Predatory Behaviors In Pet Dogs

Tracey McLennan, MSc

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May 6, 2024

Much of the time, predatory behavior in pet dogs is unwanted. It is often seen as a common behavior problem, one that can be dangerous toward livestock, wildlife, and even other pets. Understandably, the owners of predatory dogs usually look for ways to suppress this behavior. However, it’s important to understand that predatory behavior has been strengthened in dogs through selective breeding, and it can impact a dog’s welfare.

 

Wolves—and other predator species—use predatory behavior to find food. It’s how they survive. The biologist David Mech has spent much of his life studying wolves, and he describes the way wolves catch their prey as a sequence of individual behaviors:

 

search > approach > watch > attack-group > attack-individual > capture

 

Selective breeding and the close relationship between dogs and humans have created a sequence of behaviors that look quite different from what wolves do. The dog sequence looks like this:

 

hunt > orient > eye > stalk > chase > grab-bite > possess > kill-bite > dissect > consume

 

Many dogs will exhibit only a few of these behaviors and not necessarily perform the entire sequence. If you’re familiar with the concept of a predatory behavior sequence, you might have noticed that I’ve included a couple of additional stages. The sequence I discuss includes “hunt” and “possess.” I include these because my research and experiences with my own and other people’s predatory dogs suggest that these stages are important.

 

Chase

“Hunt” is the stage before the dog has found prey to orient towards. It is when the dog searches for prey using their nose or eyes. This behavior has been selectively bred into several breeds, including Spaniels, Setters, Pointers, Weimaraners, and Vizslas. For example, during my first visit to a local gundog trainer with my Spaniel, I was informed that working tests for Spaniels in the UK heavily focus on hunting skills.

 

In my research for my master’s degree in Applied Animal Behavior and Training, I gathered information about the predatory preferences of 1,875 dogs. I found that for 88% of those dogs, hunting was something they were described as loving to do or something they did often. Since hunting behavior is something many dogs have been bred to perform, it’s crucial to address it.

 

Hunting behavior can sometimes be tricky to understand. Dogs might seem to react to invisible stimuli when they suddenly become excited for no apparent reason. The same hiking spot can feel different to them from one day to the next based on weather conditions, time of day, season, or recent wildlife activity.

 

“Possess,” while not as popular among the surveyed dogs (61% had a strong interest in it), is still important to understand. This behavior involves the bite used to hold and carry prey, distinct from a “grab-bite” intended to injure prey. Dogs bred for retrieving have been selected to carry prey without causing damage. This trait is crucial for dogs assisting human hunters by retrieving shot animals. They must be able to maintain the hold while running, swimming, jumping over obstacles, or crawling through dense undergrowth.

 

In pet dogs, this desire to hold and carry can lead to conflicts with human families. Games like fetch can be challenging when dogs would rather keep the ball than hand it over. Similarly, dogs who steal small items like socks may run away, hide, or even bite if someone tries to retrieve the item. In extreme cases, dogs might swallow such items, requiring emergency veterinary care.

 

Selective breeding has altered our pet dogs’ behavior. They no longer perform predatory behaviors to obtain food; instead, they might perform parts of the sequence repeatedly, even if no food is involved. In “The Misbehavior of Organisms,” the authors noted that animals might perform parts of their natural behavior sequences even if it negatively impacts their ability to eat. This can occur in dogs who love to hunt; they might run for hours or days, losing weight and sustaining injuries.

 

If dogs are so motivated to engage in certain behaviors that they ignore discomfort or pain, it’s crucial to pay attention to it. Everyone I know who has a dog wants

Dissect

the best life possible for their pet. For dogs who love predatory behaviors, integrating those behaviors into their lives can be part of providing that quality of life. Without such opportunities, dogs might develop behavior problems. Mike Schlapa, a breeder of Teckels, spoke to Gun Dog Magazine about how careful he has to be in placing puppies in homes where they can regularly engage in predatory behaviors. Without that access, he said, people living with the dogs would “get into trouble fast.”

