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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Winter returns and coyote training

Today dawned sunny, windy, and gorgeous. My dogs and I took my mountain bike for a walk on the trails this morning. Actually, that's a minor exaggeration - I was able to churn through the snow for about half of the time. I thought that riding would be easier today because people had packed down the trails yesterday. However, the wind kicked up overnight, and it was impossible to tell that anyone had been on the trails since it snowed.

In the left photo below, the trail is straight ahead - I rode it yesterday but no trace of my tracks remains. On the right, you can see that I managed to churn through it today, even if only for short distances.

I decided to ride on the roads near us after dropping the dogs off at home but the w
ind was causing drifting, even on the roads. At one point, I was pedaling like crazy to keep moving forward on a *downhill* with snow being whipped into my face. But, I realized that I was smiling. I don't want to spend the life in the climate-controlled cocoon of modern society. I love being out in the elements. Below, the wind is whipping the snow from right to left across the road.
In yesterday's post, I talked about my experiences with dogs and coyotes - scary stories of dogs I know being killed by coyotes and of my dog, K, having a perilous run-in with a pack. Indeed, while I was ski touring at sunset today, I passed a sad spot. A favorite neighborhood dog was killed by a predator while roaming on his own in the woods. While on a hike with us, our dogs found his remains, which were scattered by scavengers. Especially upsetting was that his head kept reappearing on a hiking route we frequent. Due to the frozen ground, we couldn't bury the remains so my husband made a big pile of rocks to cover them. You can see only the top of the rock pile in the photo.

This sad event, among others, convinced me that training my dogs not to chase coyotes was a deadly serious task. Up to that point in K's life, I'd used completely positive training methods. I rewarded good behaviors and ignored bad ones. I worked on recalls daily, rewarding her with games of tug or a jackpots of steak. Due to this work, K would turn on a dime to come to me even when faced with fleeing deer, elk, moose, bears, bobcats, rabbits, porcupines, wild turkeys, grouse, or squirrels. Believe me, she'd overcome all of those temptations to do great recalls.

Coyotes seemed to bring out a different, wilder, side of K. When chasing a coyote, she didn't even pause when I called her. I'd *never* seen her ignore me like that. Since I couldn't manufacture non-vicious coyotes who'd appear on cue for training, I couldn't 'practice' recalls around coyotes. Indeed, I felt that her next chase might be her last if she continued to ignore my recalls around coyotes - so there was no time for 'practice' recalls. My well-respected training guru and I pondered what to do.

After gathering advice, I saw 2 options: keep K on a leash for the rest of her life or use a strong aversive (i.e., shock collar) to teach her that chasing coyotes was very scary. I couldn't bear to keep K on a leash forever because running is her biggest joy in life. But the thought of using a shock collar on my beloved K made me sick.

While I wrestled with this moral dilemma, I met a woman and her dog in my neighborhood. Coyotes had attacked her dog. Despite the passage of a couple of months, her dog still looked frail and scarred. The attack had resulted in hundreds of stitches, and the dog lost about 40% of her body weight during the recovery. This was the final straw for me. I realized that being shocked a few times was a very small negative compared to K being terribly injured or killed. I also realized that I needed to act immediately. No more pondering.

The shock collar worked. When a coyote appeared, I shocked K as she took her first sprinting strides toward him. K stopped in her tracks. Then, I called K, and I gave her a huge jackpot for returning to me. K has been wearing a shock collar on the trails for almost a year now, and I've repeated this process only 4 times because we've seen luring coyotes only 4 times. Because she was shocked only while chasing coyotes, my guess is that K thinks that chasing coyotes caused the shock and returning to me caused good things to happen (treats).

The last time that we saw a coyote, as I recounted in yesterday's post, I didn't need to use the collar. I used a jackpot of treats when K and the other dogs turned to me. I hope that I never have to use the collar again but, for the moment, K is still wearing it as a life insurance policy.

