That pooch on your lap or sleeping by your feet doesn’t need to hunt to eat. Well-fed dogs hunt better than hungry dogs, too, because hunger doesn’t trigger canine prey drive. The sound, scent, or sight of moving critters triggers canine prey drive. Yes, hunting breeds may have this instinct fine-tuned, but even a pampered pet dog reacts to a leaping squirrel, the rustle of leaves, or the scent of the bunny frozen in the shrubs. The urge to track and chase prey is ingrained in the canine psyche, just as feline hunting behavior drives how cats act.
Dog Hunting Behavior & Canine Prey Drive
For most dogs, scent drives hunting behavior. Conversely, cat hunting behaviors more often triggers on sound. Dogs also use sight and sound identify and locate prey. A number of refined behaviors used individually or together make up a dog’s hunting repertoire. Much of this has been refined by humans breeding for specific abilities, and creating canine experts in these areas.
Canine hunting behavior includes everything that helps dogs detect and capture prey. Dogs evolved as hunters in order to survive, and all modern dogs are born with innate predatory skills specific to hunting prey. This applies whether the dog is a free-living feral animal or wild canid relying on these abilites to eat, or a house dog with an ever-full bowl of munchies. Many play behaviors use the same techniques as those used for hunting.
But instinct won’t make every dog a successful hunter. Not all dogs have the same abilities to hunt, and technique is only learned through practice. Dogs practice technical skill through play and pups often mimic an adult dog’s example. However, dogs never exposed to prey as puppies can learn to become successful hunters as adults.
How Dogs Hunt
Dogs become aware of prey in two typical ways: by sight, or by scent. A wide range of breeds (400+ around the world) alert to prey in combinations of sensory input. Many then track game by following the scent trail. This may be done with head held high and reading scent-cues from the air, or with a nose-to-ground posture.
As he nears the target, he slows his gait and lowers his head in the classic stalking pose. His eyes remain glued to the prey, and he may pause and freeze in position with his body pointed at the target. You’ll see this pointing and freezing behavior highly developed in many gun-dog breeds like the German Shorthaired Pointer.
Once within striking range, the dog flushes the bird, bunny, or badger from hiding. Again, some breeds of dog developed for their flushing ability, or for their skill “springing” into the air and startling the bird or other prey to run, making it easier for a human partner to shoot the game.
Prey’s attempt to escape prompts the hunter’s chase impulse. He drives the animal mercilessly, using his stamina to run it to exhaustion. When working with a pack, (as with Foxhounds on the hunt) individual canines may run large prey in relays until it gives up, or may herd it into the waiting jaws of compatriots. Coonhounds may send the raccoon or puma up a tree, making it an easier target for the human hunter.
How Dogs Capture Prey
Dogs use powerful jaws and sharp canine teeth for a slashing attack. But the neck and shoulder muscles provide the lethal blow when the dog grasps the animal and shakes it furiously to break its neck. Even a puppy uses the same technique to shake the stuffing out of a favorite toy or blanket.
Larger prey like deer require a different technique, but are rarely hunted by domestic dogs. The dog’s wolf cousins may first cripple very large prey like caribou by slashing their legs, and then the torso. The animal simply weakens from blood loss, and is easily brought down. Canines eat prey on the spot, but may carry small animals home when they have puppies to feed. Learn more about how dogs eat in this post.
What Are Interrupted Hunting Behaviors
Hunting behaviors include tracking, stalking, pointing, herding, driving, attacking, killing, retrieving, and eating. But not all hunting behaviors are seen in all dogs. Over the centuries, selective breeding augmented or even eliminated specific hunting behaviors in certain dog breeds through the domestication process to fit service roles important to people humans. In most breeds, the attack and kill sequence of behaviors have been inhibited, while others enhanced.
