In their evolutionary past, dogs were predators. This may be a disturbing realization to pet parents, but almost every dog has a natural tendency toward some predatory behavior. The dog’s closest living relative, the wolf, is a highly accomplished predator capable of hunting in packs to bring down large prey such as deer, elk and moose. The domestic dog has changed through domestication and become a fairly ineffective predator, but some individuals can still be successful hunters. In fact, most dog breeds have been selectively bred by humans to exhibit certain parts of the predatory sequence of behaviors. The complete predatory sequence is eye, stalk, chase, grab-bite, kill-bite, dissect and consume. Greyhounds and other sight hounds have been bred to excel in the chase part of the sequence. The scent hounds, such as beagles and basset hounds, are good at pursuing their quarry’s scent trails. Pointing and flushing breeds specialize in stalking and flushing birds. Herding breeds are also accomplished chasers and stalkers, but they concentrate their efforts on controlling the movements of livestock. Terriers outrival other breeds in their ability to capture and kill unwanted vermin, like mice and rats. Given that we have specifically capitalized on dogs’ hunting abilities, it’s not surprising that our pampered pets occasionally demonstrate their genetic legacy.
Dogs are cursorial predators, meaning that they chase down their prey. The dog’s visual system is highly attuned to detecting movement. The slightest motion often triggers a dog to give chase. High-pitched squealing sounds, like those a prey animal makes when frightened or injured, can also trigger an attack. If a dog is fast enough to catch her prey, she’ll usually grab and shake it. Some dogs lose interest once a prey animal stops moving—which is why opossums, whose defensive response is to play dead, often survive dog attacks. But many dogs will play with the bodies of animals they catch. Some dogs even consume their prey.
Just about any small mammal can trigger a predatory response in dogs: squirrels, rabbits, mice, rats, groundhogs, racoons, ground squirrels, skunks, porcupines and, unfortunately, cats. Dogs who live peacefully with cats sometimes still prey on unfamiliar cats, particularly if the cats are outdoors and moving. Cats who run from dogs are at highest risk. A dog will sometimes back down if a prey animal stops retreating and threatens to attack. Dogs will also chase ungulates, such as deer and antelope, but they’re unlikely to pose a threat to these animals if hunting alone. Packs of dogs, however, have reportedly caught and killed deer, pronghorn antelope and livestock, including cattle, sheep and goats. Dogs don’t hunt because they’re hungry. Their motivation for hunting is separate from their motivation to eat. Sadly, this means that even a single dog in a chicken house can wreak havoc on the defenseless birds. Likewise, a group of dogs can do serious damage to a herd of sheep or goats, killing large numbers of animals. In fact, dogs in groups will often participate in what’s called socially facilitated predation—one dog starts killing and they all join in.
In rare cases, dogs prey on other dogs. Small breeds are most at risk because they often run away or squeal when frightened, which makes them look, move and sound like dogs’ natural prey. There are also uncommon reports of dogs preying on human infants, children and adults. When dogs prey on humans, the dogs are typically in a pack, chasing other prey, such as deer. Then, in an aroused state, the dogs come upon a human who tries to run away from them, triggering an attack. Fortunately, such incidents are exceedingly rare. The chances of being killed by a dog are miniscule, about one in 18 million—which means that you're twice as likely to win the lottery and five times as likely to be killed by lightning. Much more common are dogs who chase non-prey objects (prey substitutes) that move particularly fast, such as bicycles, cars, motorbikes, ATVs and snowmobiles.
Recognizing Predatory Behavior
Predatory aggression is distinctly different from other forms of canine aggression. A predatory dog doesn’t threaten. She won’t give a warning growl or bark. She might stalk her victim briefly and quietly, or she might simply give chase. Some dogs will bark or whine excitedly during the chase. Others will be silent. A dog might bark or growl when she catches the prey, but typically only if the animal fights back. A dog engaged in a predatory encounter looks for all intents and purposes like she’s having fun. She’ll be excited and aroused, and she’ll adopt a defensive posture only if the potential prey stops running and turns to attack her.
