A couple of decades ago, I was running with our dogs, both German shepherds, on a trail east of Santa Fe. We turned a corner and ran smack into a pack of coyotes in an arroyo. They were as startled as we were, and there was a bark-off as the coyotes scattered with my dogs in pursuit. I ran after them, yelling their names, but to no avail. I stopped and wondered if this was going to end badly. A few minutes later, fortunately, both of my dogs returned, safe and sound and out of breath.
At the time, I didn’t think much about it. I mean, what coyote is going to mess with two 90-pound German shepherds?
Flash-forward to today, and I find myself walking alone with our Chihuahua-Maltese, Maisie, who weighs 10 pounds soaking wet. (Our two big Berners are averse to the summer heat even in the morning. They walk straight to wherever there is a fan and collapse.)
Walking Maisie one morning last week on a road where we commonly see coyotes, all of a sudden I felt a bit vulnerable. What would I do if we again ran into one or a pack of them?
We got home unscathed, with the only wildlife encounters a rabbit, songbirds and some crows. But I thought it was a good time to do some research.
First, I found out that according to a study in Chicago, done over 10 years, 70 dogs were attacked by coyotes. Among those attacked were Labrador and golden retrievers. So, my idea that bigger breeds were immune went out the window. (Also, from the same report, it was noted that coyote attacks were on the rise as they move in and become accustomed to the urban and suburban environments.) But well over 50 percent of the attacks were on small Maisie-sized dogs.
I also discovered that attacks are more likely from January to July, during the breeding and pupping season, and that coyotes are more active during dawn and dusk.
But the fact is, coyote-dog encounters are rare, and with a few common-sense measures, we can make them even more unlikely.
• Know that we live in coyote territory (along with mountain lions, bears and rattlesnakes). It’s essential to be aware of your surroundings on walks.
• Most important: Keep your dog on a leash. If you have a small dog, consider a 6-foot leash. That leash keeps you close enough to the dog to act as a deterrent to coyotes, who are typically shy around humans. An unleashed dog might end up running away from a coyote (and being pursued) or like my shepherds, chasing them and possibly getting into difficulty.
• Try to avoid walking your dog at dawn or at dusk. This can be difficult because it’s hot during the day, but coyotes are most active around sunup and sundown.
• Avoid areas full of brush or off trails where coyotes can find cover. (This is also a good rattlesnake strategy.)
• Consider carrying a noisemaker like an air horn, if you are concerned.
• If an encounter happens and a coyote or a pack comes too close, be aggressive. Make yourself as big as possible (arms out, holding your jacket out) and yell. (Or use the horn.) Don’t run away as that might cause the coyote to go into prey mode and chase. Instead, slowly back away until you feel safe.
• Remember coyotes are continually hunting for food and they are opportunistic eaters. Don’t leave dog food outside and don’t let your dogs out unsupervised — especially at night.
And, although I hate to harp on this, clean up the dog poop; coyotes are attracted to the smell of dog feces.
Finally, I am one of those tree-hugging liberals who love coyotes and love hearing their cries and howls throughout the night. They are the very sound of the West to me.
Of course, I don’t have cattle, and we don’t raise chickens, so the only skin I have in this game is keeping our dogs safe. A few simple precautions and some common sense can allow us to all live here in relative peace.