Patterns of Predation
Before dogs became pets, they were wild and lived by preying on animals big and small. Dogs would gather together to chase down an older, younger, or injured animal, grabbing the jugular vein or abdomen, resulting in a kill. All of the dogs would feed in turn, and bring some back to the pups at home. The pattern of see-chase-grab-kill is the predation sequence. In domesticating dogs, certain parts of the sequence were diluted but never eliminated. For example, the herding breeds are very strong chasers, but do not go for the bite-hold-kill as readily as other breeds. Terriers, on the other hand, will readily grab-bite and kill.
So despite domestication, dogs still have an instinctive desire to chase, grab, bite and kill things that look like prey. This is why your cute little Yorkie will run down a squirrel, catching and killing at times. I have clients shocked to see a placid Labrador suddenly jump up and grab a fledgling bird swallowing it whole. Predation is instinctive – it is not based on hunger. The level of predatory drive depends on the particular dog and breed. Movement starts the sequence. Allowing a dog to chase down small animals strengthens the prey drive.
Is it Prey?
It is springtime and you may see your dogs or cats killing birds and upsetting bunny nests. It may not be a big problem depending on your needs. This predatory drive is a problem when it is directed towards running children or small dogs and cats. For us these targets are not prey, but to the dog they move like prey, sound like prey, and look like prey, hence the danger.
The term predatory aggression is used for dogs who stare at a target creature, move silently and quickly with a grab-bite to the jugular or abdomen – the vital organs. A hallmark of this is the sudden, impulsive action of the dog. For many dogs, this may be the only type of aggression they show. It is dangerous because it cannot be trained, medicated or counter conditioned out of them. You may have a dog who chased cats be commanded to stay or sit around the cat, but they will still chase the cat down at some point. I have seen this happen. This aggression is shocking to the owners because it comes out suddenly and it is directed to what we do not see as prey. But the dog’s instinct tells otherwise.
Risks of Canine Predation
A predatory aggressive dog living with an infant child is very risky. Children under the age of 3 years move quickly, with high pitched noises. The infant lying on a bed or blanket looks like small wounded prey. The horrible stories of infants attacked by dogs are often the result of the child left alone with a dog. In just a few seconds, the dog sees the movement and noises of the child, pouncing and grabbing around the head, legs or arms. With the owner present often the dog may just stare which is misinterpreted as interest. The lunge-bite may be suppressed, but the desire is not.
The only way to control predatory aggression is 100% avoidance of the situations that put humans and animals at risk. This means if your dog chases cats, it cannot live with a cat. If small dogs are the prey, your dog cannot be around any small dogs. Any dog with this history of preying on animals should never be around infants or small children under 3 at all. This is why if you have a predatory dog you must be realistic about how you will control this. It’s not easy. Find a veterinarian or behaviorist to consult with you on this problem to work out the most realistic, safe solution that protects the people and animals around this dog.
To learn more about dealing with fear-based aggression in dogs, check out Dr. Yin’s DVD on Dog Aggression.
- Top 10 Ways to Keep Children and Pets Safe Together
Dr. Sally J. Foote
Executive Director, CattleDog Publishing