What to Do
Unless we use our dogs for rodent controls, move livestock or aid us as hunting companions, predatory behavior is usually undesirable. Dogs can cause injury or death to prey species, to other pets and even to people. They can pose a serious danger to themselves and to others should they chase people on bicycles, motorized vehicles or animals across a road. Preying on large animals is also dangerous. Farmers are within their legal rights to shoot and kill dogs harassing their livestock. Similarly, hunters will often shoot dogs they see harassing wildlife, such as deer or antelope. At the very least, dogs who regularly come into contact with prey are likely to get injured—and if they encounter a skunk, they’ll smell really bad for months to come. A run-in with a porcupine might seem relatively harmless, but if a dog gets “quilled,” she’ll need medical attention. Quills that aren’t removed can migrate through a dog’s body and cause internal damage.
If you have a dog who chases humans, cats, livestock or motor vehicles in particular, consult with a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) or Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) for assistance. Please read our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate a qualified professional in your area.
Prevention and Resolution
- Keep your dog in a kennel or fenced yard so that she can’t roam at large and chase or harass prey or prey substitutes. Confining your dog also prevents her from packing up with other dogs and posing danger to wildlife, livestock and people.
- If you walk your dog off leash, do so in places and at times when prey animals aren’t likely to be present. Many prey species are most active at dawn and dusk, so try to avoid these times. It’s best to walk your dog during daylight hours. If she likes to chase cars, take your dog to securely fenced areas away from roads.
- Teach your dog a really reliable recall so that you can call her when you need to. Please see our article, Teaching your Dog to Come When Called, for detailed information. To be successful, you’ll need to start your dog’s training away from potential prey animals so that she can focus on learning and not get overly aroused and distracted. Only when your dog is extremely reliable at coming when called should you “test” her in the presence of prey. It’s exceedingly difficult to call a dog off once she has sighted a prey animal. It’s even more challenging to call a dog off once she’s in pursuit of prey. Be prepared to devote a substantial amount of training time and effort to making your dog’s recall work. Even then, realize that she’ll still chase prey. It will be your responsibility to make sure that you notice prey animals early enough to successfully call your dog off.
- If your dog is determined to chase livestock, you can teach her to do something else when she sees the potential prey. For instance, you can teach your dog that when she sees a prey animal such as a sheep, she’ll be rewarded for turning away and looking at you. To begin, you’ll need to have your dog on a leash or long line (a leash that’s 20 to 30 feet long), situated far from the sheep. Ideally, you should work with an experienced Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) or certified behaviorist (CAAB) to accomplish this advanced training. Please read our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate a qualified professional in your area.
- As a last resort, you can teach your dog to associate the presence of prey with an unpleasant experience, such as an obnoxious noise, a repulsive spray scent or something painful. It’s imperative that you work with an experienced CPDT or certified behaviorist to ensure that you and your dog benefit from a humane and effective training procedure. Your dog will need a number of repetitions of the sight of prey being immediately followed by the unpleasant event, in a variety of circumstances. Some dogs are so aroused by the anticipation of a predatory chase that even highly unpleasant events won’t deter them. This is why it’s crucial to work with an experienced professional. She or he should be able to determine in the first few sessions if this kind of training procedure is likely to work for your dog. It might be the only sensible treatment option to safeguard your dog if she comes into contact with potentially lethal species, such as poisonous snakes or large carnivores, like bears, coyotes or wolves.
- If you have a dog who preys on animals and you’re worried that she might prey on humans, your only responsible options are (a) to keep your dog securely confined at all times in a fail-safe enclosure that unauthorized people can’t enter or (b) to immediately contact a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) or a veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) for help. Depending on the severity of your dog’s predatory behavior, euthanasia may need to be considered. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate a qualified expert in your area who can evaluate your dog and offer recommendations.
What NOT to Do
- Do not expose your dog to prey and then physically beat her. This is inhumane and unlikely to deter your dog, except possibly when she’s near you.
- Do not tie a carcass to your dog and allow it to rot as a means of punishment or training. This is unhygienic and inhumane. It’s also not likely to make your dog stop chasing prey.
- Do not attempt to stop your dog from chasing cars by intentionally frightening or “bumping” her with a car or throwing something out of a car window at her. You could seriously injure or kill your dog.
- Do not purposefully let your dog to take off after prey and then allow her to hit the end of a leash or long line at a dead run. This could cause severe damage to your dog’s neck and vertebrae.