Understanding Coyote Behavior


        Generally, we need to know that coyotes live daily lives comprised of the same things we do: sleeping, waking, finding food (hopefully), playing, raising their young, avoiding dangers, healing from hurts, finding a mate, finding shelter, retaining their special status among others, and so on. They are as absorbed in these activities as much as we are.

        Their interest in you is very superficial, involving a mild curiosity. Their interest in your dog might be a bit more substantial, because dogs look familiar to them and because dogs might pose a threat. But dogs also have been seen by coyotes as playmates.

        Most coyotes are shy and seem to have their instincts intact -- which means they flee to a safe distance when they see humans or dogs, either to hide or maybe to begin a barking episode. However, a few of our coyotes have displayed more individualistic behavior -- either more friendly or more brazen. Just like people, each individual coyote has its own individual character and personality. In addition, there are also human or dog interactions which can alter their behavior to seem more friendly or more bold -- ultimately this hurts everyone: coyotes, dogs and humans.

        Two of the San Francisco coyotes have played with some of the dogs who came to the parks for their walks -- this was an occasional but recurring phenomenon. Unfortunately, this was publicized in one of our newspapers several years ago, so that people got the idea -- maybe bad idea -- that it would be fun if their dog played with a coyote. Some people even like to brag about this. With these two particular coyotes, I don’t think it did any harm, but it could have.

        A number of coyotes have been known to follow early morning dog walkers, at a comfortable distance, probably out of curiosity or for entertainment. Fortunately most walkers have been amused, or even thrilled, if also curious themselves about this little animal’s behavior patterns. The coyote of course is curious about the dog following the human, not the human. And more rarely, some of the coyotes can get quite enthusiastic, bouncing back and forth with excitement trying to engage the dog’s attention.  Maybe they want to play, as they have seen other dogs do, but their instincts are not allowing them to fully follow through. Or maybe they are messaging the dog to move on. The important thing to remember is that the coyote in such a situation is unlikely to be “stalking” you.

        One of the coyotes I’ve seen likes to observe walkers and their dogs from a chosen lookout -- this for up to four hours at a time! This particular coyote is very peaceful, like the little bull Ferdinand in the children’s book who liked to sit and smell the flowers. BUT, when chased, she will stand up for herself, or she may start a distressed barking session.

        The observing and following are very normal, characteristic behaviors of coyotes. If you are bothered by these, especially if you have a small dog or a child you might feel protective of, pick it up and call it a day, or pick another park or time period for your walks -- as if you had met a skunk on the trail that wouldn’t move.

       It is important for everyone to know that coyotes do not want to be chased. Please don’t let your dog chase the coyotes. Since we can prevent the chasing by simply leashing, we shouldn’t make them communicate their need to be left alone in the only way they can.  An ounce of prevention involves simply leashing in the parts of a park where coyotes are most frequently seen.

        The warning behaviors coyotes use to move a dog away from themselves, once they have been chased, especially when their pups are around, are a short charge-and-retreat sequence, a barking episode, and/or ultimately a nipping at the haunches of a dog to move them on, much in the same way that a cattle-dog accomplishes its herding. Sometimes two coyotes will work as a team, and at this point a dog will almost always feel overwhelmed.  Coyotes are extremely intelligent. They are trying to let you and the dog know, as best they can, that you have crossed its line. Listen to the communication and acquiesce -- as you would to a skunk blocking your path.

        Some of us humans have our own fears regarding coyotes: we may wonder what  the coyote might be doing when he’s following us or bouncing in front of us without backing up, or barking distressingly -- these behaviors seem always to be in response to dogs. Are we in danger? Statistically, no. But this doesn’t mean you should not take precautions: you need to know about coyote behavior and to remove yourself from a situation you might not like and you need to know how to dissuade a coyote from coming any closer: make yourself look “big” with arm-flailing, never turn your back, make loud noises, such as sharp slapping sounds with your hands, get your dog and leave.

        My aim is to preserve our relationship with our coyotes and to build trust in the few walkers who really might be fearful of coyotes. Coyotes are here to stay. It is illegal to get rid of them. They are generally not a threat until they themselves are threatened. If you make a coyote defend itself against your dog, the coyote might end up being put down, which not only will create a huge public uproar as it has in the past, but then another coyote will come to take its place. Why not start out right to create a relationship and coexistence that will work by actively keeping them distant from all human and dog interaction/interference.

        Coyotes have a natural wariness of humans built into them, so will keep their distance. However, dogs are seen as a territorial threat and as a threat to their food source. Coyotes have territories because they need a set area that they can count on for their food and water, or an area they feel is safe for raising pups. Knowing this psychology might aid us in giving-in a little -- giving them the space they need.

        Coyotes have ventured closer to where people are when they know food is around. Making sure we securely dispose of our leftovers, say, after a picnic, will remove the invitation to come into the more populated park areas. We are lucky to have wild animals return to this area. The San Francisco Bay Area has become a nature-lover’s paradise: let’s celebrate our urban wildness. This area has the best of many worlds.

        By respecting the coyote, his wildness and his space, you have what you need to coexist. Specifically, please don’t feed wild animals and please don’t let dogs chase them and please keep your distance. And if you are fearful of coyotes, instead of walking during twilight hours in a known coyote area, you could easily change your route or hours of walking. Please see what I wrote about keeping our coyotes safe and wild.