The stories started a few months into the year. Coyote sightings were on the rise. We thought it was a local happening but then we heard about sightings and attacks in neighboring states. Here in Connecticut, the stories were from New York and then Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. Speaking to clients from other states who relayed the same information and I realized that it was national phenomena.
Experts estimate that every state in the contiguous US has seen an increase of coyote activity. Every state.
And while the reports were mainly about sightings where in previous years there had been none and brief encounters in unexpected places at unforeseen times, soon people began talking more about actual attacks.
An incident that is often told around our parts is that a woman in upstate Connecticut fended off a coyote attack with a shovel and was aided by her pet donkey. It’s a fun anecdote to drop in conversation because of the preposterous cast of characters.
But that’s what bothers me the most.
People talking about coyote attacks like a punchline.
This year has brought many new things. And resurfaced many old things that we hadn’t stopped to think about very often. Coyotes have always been with us. This year, something about the change of people’s usual traffic has led to greater movement in the coyote population.
Suddenly everybody had or had heard a coyote story. And that kind of familiarity leads to people being complacent and cavalier about what can be a serious problem.
Not that I’m trying to alarm you. But I just heard someone on the radio news give advice that was so shockingly bad, I thought I’d take some time to set the record straight.
Coyotes are not dogs.
Yes, coyotes and dogs belong to the same dog family, but they are really different animals. The latin name for coyotes - Canis Latrans - may mean barking dog, but physically they are very distinguishable. Coyotes appear slimmer than dogs, with a sharp muzzle, flat forehead, and bushy tail. They look like they have longer legs but that is just an effect of where their elbow joint is positioned in relation to the chest.
That is probably one of the easiest and sure-fire ways to identify a coyote. Because you know somebody will always say, “Are you sure it was a coyote and not just some stray dog?”
Try to get a good look at the front legs and see where the elbow joint lays. A dog's elbow is higher than the bottom line of its chest, but a coyote has a very leggy look that comes from a shallow chest that leaves the elbow joint appearing lower.
It’s a quick and easy way to identify a coyote. The only dog that has that leggy look is a greyhound or such and those are very difficult to confuse with a coyote.
And proper identification is important. Another story making the rounds around here is of the animal control officer that shot and killed a pet dog that was mistaken for a coyote. This happens repeatedly every year and is a true shame.
To me, a coyote looks closer to a wolf than a dog. But really the differences go further than just appearance.
Coyotes are wild animals. The instincts that we use as guidelines in training our dogs hearken back thousands of years, so yes, the coyote probably shares some of that same base material. But a coyote lacks the other thousand years of domestication that our best friends have undergone that tempers that wildest instinct and allows for training.
Any attempt to tame a coyote by pursuing the same basic techniques trainers and behaviorists suggest for using to train your Standard Poodle are not going to work. No matter what a mistaken radio newscaster may suggest.
Yes, he suggested using aversive or positive punishment on a coyote. Man oh man.
Additionally, coyotes can spread diseases, sometimes even rabies, to human and dogs. They are highly aggressive animals and will eat cats or birds if given the chance. That is just their nature.
And it is that nature that makes any attempts to domesticate them or appease them foolhardy and very dangerous.
But I can understand why some people might want to try.
Coyotes are a lot like dogs.
They are evolutionary cousins. While I can’t think of anybody who has done real studies, there are plenty of anecdotal stories of dogs and coyotes actually playing together. There was a popular video going around the internet that actually showed a coyote performing a play bow to a dog and vice versa.
There was chasing play and nipping. So much of what you see at a dog park or daycare.
This tells us that so much of dog behavior that we see in our pooches comes from an instinctual place that spans centuries of evolutionary change.
It really is amazing when you stop to think about it.
And I have. Which is how I developed the Canine Master method.
I’ve heard of coyotes stopping to play with discarded or forgotten dog toys they found on their travels. They will toss them about, not exhibiting attack behavior, but real play.
When you see a coyote at play it reminds you of a pup exploring the first day at doggy daycare.
Dogs and coyotes are very much alike. And that is a problem. A coyote has much of the same inquisitiveness of your puppy without the restraint that domesticated dogs have developed.
While coyotes once lived on faraway, undeveloped lands, the species has spread into populated areas. And this is why we are hearing more and more about them today today. We develop wild areas and are coming face to face with more wildlife. Like coyotes. And coyotes are very adaptable.
Coyotes usually live off of their natural prey like rabbits, squirrels, deer fawn, as well as insects, fruits, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. But they have also adapted to urban environments and have learned to hunt domestic pets and small livestock, human garbage, and all sorts of crops.
