One of my favorite books of all time is Raymond an Lorna Coppinger’s Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution. It does the best job of any book I’ve found in exploring modern, scientific thinking about dogs, or really the whole canis genus, rather: how they came to be, and our biological relationship with them. The book evaluates multiple intriguing angles of this subject.

A standout discussion in the book is on “village dogs” or those semi-domesticated versions of dogs that live alongside, but not quite “with” humans in third world countries. There is a chapter on the dogs and people on the island of Pemba, off the East African coast.

“Is that your dog?” I would ask. “Yes” would be the answer. “Do you feed your dog?” “Yes.” But “What do you feed the dog?” got a look of confusion. … Why would a Pemban say this was her dog? Because the dog was always in or around her yard. “Is that your tree [in the front yard]?” “Yes.” “Do you water the tree?” “We dump the dishwater there.” … Dog ownership was like yard tree ownership. Residents had nothing to do with the tree being there, but it was in their yard.

Our Pet Parasites

This quote has always stuck with me, because I think of coyotes much in the same way. Coyotes are a component of the landscape, just like the trees and the grass. Coyotes are omnipresent. We seldom see them, hear them more, and notice their scat often. To me, they are just another dog to be managed on the farm. Less our dogs than our house dogs or guardian dogs, but our dogs nonetheless. We control much of their environment, many of their choices and sometimes decide whether they may live or die. They consume resources that fall within our legal ownership, and possibly offer some benefits to us; with the scale often weighing further towards the side of cost than benefit. Just like many or most domestic dogs.

This argument doesn’t apply quite the same way with wolves, that’s a separate subject. Confusing them with wolves, people sometimes ask me if we are afraid of the coyotes. No way, they are little, around 35 pounds, the same size as our border collies. Documented incidents of coyotes causing direct injury to adult humans  in any given decade can almost be counted on one hand; they are generally quite afraid of people, so are of almost no consequence as a threat to us. Though I’ve read that in some places, they run in organized packs, more like wolves, here they don’t seem to. Their lifestyles are mostly solitary, hunting small prey and snacking on whatever they can find. They are just a medium sized scavenger, and a parasite. The same can be said of the border collies laying on our couch. Winking smile

…and Survival Adversaries

All the same, of course coyotes do kill and eat livestock and domestic animals. They are more irritating than raccoons and weasels because they can kill bigger and more livestock than the little predators can and do. Losses of sheep, goats and calves are more common; and sometimes coyotes even manage to kill grown cows on a lucky day, like while one is giving birth. And this is what makes farmers learn to hate coyotes.

Anyone overly sympathetic with the coyote’s situation has never known the anguish of finding a fresh kill of pregnant ewes, some still thrashing, having been eaten alive, gut-first. The financial loss is painful enough. But the worst is knowing that our sheep are utterly dependent upon us for protection, and that we’ve failed them. The sheep aren’t like deer, lithe and carrying tiny single fetuses, unfenced and unhindered. If a predator catches a deer, we think, oh well, it was a 50/50 fight for who would win the survival game. Fair play. But not so with sheep. They are laden with selected-for heavyweight twins and triplets, bred down from sprinting bodies to waddling frames of meat-bearing cuts, and fattened with feedstuffs. They are trapped, physically and mentally, inside of fencing. And they are ours.

So when a coyote waltzes in and devours a sheep, it is like an act of war. The coyote is not only taking resources we own, he is attacking our most vulnerable, making the trespass feel ethically offensive as well as legally. We are nearly hard-wired to react to that; it seems to revert us to our most caveman instincts. Competing for the same resources, protecting our weak, and scrapping for the right to survive. So it’s no wonder that many old-school farmers wind up on a mission to kill the coyotes. All of them.

This is No Job for the Orkin Man

But the trouble is, you can’t. Newer research on these scavenger species has clued us in that it’s nearly impossible to extinguish them. Their populations are highly flexible and dynamic, and completely niche- and resource-driven. If you remove one coyote, that just opens up a space for another one to take his place. If the regional population starts to dwindle, creating unclaimed territories and freeing up resources, the bitches produce more pups to fill the gap. The more selection pressure they face, they more they rise to the challenge and increase reproduction. So the last thing we want to do is go on a killing spree; because the population responds exactly opposite to what we’d prefer. We kill one coyote, we might get three more vying for his spot in return.

Indeed this notion was confirmed by a man I met who ran guardian dogs with his sheep, and generally left well-behaved coyotes alone. He had gone a long time with no sheep losses. But one day, he saw a coyote outside his fence, minding its own business. He had his gun, and for no particular reason, he shot it. The next week? Sheep kills from a new coyote that slipped past the guardian dogs into this “new” territory! He vowed never to make that mistake again.

So what to do with the clever devils? I’ve concluded that all we can do is manage them, and view them just like our “other” dogs. With all dogs, we carefully structure their environment to get the results we want. We use tools to prevent them from being naughty. We train them using operant conditioning techniques to increase desirable behavior, and decrease unwanted acts. And we work with the ones we have, and only remove one from the population if it’s truly not working out. All of our dogs have the potential to learn to injure or kill livestock, the coyotes are no different than any other farm dog on that point.