For instance, the Bloodhound has been selectively bred to be an expert tracker, and lives for scent — he cares about little else. Sighthounds like the Afghan Hound and Greyhound, and many of the terriers, trigger more to movement than scent and rely on sight to track prey. The former are racers that love the chase, while the latter react similarly to cats in their stalk-and-pounce techniques.
Sheepdogs like Border Collies employ the stalk, stare and chase to herd their wooly charges, but the final attack/kill sequence has been bred out. The behaviors of “hunting” breeds have been refined to those that only locate prey for the human hunter (pointers and setters), and those that bring it back once killed (retrievers and spaniels). Some dogs have been breed with an exceptionally inhibited bite which promotes a “soft mouth” to keep the dog from damaging the game as it is retrieved. Golden Retrievers, for instance, can carry raw eggs without breaking the shell. Conversely, some hunters like the Foxhound and terriers even today remain adept at attacking and killing prey.
How to Control Canine Prey Drive
Chasing squirrels or bunnies offers great entertainment for your dog. But dogs may turn their skills to herding (chasing!) bicycles and cars, or nipping the kids to round them up. Some dogs become so enraptured they go “AWOL” –learn how to find lost pets here.
Maybe your pet enjoys the chase but never catches prey. Successful dogs, though, may eat wild game, exposing them to parasites like tapeworms or hookworms. In farming communities, the indiscriminate hunter can become a menace to livestock and poultry. Also, some dogs target smaller pets like the family cat or new puppy that looks and sounds like prey. In the most dangerous situations, a human baby could trigger canine prey drive, yikes!
While feral dogs may need to hunt to survive, there are better options for companion canines. Ideally, start with your puppy, and anticipate (based on his breed/heritage) what may be an issue. Prey drive and chasing/hunting self rewards dogs so interrupting the chain of behaviors works best to control dangerous and/or inappropriate actions.
No Pulling. Teaching loose leash walking helps a bunch. I’m a fan of the Easy Walk Harness that teaches dogs NOT to pull, so he won’t lunge toward other dogs, cats, or kids.
Generous Rewards. Use incredible rewards so wonderful that they trump hunting behaviors. For some dogs, that’s a scrumptious treat like hotdog or liverwurst. Other dogs go bonkers for a ball-on-a-rope tug toy.
Focus. Work so that your dog focuses on you and looks to you for direction. I’m also a fan of the automatic check-in. Many trainers encourage teaching the “look at me” command — make a noise, whistle, word (look!), that draws the dog’s attention, and then reward when he makes eye contact. I prefer waiting for dogs to do this on their own, and capture the behavior, so the dog controls the action. Do this somewhere initially with NO other distractions, wait for your dog to look at you, and mark the behavior (with a CLICK from a clicker, or spoken YES!), and immediately reward. Do this religiously, so that EVERY time he looks at you on his own, he gets a CLICK-REWARD. Before long, he’ll choose more and more to look to you for direction–and drop the stolen dish towel to run and collect his treat.
Only once your dog becomes adept at loose-leash walking and checking in for treats should you attempt up-ing the challenge. Interrupt his barky-interest in the squirrel or bunny and reward lavishly when he checks in with you.
Breaking Bad Habits
When the prey drive and hunting behavior becomes ingrained, it may require the help of a profesional trainer. When the problem behavior poses a risk to the dog or to others, keep the dog under your direct supervision. Confine him to a fenced yard, or keep him on a leash when outside.
It’s best to offer dogs the opportunity to use their skills by actually hunting, herding, or tracking with their owner, or participating in mock exercises like field trials, lure coursing, herding exhibitions, or other outlets. How about introducing games of fetch the Frisbee to dogs to replace chasing joggers? Some pets may be satisfied with alternative outlets for hunting behavior and fun games.
Learn where to find professional pet behavior help in this post.
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Amy Shojai, CABC is a certified cat & dog behavior consultant, a consultant to the pet industry, and the award-winning author of 35+ pet-centric books and Thrillers with Bite! Oh, and she loves bling!