Wherever they roam they can find something to eat. Which allows them to roam just about everywhere.
And they will. Regardless of what happens in the future, I think we are just going to see more coyotes in more human inhabited areas. Which is why we shouldn’t make things easier for them.
The first – and easiest – is DO NOT FEED wildlife. Just don’t. Intentionally or unintentionally, do not leave food laying around for them to find. Your kind heart does more than just fill stomachs, it accustoms wildlife to finding easy meals and – worse - makes them more comfortable around people. Food conditioning behavior simply creates a greater chance of an encounter.
As I stated before, we are going to have to get used to coyotes being in urban areas, just as many other species of wildlife have. However, ensuring they are not getting handouts will help keep coyotes a little wary of people and where people congregate.
And, contrary to popular belief, coyotes are not strictly nocturnal. They are known to be out and about during the day exploring and investigating new hunting territory. If you see a coyote sniffing around your neighborhood, redouble your efforts to make sure you don’t leave any easy snacks available for them. That’s like an invitation to put your backyard on their snack route.
Pay attention to bird feeders and BBQ grill areas. If you’re like me, something always falls into the grill. That can be a tasty treat for a wild visitor.
You should also avoid feeding your dogs outside. You can be very careful cleaning up messes and leftovers but I’ve known more than one dog that has hidden an emergency stash of food. Coyote noses will smell it out.
Fido will be down a stash and the coyote will mark another location to revisit in the future.
And it’s in these future revisits that attacks can happen.
Do not leave your pets outside unattended. Keep an eye on your pet when you open the back door to let him out and do not let him stray too far away from you. Whenever possible, take your dog out on a dog leash to avoid run-offs.
Honestly, that’s always been a good idea for a great number of reasons.
Also, coyotes are more active at night, so try to avoid walking your dog after sunset. If you must, and depending on where you live, you will have to carry a flashlight.
Again, this has always been a good idea for multiple reasons.
April through August is when coyotes will be most protective of just-born pups. Attacks always go up in these months since coyote parents are highly aggressive towards inquisitive dogs, so practice extra caution. Your dog may go in for a friendly, closer look but the coyote will see it as an attack on its offspring. That’s always bad news.
If your dog does get bit by a coyote, it requires immediate veterinary attention. The wound should be completely cleaned and debrided, get some antibiotics started, and booster the rabies vaccine if needed. All attacks should be reported to local authorities who track this type of animal behavior.
Coyote attacks on humans are much rarer. That’s mostly because the usual coyote prey is the size of a groundhog. But it does and can happen, so I’ll cover it briefly.
If you’re out for a walk around the block or a hike in the woods and you encounter a coyote, stay at least 150 feet or more from the animal. This is not a time for a selfie.
But don’t run. Like many dogs, coyotes can express chase behavior. They chase something that runs from them. It’s instinctual.
Stand your ground. Try and make yourself look taller/bigger by putting up your arms and make loud noises (don’t scream) until the coyote leaves. You can throw objects towards the threat but don’t throw anything directly at them. Walking slowly towards the animal while appearing bigger and making noise can also increase the deterrence.
In other words, increase the aversive. Maybe that newscaster wasn’t totally wrong.
But don’t corner the animal. We want to encourage the flight part of fight or flight, not the other.
A coyote that has grown accustomed to humans and sees a person as a potential food source can get scary quickly. Again, like a lot of dogs I work with, they can exhibit demand behaviors like nipping or clawing of clothes or hands. It might not mean to appear vicious but sudden teeth snapping at you from a strange animal is not for the faint of heart.
This is among the worst-case scenarios of food conditioning a coyote.
So again, DO NOT FEED wildlife. It’s best for everybody.
While coyotes can pose a threat to pets and livestock, it’s important for people to recognize the fact that these animals are native to North America and are a crucial part of the country’s ecosystem.
Coyotes are Mother Nature’s cleanup crew and help keep populations of rodents and other vermin under control.
As a long-time keeper of chickens and other birds, I must grudgingly admit that coyotes do have a role to play. Even after losing some great birds to these predators. They do have a place in the circle of life.
Besides, increased hunting and killing of coyotes has been shown to increase coyote populations. The fewer coyotes in a territory, the more they breed to fill the gap.
Totally contrary to logic. But numbers don’t lie.
Coyote management is mainly about people management. If we learn to reduce attractants and keep encounters rare by taking a few precautions in our public and private spaces, there is no reason why we can’t live together semi-peacefully.