Dog, the Hunter: Predatory Behavior

Domestic dogs don't hunt in family groups the way their wolf ancestors did (and do!). But they're still predators -- sometimes in unexpected ways.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #225

Our dogs probably descend from wolves who were less easily spooked than average. These less-fearful wolves learned to scavenge garbage around human settlements. To compress and distort a long, complicated story, the garbage-eating wolves were the ancestors of “village dogs,” dog communities based in and around human communities. From village dogs come our modern pets and working dogs.

They’re still closely related to wolves, but there are important differences in body and behavior. That’s true of the most “wolfy”-looking breeds as well as of your local Pekingese. One of the biggest differences, of course, is that unlike wolves, dogs no longer live in family groups that hunt together for their food. But that’s not all there is to the story. This week: dogs as predators..

Even though our dogs no longer have to do their own killing if they want to eat, we’ve all seen them hunt – or try to, as the 150th squirrel in a row makes a clean getaway. What would a complete sequence of predatory behavior look like? Yes, yes, eeew. But trust me, this stuff is worth your knowing.

The Predatory Sequence

We start long before the point where any squirrels die, at the moment when Dogalini looks around her and takes a good whiff of the air. What’s out there that might be catchable and good to eat? Right there, the predatory sequence has begun. Aha!  She catches a sight or scent and orients toward it. Then she goes still: watching, scenting, taking in information about her prey. She stalks it, then bursts into a rush and a pounce. And, okay, here come the gory parts. She grabs her prey, bites it hard enough to kill it, maybe tosses it around. She rips it up. And then she eats it, or stashes it for future reference.

But, you say, my dog has caught a squirrel but then he didn’t seem to know what to do with it, and it got away unharmed. Yes, indeed. In many pet dogs, the predatory sequence is “truncated,” or cut short. And the predatory behavior of many working-dog breeds is also incomplete. Here's why.....


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).