Trusting the Canine Instinct

Ever since that one episode last year when Shiva had an odd reaction in the woods, I have been hyper-sensitive to her behaviour when walking in the dark. Previous to that morning, Shiva’s fearful reactions were directed either toward other people, other dogs, plastic bags blowing in the wind, rocks, and garden gnomes. All things I could see myself and help her figure out. The aforementioned time was the first time I witnessed her responding to a scent or a sound that I couldn’t detect. And her reaction itself was unusual. She didn’t bark or otherwise lose control. Rather, she folded into herself and ignored treats. That last alone was enough to make me worry.

Coyotes were a prevalent species in Nova Scotia; according to my sources, they are just as prevalent here in Edmonton. Especially in the river valley where we walk on a regular basis. In the dark. The only thing preventing me from hyperventilating about the dangers of a coyote encounter is the knowledge that coyotes in Alberta are much smaller than their Eastern counterparts. Even Shiva has a few pounds on them. Of course, this consolation is slim when I remember Shiva is a goof and instead of running away like a smart dog, she’d probably do something stupid like stand her ground.

Over a month ago now, Shiva and I had our first Edmonton coyote experience. We were walking in the ravine in the early morning – as we do. All is silent during that time of day. Before the snow fell, it was just us and a few dedicated joggers and cyclists. About halfway through our journey, I heard a high-pitched screaming. At first, I thought it was an injured dog, or perhaps a dog left outside all night who wanted back inside. Within a few minutes, I realized the sound was swiftly moving around the ravine and was closer to our location than I had thought.

It kind of sounded like this, actually, only louder:

“Is it a bird?” I wondered. “Or maybe another dog walking with his owner?” But what dog walks while yipping like that? None I have ever seen.

Shiva appeared unfazed. She continued sniffing and trotting as she always did. Trusting her, I continued on our way but picked up the pace a little. The high howling sound carried on and echoed around us until I reached a residential street. I told myself I was being silly for thinking it was something serious or wild. I clung to the fact that Shiva didn’t react.

Until, that is, the next day when we were leaving the ravine again after a quiet walk. A cyclist pulled up beside us on the path to say hello, she had obviously rode by us many times before. We chatted briefly and then as she rode away she left me with this parting shot, “at least there were no coyotes today!”

Coyotes. So my fears hadn’t been crazy after all. If this local woman who spent a lot of time outside thought it was the wild canine who had made that sound, I should probably trust her.


No more than a week later, Shiva and I were walking through a different part of the valley at night. As we wandered from one path to another, I heard the sound reverberating around the river paths on our left. Now there were multiple voices. Eerie voices. This time Shiva’s fur was on end and her ears were on high alert. I decided to turn around and headed back home via a major thoroughfare instead. But I could still hear them through the trees.

It is likely nothing would happen. With Shiva on a leash, I don’t think they are going to take on an adult human as well. Coyotes are reclusive. They avoid people and almost never attack. I gotta say, knowing this and living it are two different things completely. I’ve never heard noises like these before. They freaked me out enough to stay away. In the dim light I am at a disadvantage. As a human I rely primarily on my sight and when that is taken away I fell vulnerable. This is why I have learned to gauge Shiva’s behaviour. If she is upset about something, I take her at her word and exit the scene.

That’s why this morning, when Shiva came to an abrupt stop at a turn in the path, I stopped to listen. When I didn’t see or hear anything, I urged her on. When she refused to move forward and then let out a few barks while staring hard straight ahead, I paid attention. I’ll never know what set her off. It could have been a leaf or a tree branch dipping low under the weight of snow. But I wasn’t sticking around to find out.

Has your dog ever behaved nervously while on a walk? Have you changed your actions as a result? I am typically pretty observant when walking the dog no matter what time of day. Shiva has taught me to watch my surroundings for hidden dangers. Thus, even if she isn’t reacting to something, I am pretty aware. This only makes the rare occasions where she does seem disturbed much more frightening. Maybe it is unnecessary, maybe Shiva is just being the anxious dog she is, but if she tells me she is uncomfortable, I listen. It’s just not worth the chance.

10 thoughts on “Trusting the Canine Instinct

  1. Well we don’t have any coyotes or bears here, so the most Polly has to worry about is the ninja cat that stands up to her. It arches it’s back, hisses and actually has the nerve to walk towards her. The look on Polly’s face is priceless:) LOL

    You and Shiva stay safe.


  2. Maybe you should carry pepper spray. When we hike in Wyoming we always listen to Torrey. We go back country so there are bears and other big critters. We carry bear spray and a pistol. There has been several times she will stop, and grumble really low. We always stop and pay attention. So far, no critters.


  3. We have wolves, coyotes and bears. I’ve never had an encounter out with dogs, but there have been a few times that they have reacted strongly to something and it spooked me out enough to turn around.

    Definitely better safe than sorry.


  4. Dogs have such heightened senses of hearing and smelling that I always trust them to be aware of anything that could be a danger. I remember a dog from World War I who would react to incoming fire before the men could be aware of anything. When he reacted to the danger, they just learned to take his word for it. He saved many lives. That was Stubby, war hero.


  5. Mergie, my somewhere between 9 and 10 month old latest rescue, has done this many times. We live in an area of Atlanta where those scarey animals are all around
    In fact we are a state known for its woods and wildlife, even in the cities. In my neighborhood they have eaten cats and dogs alive. In some neighborhoods they walk down the streets in early morning looking for the odd dog or cat. I am terrified of them because I have 3 dogs. 1 Puggle, 1 15+ year old mutt and Mergie who looks like a small version of a Belgium Malinmois (I know I spelled that wrong but you get the idea). When I walk him at night he usually prances around but when he stops dead and turns around I leave. I don’t run but I do move along and I get no argument from Mergie. I never take the other two out at night outside the lighted areas.
    You need to find another time and place to walk. Give her a new experience. Find a sidewalk. Stop giving me more to worry about.


  6. **shudder** Back when we had horses, I used to lock myself and the dogs in the barn while I did the night time feeding and grooming because we could hear those scary, creepy coyote sounds out in the pastures. We actually ended up cutting emergency entrances into a ton of places in the bran and out building for our barn cats to get in quick if they needed to.

    Maybe consider getting a can filled with coins or marbles to carry with you or one of those tiny airhorns. If they coyotes get desperate, they get bold.


  7. We trust our dogs’ weird reactions when camping (while there are coyotes in Portland proper, we have not had the misfortune to encounter them). If they bark and chase, it’s a squirrel or chipmunk but if they stay by our side with hair raised and a low growl, I know something big is out there and then we do our “keep the bears away by banging pots” routine. I’m sure it’s never been a bear – more likely deer & elk but when they start acting weird, I start paying attention for sure.

    Also, Maggie can always tell when a person we approach on a walk is high on drugs. Especially meth heads. So if she has a strange reaction to a person, I completely 100% trust her instincts and high tail it away from that person.


  8. I once played a video that had coyotes yipping and howling on it. Cupcake immediately went on high alert. Daisy and Jasper did not. Since it was soon after she had returned home from being lost, I can only assume she heard the sound while out on her own. That gives me chills as much as the thought of running into one for real while out with my dogs. The only other time Cupcake reacted like that was as we were leaving the woods at dusk. It was the trash can that set her off, but it freaked me out nonetheless.


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