Through this process, I came to realize that, for me, using an aversive like a shock collar is ethically tolerable *if my dog's life is in danger*, and I've done all the basic groundwork using positive training (e.g., teaching a recall, 'leave it', etc). I feel that coyote chasing, especially in light of the dog-killing coyotes in my area, meets these criteria. I truly believe that K would've been hurt or killed by now if I hadn't taken this action.

I also know that I never would've been comfortable having K and the other dogs off-leash in the meadow at sunset if I hadn't done the coyote training with K. For the past couple of evenings, I've swooshed on skis across the meadow snow as my dogs played around me. What a peaceful ending for the day.


  1. That's so sad about the neighborhood dog. I felt the same way when we found a "lost" dog ... dead on the side of the road this summer. He was the victim of noise phobias. I don't know if this link will work, but I'll try:

    I'm not a fan of shock collars, as you know, but I agree that in certain/limited situations, in the hands of a person with good timing, it can be an important tool.

    I shared a tale of Lilly's one tangle on our property with a coyote the other day over at Dog-Geek. *That* was scary. We were lucky.

    We have run into some while hiking (with Lilly on leash), but I was relieved to see THEM and not a mountain lion ... after catching a flash of something brown, moving quickly in my peripheral vision.

    Then, of course, there was the rattlesnake bite she suffered over Labor Day weekend.

    Sheesh! It takes a lot of work to keep dogs safe in our mountain communities.

  2. I couldn't agree with you more. I, in principle, strongly disapprove of shock collars. However, given the level of danger, I had to figure out something to do.

    I saw your coyote story -- about Lilly on the coyote's back. Whew - that was a very close call. At least, it doesn't sound like Lilly is always watching for coyotes to chase. For a while, it felt like K was always in that mode.

  3. As I am sure you know, coyotes are very opportunistic and will kill almost any prey that is available. I think most people have misconceptions about shock collars. They aren't about causing pain. They are used to startle a dog with a relatively mild static correction similar to static electricity. People think that their dog feels the same sensation as they do when they test it on themselves. Keep in mind that a humans nerve endings are much closed to the surface of the skin than a dog's and a dog also has some fur to lessen the sensation.

  4. My husband, our 5 year old, 85 lb standard male poodle and our 10 month old 30 lb labradoodle live in suburban Boston/Framingham area on a cul-de-sac surrounded by our town forest and privately owned 60 acre forest. Coyotes are seen and heard all year long. My husband allows our poodle to chase them for "good exercise". Now the puppy is joining the poodle, as I predicted she would.
    Getting separated Mon morning 4/13/9 for 2.5 hrs. she was found by the dog officer on a busy street, downtown, 2 miles from home. She was dazed, scared,confused! After hrs of worrying that she was attacked by the coyotes, but finding her alive, I was relieved, but still livid that my husband would continue to allow the poodle to run after coyotes "He'll be fine". On Wed, they ran again, but this time he had the 1/2 mile shocker on. He just doesn't use it correctly nor does he bring treats "They should know to follow me by now". He loves the dogs, cries when we've lost several, pampers them all them time, bathes and brushes them...
    I've told him that the vet, the animal control officers, the AMC wildlife consultant, our friends and neighbors object to allowing dogs to chase coyotes for both of the animals' sakes. I'm about ready to either give the dogs to a safer home or leave with them. Any other ideas???

  5. Zorronola,

    First, your husband has to realize how dangerous coyote chasing is. The dogs will lose the battle almost every time. Multiple dogs from my neighborhood have been killed by coyotes whom they chased this year.

    Second, I think that you need a good trainer. A shock collar alone won't solve your problems. In fact, if it's not used correctly, your dogs may end up fleeing from you after a shock rather than returning. Talk to your vet to find a good trainer or to the humane society.

    But, nothing will happen unless your husband truly believes that your dogs might be killed by coyotes. Eastern coyotes (yours) are substantially bigger than western ones (mine) so the odds of a killing are even greater. Perhaps you can find news of coyotes killing dogs to show your husband. Or, get your vet to talk about it with both of you.

    Telling your husband that you're going to find the dogs a safer home might make your message clear.

    Sorry that I don't have better advice... I really hope that your dogs stay safe.


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