Predatory behavior in dogs is normal. Most dogs will chase animals who move quickly. However, unless we use our dogs to control vermin, move livestock or aid us as hunting companions, predatory behavior is usually undesirable. If your dog chases wildlife, he’s putting himself in serious danger. He could chase an animal so far that he becomes disoriented or lost and can’t find his way back to you. He could be shot by a hunter or caught in a trap. Hunters often shoot dogs they see harassing wildlife, such as deer and antelope. Your dog could be wounded or killed by the animal he’s chasing. In fact, dogs who regularly come into contact with prey are likely to get injured. A run-in with a porcupine might seem relatively harmless, but if your dog gets “quilled,” he’ll need medical attention. Quills that aren’t removed can migrate through a dog’s body and cause internal damage. If your dog encounters a skunk, he’ll smell horrible for months! Most often, dogs who chase wildlife are eventually injured or killed when they run across roads and get hit by motor vehicles. When this happens, a dog doesn’t put only himself at risk. He can harm or even kill people if he causes a traffic accident.
Predatory aggression is distinctly different from other forms of canine aggression. A predatory dog doesn’t threaten. He won’t give a warning growl or bark. He might stalk his victim briefly and quietly, or he 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 he catches his prey, but typically only if the animal fights back. A dog engaged in a predatory encounter looks for all intents and purposes like he’s having fun. He‘ll be excited and aroused, and he’ll adopt a defensive posture only if the potential prey stops running and turns to attack him.
How to Prevent the Problem
Puppies can be discouraged from chasing wildlife at an early age. Take your puppy to areas where you’re likely see enticing animals, such as squirrels or rabbits. Keep him on a six-foot leash and have extremely appealing treats—like chunks of chicken or cheese—and his favorite toys at the ready. The instant your puppy sees an animal, say his name in an excited tone, turn and run away in the opposite direction, away from the potential prey. As you run, call your puppy and wave a treat or toy at your side. When he gets to you (you might have to slow down a little so he can catch up with you), play a fun game of tug with the toy or feed him several delectable treats. After a few minutes, return to the area where you saw the animal and continue along, in hopes of seeing another animal. It’s ideal if you can practice calling your puppy away from prey animals four to five times in one training session. Repeat these sessions daily until you see your puppy immediately turn to chase you, anticipating a fun game or treats, as soon as he sees an animal.
The next step is to walk your pup on a long line. (A long line is a slender leash that’s 20- to 40-feet long.) Using a long line will give your puppy the illusion that he’s not restrained by a leash at all—but you’ll still be able to control him if he decides to chase wildlife. Allow the line to drag along the ground, but stay within grabbing distance of the end of it. This can be annoying in some types of terrain because the line might get caught up in rocks and vegetation. However, the lesson is so valuable for your puppy that it’s worth the temporary inconvenience. You might wonder why using a retractable leash, such as the Flexi, wouldn’t be a better option. When a dog wears a retractable leash, he feels tension on the line, so he doesn’t experience the illusion of running free. So stick with a regular long line instead. Use the line to practice with your puppy until you’re confident that he has no interest in chasing wild animals when he sees them and would prefer to come to you for games and treats instead.
You can use the same training procedure with an adult dog, but understand that it might not work or it might take much longer for your dog to understand the lesson. Young puppies are more dependent on their pet parents and more likely to follow them when they run away. This bit of insecurity motivates puppies to stick with their people. Mature dogs, on the other hand, can be more independent and adventurous. If you try the procedure above with your adult dog and don’t have success changing his behavior, please see the information below.
What to Do About the Problem
- Keep your dog contained in a kennel or fenced yard so that he can’t roam at large and chase or harass wildlife. Confining your dog will also prevent him from packing up with other dogs and posing increased danger to wildlife. (Dogs are more likely to prey on other animals when in groups.)
- 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.
- Teach your dog a really reliable recall so you can call him when you need to. Please see our article, Teaching your Dog to Come When Called, for detailed information about how to accomplish this. To be successful, you’ll need to start your dog’s training away from potential prey animals so that he 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” him in the presence of prey. It’s exceedingly difficult to call a dog off once he has sighted a prey animal. It’s even more challenging to call a dog off once he’s in pursuit of prey. Be prepared to devote a substantial amount of training time and effort to making your dog’s recall reliable. Even then, realize that he’ll still chase prey animals. It will be your responsibility to make sure that you notice them early enough to successfully call your dog off.
- As a last resort, you can teach your dog to associate the sight or appearance of prey with an unpleasant experience, such as an obnoxious noise, a repulsive spray scent or something painful. To ensure that you and your dog benefit from humane and effective training procedures, it’s imperative that you work with an experienced Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Diplomate of the College of Veterinary Behavior, Dip ACVB). (Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate one of these qualified professionals in your area.) The behaviorist or trainer must work with your dog over many sessions, in a variety of circumstances for the procedure to make a difference in his behavior. Some dogs are so aroused by the anticipation of a chase that even associating wildlife with very strong or painful punishment won’t deter them. Some dogs are so aroused by the anticipation of a predatory chase that even associating wildlife with very strong or painful punishment won’t deter them. This is why it’s crucial to work with an experienced professional. She or he can determine in the first few sessions if this procedure is likely to work for your dog. It might be the only sensible treatment option to safeguard your dog if he comes into contact with potentially lethal species, such as poisonous snakes or large predators like bears, coyotes or wolves.
- Dog attacks on humans are extremely rare, but when such attacks occur, it’s usually when dogs are in a pack chasing prey (like deer, for example) and, in their highly aroused state, encounter a person who tries to run away from them. If you have a dog who chases wildlife in packs, and you believe he might encounter and prey on people, too, your responsible options are to (a) keep him contained when outside in a failsafe enclosure or on leash with you, and (b) immediately contact a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) or veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) for a professional assessment of your dog. 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.
What NOT to Do
- Do not expose your dog to prey animals and then beat him or physically punish him in some other way. This is inhumane and unlikely to deter your dog. At best, he might refrain from preying on wildlife in your presence—but he won’t learn not do to it when you’re not around. At worst, you could injure your dog, damage his trust in you and cause further behavior problems, such as fear and aggression.
- Do not tie a carcass to your dog and allow it to rot as a means of punishment or training. This archaic practice is unhygienic and inhumane. It’s also not likely to make your dog stop chasing prey.
- Do not purposely let your dog take off after prey and then allow him to hit the end of a leash or long line at a dead run. This could cause severe damage to his neck and vertebrae.