He bounced over and began herding Lucas. Holtz calmed Lucas down with body checks. I don’t know if Holtz’s idea was to help or to just have fun. Either way, he read the situation and resolved the conflict.


Another example of Holtz forming intent is his use of guile. He will pretend he wants to drink water from a stream so he can get off leash. Instead of getting a drink, he’ll run to a distant high value area. A more common example of canine guile is selective listening. In certain situations they pretend not to hear us yelling their names.

Holtz remembers interesting places and is able to form intent. He knows his way around. In cities, with reasonable restrictions on dogs, we may forget that country dogs roam and return home. In cities it is somewhat novel to see a dog out walking itself. “Out walking itself” is an odd phrase considering that walking around is what dogs do. Coyotes do it with such style I almost forget dogs are equally skilled.

Coyotes form intent, know interesting places, and remember them. With keen spatial intelligence they know their way around. They know where they are going and they know why. They seek food, water, information about their neighbors, safe resting spots, shade, warmth, and novelty. They make their rounds looking for intruders, making sure the doors are locked. They look for each other seeking companionship, family, play, and security for themselves and for their children. We see them out and about, exuding purposefulness. It is hard to exactly know their purpose on any particular occasion. It is safe to say their purposes aren’t significantly different from our own.

Posting written by Charles Wood. Visit Charles Wood’s website for these and more coyote photos: Charles Wood. His work is copyrighted and may only be used with his explicit permission.

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Charlotte Hildebrand
    Dec 22, 2011 @ 06:36:15

    Lovely piece of writing.


  2. Charles Wood
    Dec 22, 2011 @ 08:52:44

    Thank you Charlotte.


  3. Barb
    Jan 05, 2012 @ 04:40:20

    strange….I recognized my husband in these communication techniques…especially the selective listening technique.

    I was looking for topics about training coyotes, but I haven’t fully explored your it may be here somewhere. This is like being in a 54 story library. Nice.


    • yipps
      Jan 05, 2012 @ 05:19:22

      I’m not sure what you mean by “training coyotes”. Leave them alone, and they’ll leave you alone, never feed a coyote, and keep your dog leashed in a coyote area. It’s really more a matter of training people and dog owners, I think.

  4. Charles Wood
    Jan 05, 2012 @ 19:29:00

    Hi Barb, If you mean training coyote puppies, have you heard of The Daily Coyote by Shreve Stockton? And there is something rather male about all coyotes, at least I see them that way. The females aren’t dainty and are as tough as their men. The physicality they all exude, their tactics in defense: they are no nonsense types that yet love to play. Some of the coyote hunting sites (I’m not a hunter) show the human ‘male’ mind at work against coyote interests with insightful readings of coyote behaviors and body language. It is said that a hunter has to be intimately familiar with its prey. Some of my hunting instincts come out when I try and track my coyotes down to take their pictures. My coyotes have never given me any trust, assume I’m always up to no good, and without trust I doubt training is possible.


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