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Predatory Behavior – Whole Dog Journal

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A reader commented on my most recent blog post (about my dog, Woody, coming face-to-face with the first rattlesnake we’ve seen this year). I mentioned that, in general, neither of my dogs is particularly predatory, and the reader asked how I knew that. It’s a good question!

Predatory behavior is natural and normal for dogs, and there are a number of ways it may be expressed. ALL dogs will exhibit some type and amount of predatory behavior but the type and intensity of the behavior that any given dog will express in different situations will depend on a number of factors, breed and the dog’s past experiences chief among them.

When dogs hunt for food, they may use a full “predatory sequence” of behaviors including (progressively, from spotting a prey animal to consuming it): eye (focusing eyesight on the animal); orient (moving toward the prey); stalk; chase; grab/bite; kill/bite; dissect; consume.

Humans have bred dogs in order to take advantage of certain aspects of this sequence. Herding breeds were developed to use the eye, orient, stalk, and chase phases of the predatory sequence – and to specifically exclude dogs who were predisposed to killing animals. Interestingly, some herding breeds who are used predominantly for working sheep (such as the Border Collie) have been developed to stop short of the grab/bite phase or the sequence, whereas breeds who are used predominantly for working cattle on the open range have been developed with more of a willingness to bite  – but, of course, again without the temptation to go further than using a bite to convince stubborn or feisty cattle to turn and go where they are being directed. It’s amazing that by using individuals with these behavioral tendencies in a breeding program, the behavior of the majority of the progeny can be predicted along such a very fine slice.

Dogs who are used for hunting, whether for rats and other small vermin (such as many terrier breeds), birds (Labradors, setters, pointers, spaniels) or for lions (such as the Rhodesian Ridgeback), all have been developed by humans to display certain aspects of the predatory sequence.

According to his mixed-breed DNA-test results, Woody is about a third to a half Labrador. I feel that this inheritance accounts for a lot of his behavior. He is a fetching fool; if allowed to do so, he will fetch until he passes out. And when Woody is faced with an animal of a new species (or a new individual of a familiar species, such as chickens or horses) in a structured environment (on-leash, for example), he is friendly and curious. His tail wags and his eyes and body are soft. He doesn’t stiffen and gaze intently at the animal, or try to pull or lunge toward it; he acts a lot like he’s meeting a new person that he thinks he might like. His attention isn’t focused, laser-like, on the animal, but soft and wiggly.

There are a few exceptions, all of which arise in uncontrolled circumstances. If he’s in the yard, and there is a squirrel or a strange cat within view, he will chase it. I think most dogs will do this, more from the fun of the chase than a desire to kill, although, of course, we can’t know what’s in a dog’s brain. If we’re walking off-leash somewhere, and he spots a jackrabbit or a deer – both of which he’s chased a couple of times without heeding my cues for “OFF!” or “HERE!” – he absolutely will at least start to run after them. He’s gotten way better about resisting that temptation, though the success of my recall and cue to “leave it” will depend on how far we’ve already hiked (if he’s already tired, he’s less likely to give chase), whether it’s super hot outside (if it’s blazing hot, he is less likely to give chase), and how close he was to the animal when he spotted it (if it was super close, it’s going to be very tempting to chase).

However, if he were to meet a cat or tame rabbit, squirrel, or deer when he’s on a leash, I know for a fact that he’d be friendly. His desire to chase is all about the fun of the chase.

Here’s a better indication that he’s not very predatory. He once dug up a vole (a mole-like creature) on our property; he LOVES to dig up their tunnels, although it’s clear from this incident that he has no clue WHY he’s digging or WHAT he’s digging for. He is highly attracted to the smell of the animals in the tunnels underground, and will deeply huff the hole and then dig furiously. One day, as I was walking around my property doing various chores, I saw him out in my field digging. A minute later, I looked again and saw him do the same sort of behavior I recently witnessed with the snake: He looked down at his feet, and then slowly swiveled his head and looked deliberately at me, and then slowly looked down again. The look was, “Mom, I’ve got something…but I don’t know what!”

Afraid it was a snake, I ran over to him, yelling “Off!” He obediently took a step backward as I ran toward him – and as I arrived I could see a stunned-looking little vole, laying on its back, with its feet still moving. I think he actually dug it out of the ground with his furious digging; I don’t think he had grabbed it, because it wasn’t wet or bitten. He was plainly mystified by its very presence – strongly drawn to it, but not sure what to do.

I’ll tell you who was certain what to do: my senior dog, Otto, who arrived on the scene a few seconds after I did. Otto took one look at the vole on the ground and immediately grabbed it and shook it. Boom: dead vole. And was he ever proud! “Ha!” he seemed to say. “That’s what you do with that, ya idiot.” Both Woody and I were shocked!

But even though Otto seemed to know without any hesitation whatsoever how to kill a little rodent, and, indeed, had the strong instinct to do so, he’s never shown the slightest impulse to chase after or grab lizards or snakes. And some dogs definitely do! I have one friend whose dog had, over her lifetime, grabbed and dispatched at least three garter snakes (to her owner’s dismay; garter snakes are both harmless to dogs and a great asset in killing moles, gophers, and voles who destroy home gardens). Perhaps these are behaviors that are also learned, because my friend’s other dog, who came along when snake-killing dog was about four years old, would go nuts if she saw a lizard. If a lizard ran under a planter box or into the crevices of a rock wall, woe to the planter box or rock wall; she would tear them apart trying to get at the lizard.

Over the years, I have witnessed Otto’s lack of interest in the snakes we’ve seen on the trail, but the best evidence of this was when, years ago, I used him as a model for an article we did about snake avoidance training for dogs, and I used a friend’s pet snake as a co-model. The problem on that shoot was trying to get Otto to look at all interested in the snake (so that we could show how to teach him to “leave it” alone). His response ranged from “So what?” to “Can I go now?” He wasn’t afraid or interested. It was like trying to get him to work with rocks.

Though we hoped that Otto would look interested in the snake, for the sake of illustrating an article about teaching a dog to leave snakes alone, he couldn’t care less about the snake. We had to toss treats sort of near the snake to get him to look even mildly interested. If you look carefully, you can see he’s not looking at the snake, he’s looking for the treat we tossed near the snake.

In contrast, when, in each of the three instances he’s seen a rattlesnake on the trail, Woody has given me that same, “Mom? What’s this?” sort of look, and has moved away from the snake either by himself, or easily in response to my “Off!” cue. So I’m not terribly worried when walking either of my dogs off-leash in snake country, although I stay very alert at this time of year and scrupulously watch their reactions to everything they see. In the winter, I can space out a little while we walk; not so at snake times and in snake places.

For more about predatory dogs, and dealing with predatory behaviors, see

Is your dog interested in some animals more than others?

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