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What Makes Buster Chase (and Kill)?

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Does your dog spring into action the moment any creature moves? Chasing neighborhood animals may be dangerous for your dog. After all, a dog after prey doesn't see or hear anything but the intended victim, and neither traffic nor your frantic calls will be heeded. However, this aggressive behavior is also dangerous for the subject of the dog's predatory attention - whether that is genuine prey, a jogger, skateboarder, cyclist, automobile, person on a bicycle, or running children. Remember, you are responsible for your dog's behavior.

Dogs of any sex and any age may exhibit predatory behavior. The behavior does not reflect a psychological problem, nor is your pooch vicious, malicious or vindictive. It is a natural survival-related behavior – hunting and killing was a way of life for dogs' ancestors and the means for their survival.

All dogs have some level of prey drive - the motivation to chase, catch, and kill small furry or feathered creatures. Many natural behaviors of dogs, however, have been modified by selective breeding practices and the prey drive varies among breed groups and even among breeds. In fact, at least 4 of 7 whole breed groups of dogs recognized by the American Kennel Club (sporting, herding, hounds, and terriers) have been bred for enhanced prey drive and thus increased potential to pursue and kill prey.

The entire predatory sequence involves searching, stalking, chasing, catching, biting, killing and finally ingestion (eating). Some dogs have been selectively bred for aspects of this prey drive sequence. Hounds have been bred for the searching/tracking. Herding and sporting dogs have been bred for chasing, catching, or retrieving but have been bred for inhibition of the ultimate stage - biting and killing. Terriers have been bred for their varmint chasing and killing - the whole predatory gamut.

One of the key factors that distinguishes predatory aggression from other forms of aggression is that it is always triggered by movement. In the wild, movement is in the form of running and escape attempts by small critters that the dog has honed in on as prey. In the domestic situation, joggers or running children frequently awaken the dog's dormant predatory instincts. The results of such cases of mistaken identity can range from annoying to life threatening.

Dogs in prey mode don't display any significant mood change or threatening gestures because either would be counter-productive to the objective – to catch and kill the prey. The absence of warning signs, plus the fact that killing is the natural end point for the behavior, makes it very dangerous. Dogs may slink up on their prey intent and focused, and when they are within range, may launch an attack, running towards the target and either nipping at heels or biting and hanging on in an attempt to drag the subject down. Sometimes other dogs will be drawn in to the attack displaying packing behavior or group aggression. When the subject is a young child who is attempting to run away, the results can be disastrous.

Behavior Modification

If your dog preys on people or small pets, the prognosis for complete retraining is not good. A dog that stares with unwavering focus when he sees movement, or paws at the window with excitement when he sees a squirrel in the back yard, would certainly be one to watch within the presence of a group of fast-running children. If your dog has a high prey drive, it is your responsibility to make sure that your dog is never given the opportunity to act out his tendencies. You will be liable for any damage caused if your dog gets loose.

Remember: Predatory behavior is not malicious or vindictive; it is biologically driven and natural, albeit socially unacceptable and downright dangerous in human society. Whether it is the neighbor's rabbit or cat, a jogger, or a small child running through a field, your dog will always have the potential to display predatory behavior under certain circumstances – he cannot help it – and it is your responsibility to realize this.

The fact that predatory behavior is driven by natural forces makes treatment difficult. Also, it is intrinsically rewarding and therefore difficult to suppress no matter what you do. If your dog has a high prey drive, keep him restrained. Continuous outdoor supervision with the dog under control is essential. This includes a fenced-in yard, leash-walking, and keeping him in the back yard and away from neighborhood activity. Never confine your pet in an area that another animal or child could enter.

The following are common training strategies.

  • Reward-based obedience training. This type of training can increase owner control but it will not prevent predatory behavior.

  • Desensitization with counterconditioning. Some people feel that this type of conditioning can be used effectively in some cases to change the dog's perception of the falsely identified prey.

  • Punishment-based techniques. Some feel that the only viable method of treatment is to use punishment-based techniques, such as dropping water-filled balloons from a passing car window or sounding an air horn at the instant the dog takes off after a prey. To be effective, punishment must be such that the dog associates the punishment with the behavior. Correcting dogs that prey on small animals is typically more difficult to correct than dogs that chase cars or bicycles.

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