 

I understand that exploring predatory behavior in your dog can seem daunting, but I can help. Start by observing your dog to determine what they enjoy doing most. I have a set of questions that relate to each part of the predatory sequence, designed to help you understand your dog’s preferences. If your dog reacts differently to toys, wildlife, or fast-moving humans, answer the questions multiple times. Use these categories to guide your responses:

  • My dog lives to do this. They set off on walks or in the garden looking for opportunities.
  • My dog often wants to do this.
  • Sometimes my dog shows interest in doing this.
  • There are rare times when my dog shows an interest in this.
  • My dog is not interested in this.

 

Here are the questions:

  • Hunt: Does your dog sniff the air, ground, or scan with their eyes for prey?
  • Orient: Does your dog change position to see or smell prey better?
  • Eye: If your dog sees prey, do they go completely still and stare at it?
  • Stalk: If your dog can see prey, do they lower their body and head, moving slowly toward it?
  • Chase: If your dog sees moving prey, do they run toward and chase it? If they are on a leash, do they pull at the end?
  • Grab-bite: If your dog gets close enough, will they bite down on the prey?
  • Possess: If your dog gets close enough, will they grab and carry prey around?
  • Kill-bite: If your dog gets close enough, will they shake their head while holding the prey?
  • Dissect: If your dog has prey, will they pluck at it or try to tear it open?
  • Consume: If your dog has prey, will they try to eat part or all of it?

 

Once you’ve gathered your answers, focus first on the behaviors you rated as most significant (those with “My dog lives to do this”). To meet these needs safely, I have a few suggestions:

  • Hunt: Hide food or a toy while your dog isn’t looking, then let them search for it. Alternatively, dogs can learn scent work activities and sports, providing a great outlet for hunting behavior.
  • Orient: Keep your dog beside you while throwing a toy, allowing them to watch it land. If you’re far enough away, you can let them orient toward wildlife while keeping them on a leash.
  • Eye: This can be practiced with a favorite toy dropped in front of the dog. You can also allow them to eye wildlife from a safe distance while on a leash.
  • Stalk: A toy dragged slowly in front of a dog can encourage stalking. Similarly, if your dog remains calm, you can practice this behavior with wildlife on a leash.
  • Chase: Experiment with different toys for chase games. Flirt poles can be a good option.
  • Grab-bite: Some dogs like to eye a toy before grab-biting, while others enjoy chasing or stalking it beforehand.
  • Possess: Provide enough toys or other items for your dog to carry around to satisfy their possessive behavior.
  • Kill-bite: Soft, floppy toys can help fulfill this need in dogs that like to hold and shake objects.
  • Dissect: Dogs who don’t consume non-food items might enjoy cardboard boxes or inexpensive soft toys with small parts removed. Some dogs enjoy dissecting lettuces or cabbages.
  • Consume: You can reward your dog with food scattered on the ground, food to lick, or food to chew after your predatory behavior game.

 

These suggestions should help you better understand your dog’s predatory behaviors and provide safe outlets for their natural instincts.

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References

Arvelius, P., & Klemetsdal, G. (2013). How Swedish breeders can substantially increase the genetic gain for the English Setter’s hunting traits. Journal of Animal Breeding and Genetics, 130(2), 142-153. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/jbg.12026

Breland, K., & Breland, M. (1961). The misbehavior of organisms. American Psychologist, 16(11), 681. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1037/h0040090

Coppinger, R., & Feinstein, M. (2015). How Dogs Work. University of Chicago Press.

Ingram, C. (2023). Teckel: Hunting Dog Breed Profile. Gundog [online]. Available at: https://www.gundogmag.com/editorial/teckel-hunting-dog-breed-profile/468587 [Accessed January 29, 2023]

Mech, L.D., Smith, D.W., & MacNulty, D.R. (2015). Wolves on the Hunt: The Behavior of Wolves Hunting Wild Prey. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Mecozzi, G.E., & Guthery, F.S. (2008). Behavior of walk-hunters and pointing dogs during northern bobwhite hunts. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 72(6), 1399-1404. DOI: https://doi.org/10.2193/2007-555

 

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