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

Working Dogs as Predators

For instance, the predatory sequence of pointer dogs pauses at the “freeze.” They spot a bird, then stand stock still facing in its direction, with one foreleg raised. On cue, they flush the bird. This, according to Raymond and Lorna Coppinger in their book Dogs, is a modified grab-bite. It seems more like a chase to me, but the Coppingers are the experts in this field, so I’ll take their word for it. The hunter shoots the flushed bird. The pointer then loops back to orienting and searching for prey, and finally goes and grab-bites the downed bird and retrieves it. What the pointer isn’t supposed to do is bite as if to kill – the bird is already dead, but the dog’s job is to bring it back without damaging the body.

Retrievers are also supposed to bring back the bird that a person has shot. They don’t freeze, but, like pointers, they search for the prey and then carry it, without biting it hard, throwing it around, or eating it. (And, no, I don’t know why Labrador retrievers, who will bring back a bird without leaving a mark on it, also deserve their reputation for finger-shredding when they take treats.)

If you’ve ever seen a Border Collie herding sheep, you’ve watched a predator in action. When a BC runs out toward the sheep, he’s essentially orienting toward prey. He eyes and stalks the sheep. And then he chases them to get them to move in the direction his handler calls for. The collie may also nip at the sheep to get them moving faster – the grabbing part of the predatory sequence. And for a working Border Collie, that’s where predation stops. Some other herding dogs – Queensland Heelers, for instance – bite a lot harder. They work with cattle, which are tougher to move than sheep.

Although the specialized predatory patterns are typical of certain working-dog breeds, inherited tendencies don’t come perfectly pre-installed. Some Border Collies nip the sheep too hard, for instance, and many a pointer or retriever has been caught eating on the job. I always think it’s important to remember, when we hear about breed-typical behaviors of any kind, that they’re not fixed in stone.

Pet Dogs as Predators

So how about your Dogalini? Fetch and tug are predatory games, and the pup who takes 10 seconds to rip apart any stuffed toy you bring home is channeling her inner prey-dissecting hunter. None of this should worry you. As for the chasing of live animals – well, it’s complicated. If for ethical reasons you don’t want your dog to chase small wild animals such as squirrels and rabbits, then by all means keep her on leash where they’re to be found. And teach her to come when called like a bullet, no matter what. It may help to provide an outlet in the form of a flirt pole, which is like one of those fishing-pole toys for cats, only bigger and sturdier.

It is possible, but not easy, to teach a dog who chases squirrels not to chase stray cats, so that’s a consideration. Also, some chase-worthy animals can infect your dog with potentially life-threatening diseases, such as leptospirosis. So learn what diseases are carried by the wildlife in your area. If your dog is hopelessly slow, the risk may be theoretical, but just in case …

It’s imperative to prevent your dog from chasing deer or livestock. One, a dog hot after a deer may travel far enough to get lost. Two, farmers and hunters often have the legal right to shoot chasing dogs. Three, there’s the problem that our dogs’ predatory behavior is often incomplete. The result can be a dog who kills or injures a dozen chickens without eating even one. I think we can all agree that that’s an ugly waste.

Predation Isn’t Aggression

Many behavior experts think of predatory behavior as separate from aggression. That’s because it’s based on food-getting, not social conflict. The squirrel is just as dead either way, but the difference between predation and social aggression still matters: Chasing and killing squirrels has nothing to do with whether your dog likes kids or is friendly toward visitors.

Predatory Behavior Toward People

Of course, predatory behavior toward people isn’t unknown. In those extremely rare cases where a group of dogs kills someone, predation probably has a role. Also, some dogs respond to flailing, squeaking infants and toddlers as if to prey.

A few years ago, someone proudly posted a video on YouTube of the family dog playing with a baby in a walker. The dog darted in and out, in and out, mouth to the baby’s leg, to the baby’s arm, to the baby’s face. Trainers all over the Internet broke into a cold sweat and commented, begging the family to get help pronto. Other commenters got very, very angry with us for harshing the mellow. The video has since been taken down, for better or worse.

I mention predation toward kids for completeness’ sake, but in my experience it isn’t something most parents need to lose sleep over. Children and dogs do best when they’re carefully supervised, anyway, and they both need exercise. So go for a walk in the park with your kid and your dog, and throw in a nice predatory game of fetch.

When you get home, stop by and visit me on Facebook, or write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and though I can’t reply individually, I may use them as the basis for future episodes. Thanks for reading!

Dog with chicks, dog herding sheep, and wolves images courtesy of Shutterstock.


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).