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.

Defensive, Dominant or Aggressive: Coyote Reactions to Dogs

I’ve realized recently that the coyote reactions to dogs which I have written about involved mostly a dominant female coyote — a mother of pups. I need to distinguish between various individual coyote reactions to dogs which deviate from those of a dominant female. The dominant female with pups will always have the severest reactions to dogs — defensive reactions and controlling reactions. Most coyotes have milder reactions to dogs. Several distinctions might be useful.

1) Almost all coyotes will “flee” from humans. Coyotes do not want to tangle with humans. Humans are larger and more intelligent than coyotes, so invariably when the two approach in the same vicinity, the coyote will run off. I have never seen a coyote not run off when a person walks toward it. Approaching a coyote defiantly and noisily will make it leave faster. Most coyotes will also flee from dogs that run after them.

2) I have seen a coyote approach a dog on a path non-antagonistically if the dog has been previously seen by the coyote as fairly benign: the coyote may be curious. If a coyote approaches a leashed dog, please know that it is the dog, and not the human, which is attracting the coyote, and the approach may be antagonistically motivated. It could be that a dominant female coyote feels a particular dog is a threat — it appears almost always to be a dog she has seen before and evaluated. The dog may be one who pulls at the leash, or looks at the coyote defiantly or maybe it has chased the coyote in the past. The dog owner may be seen only as a minor deterrence to the coyote’s approaching. The coyote will approach with a dominance display, described below. A human can get the coyote to leave by facing the coyote and flailing his arms and making loud, sharp noises, such as clapping or shaking a can with bolts in it. HOWEVER, whether a coyote is in the distance or approaching or already close by, it is always best to leash and WALK away from it: utter and complete avoidance is always the safest policy.

3) “Defensive” means that an animal will protect itself when it is attacked or feels threatened. A coyote might begin by fleeing from a dog which goes after it, and when unable to get away, it goes into a defensive mode. Or, it may just stand its ground without fleeing: in this case it is just standing up for itself and is not going to be pushed around. Most animals will try to defend themselves at some point when others intrude upon them, and we all expect this. I’ve seen a gopher bite a coyote back, even though there was no hope. He was fighting for his life, but it was a defensive fight, not an aggressive one. The coyote’s defensive behavior towards dogs involves a dominance display, then a charge-and-retreat sequence, and ultimately a nipping at the haunches of the dog to get it to leave, much as a cattle dog does.

4) A “Dominance display” can be distinguished from aggression. It is more about “bluff” and “show” and is used to impart a message. It lets dogs know — dogs who are perceived as a threat to a coyote, such as active dogs or dogs who have chased — that they are not welcomed or liked by the coyote. It looks very much like the defensive behavior, which also might begin as a display, except it is initiated by a coyote as a message to the dog, usually because of previous negative encounters, be they overt chases, or simply messages imparted by body language and eye contact. We humans are simply not in tune to a lot of canine communication behavior.

Bluffing displays are used to dissuade and move other animals in hopes of averting a fight that might actually cause injury. We’ve all seen dominant dogs: they want it to be known that they think of themselves as “top-dog” by displaying their bigness and ferocity. They do this by standing up straight with their head high, raising their hackles, maybe growling, not wagging their tail or wagging it stiffly, looking down on the other animal, etc.

A dominance display is a warning — all dogs can read this. The dog is not only saying “don’t mess with me”, but maybe expecting its will to be the controlling factor — for instance, it may want a hyperactive dog to calm down. The dominant coyote behavior I have seen is more pronounced than dog dominance displays, after all, coyotes are fairly small animals and need to appear much more fierce and scary to have the same effect. It appears unprovoked to us humans — but often is provoked in subtle ways by the dog’s behavior which we humans seldom are aware of. The display serves as a clear message to ward off a dog: “go away” or “don’t mess with me.”

5) Coyotes in our parks are seldom outright aggressive towards dogs. We normally think of an “aggressive” animal as one who will actually attack without provocation — it just doesn’t like the other guy, and may not like most other guys. There is less of a message than an attack, though the attack itself leaves a message. Coyotes are not known to be aggressive. However, it is the exceptions you want to be prepared for, even though statistically this is so rare that these are seen as anomalies. We have learned that the few aggressive encounters between coyotes and humans have almost always been preceded by humans feeding them. I have never seen an aggressive coyote of this sort. For safety’s sake, please, never, ever feed wildlife. The closest looking thing to an aggressive coyote that I have seen is one defending itself from a dog — see the defensive photo above.

Please see posting of  December 7th: “Dog Reactions to Seeing a Coyote”, November 4th: “ANOTHER reaction to dogs”, November 17th: “More reactions to dogs”, and December 1st: “Significance of a Seemingly Unprovoked challenge”.  Also, please see the entry on “Coyote Safety” of 11/3. Blatant Visual Message to Newcomer Dog of 2/9/10. “A short back-and-forth chase: coyote interaction with a large dog” of 2/4/10.

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