Physical Techniques

These are the more obvious tactics. Plain old fences have some value, because I believe coyotes don’t like to be caught between a rock and a hard place. Or rather, areas with only one exit, or a dicey exit. Coyotes can climb, dig and squeeze with ease, over, under and through fencing. The above-mentioned Coppinger book has an amusing tale about some research coyotes they worked with, which were letting themselves out of their chain link kennels at night to frolic, and putting themselves away in the morning before any people showed up. Researchers were none the wiser until one day little footprints were revealed in snow. So there is almost no way to prevent these petite dogs from entering a space if they really want to get in. But they are no dummies. If the entry is awkward, so will be the exit, and they sense they are vulnerable going into closed spaces and getting preoccupied with killing and eating in there.

We have a narrow channel of land between our house and our fenced pastures, dead-ended on one side by a steep cliff up to the road. This is where our orchard and gardens lie, and also our poultry pen. And though theoretically it’s a “safe zone” where the coyotes could travel if they chose, there is little indication they ever go there. Neither do deer. I think the blind alley makes them wary: people and house on one side, guardian dogs and fencing on the other, only one way out. They just steer clear of it. Many acquaintances I know with small acreages cleaved up by woven wire fencing report coyotes don’t come in. So I believe good fencing can go a long way towards making a pasture a low-priority choice for a coyote’s main hunting activities.

Hotwire is even better- no dog likes getting shocked, it terrifies the bejeebers out of them. One friend told me about a coyote stuck in her cow pasture for a couple of days, having gotten shocked on the way in, he was scared to leave. But it has to be well-placed hotwire, or electrified wire mesh, because coyotes are smart enough to leap over or slide under a single strand.

And, of course, guardian dogs have solid statistics backing them: they are a major coyote deterrent. Even breeds which are not traditionally guarding breeds, but are good-sized and bark a lot in defense of their home, like good ol’ Labrador Retrievers, can make coyotes move along. But true guardian dogs that can live out with the livestock and make a habit of patrolling perimeters and warning away approaching people and animals are even better. Here again, coyotes are not stupid: their instincts advise them to avoid physical brawls, which risk injury that could lead to impaired hunting ability, or infection and death. They won’t fight for frivolous reasons. And they are respectful of other dogs’ territories, be it coyote peers or domestic dogs.

Teaching

Beyond physical means of influencing coyote behavior, they are pretty smart, and thus highly trainable dogs. I try to just think of this as any other dog training exercise: that we have to teach them not to go for the livestock, and to stay away from our fence lines. This is not unlike teaching our dog Maggie not to steal roasts off the kitchen counter. Winking smile I rarely witness her doing it, but when I do, she’s going to hear about it! We do occasionally “catch” one of our resident coyotes lurking at the fence and eyeballing the sheep. One day, one was barking his fool head off at Bronte, our big LGD. Other days, they might just be rodent hunting, but starting to edge closer than we want them to be.

For one, I try to teach them presence: that they may never know when I might sneak up and surprise them. At night, if the farm dogs are barking, I’ll often get up and go talk to them outside, just to remind the coyotes, I’m here, and I’m keeping an eye on you. If there is really a ruckus of barking, I’ll walk all the way down to the pasture, and loop around so my scent trail is everywhere. Most wildlife have a funny mental characteristic in that they don’t seem to recognize humans when we’re on a vehicle, like a tractor or an ATV. This is a good way to sneak up on them and get way into their flight zone before stepping off the vehicle to reveal oneself. It scares the heck out of them every time!

And, of course, there is the gun. We tend to shoot at them with a small rifle- it’s not ear splittingly loud to bother the neighbors, and the goal is not to actually hit the coyote and injure or kill it. The intention is to give him a good scare, having shots land close enough to him that he hears the bullets hitting the dirt. This increases coyotes’ flight distance, because they quickly realize even if a human is far away, he has the capability of shooting those magic bullets too close for comfort.

This is not a bleeding-heart, naïve diatribe. Despite our best efforts, some coyotes will keep pushing in, taking livestock anyway, either out of boldness or desperation. Once they learn it, it’s hard to unlearn, and more livestock will be lost in the process of trying. Those dogs usually have to be culled. Beyond their own bad habits, they’ll teach their pups how to do it, and also pass on those boldness genes. But once an individual is surgically removed from the population, the new guy that takes his place is a clean slate, ready to train.

Our Coyotes

We have a lot of them here. At night, I can sit still in the yard and listen to them sing across the valley, and pick out the individual voices of at least a dozen in the immediate neighboring pastures, and more in the distance. They surround us. When we first moved here and started to interact with the resident coyotes, they had learned to come darn close to people. A no-shooting equestrian park nearby, lots of “pet people” and a huge commercial tree farm with day laborers gave the wild dogs too much exposure to non-threatening humans. If we’d chase them, they’d only run off a short distance, then turn back and stare at us, testing the edges of the territory and pushing them as far inward as they could. Not anymore. Now if they even spot us in the yard, they get the move on and disappear into the woods. They are hard to photograph because they hang back so much. We have two that hunt mice every morning in the hayfield next door, but they stay well off the fence and maintain a very large flight zone from us. Good dogs.

These good-dog coyotes, the ones that keep the rodent population down, steer clear of people, and leave our livestock alone are welcome to stay and we don’t bother them. They keep other coyotes out of the niche, other coyotes who have the potential to become bad-dog coyotes. Just like “our” trees and grass, our coyotes are just another element of nature to be managed in balance with the domesticated life on the farm.

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