Killer Dogs – predation and predatory aggression in pets

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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.

Learn More:

To learn more about dealing with fear-based aggression in dogs, check out Dr. Yin’s DVD on Dog Aggression.

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Dr. Sally J. Foote
DVM, CABC-IAABC
Executive Director, CattleDog Publishing

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12 responses to “Killer Dogs – predation and predatory aggression in pets

  1. Well done article. I’m disappointed however that you were not clear that this behavior is NORMAL genetic behavior. The dog is not “defective” if any of the sequence of prey drive is present, it just means that we need to recognize and vigilantly manage the dog to completely avoid those situations.

    1. The first few sentences, explaining how this is a part of early dog behavior,that was selected down but not eliminated was how I was describing this as normal behavior. That is why I emphasized that there is still an instinctive drive to predate in our pet dogs.

      Dr Sally J Foote

  2. “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.” Can you clarify for me: whether a dog who sees movement and chases is necessarily exhibiting predatory aggression? Especially if they don’t kill the animal if it’s ever caught? I ask because I’ve had dogs who love to chase birds but have been conditioned not to chase by using carefully graded exposure and differential reinforcement of an alternative or other behaviour and a high rate of reinforcement. To the extent that the presence of the bird elicits the new behaviour. So I’m thinking either it’s not technically predatory aggression OR it is not a well practised behaviour yet and that’s why it responded? I totally acknowledge that a claim of 100% that any dog trained not to chase will never chase. Behaviour is never 100% predictable. And safety is paramount.

    1. Reactivity – the action of seeing something – then reacting by looking – staring – barking – lunging – chasing in varying degrees is different than predation.
      Predation is quiet – the stare, head down, quiet approach at first that suddenly accelerates is different than what you are describing which is reactivity.
      Reactivity can be reduced yet when ever there is high reactive activity on a small animal, it can switch over to aggression or predation.

      Dr Sally J Foote

  3. We have a 5 month old American bulldog/black lab mix. She’s my 14 year old daughter’s dog & they are very attached to each other. She has started guarding my daughter & will get aggressive with anyone coming near her. It’s not all the time but it’s very scary because I have young kids. And they can just be standing near my daughter, doing nothing to provoke, & she will go after them. Is there any way to train this behavior out of her? My daughter would be absolutely heartbroken if we had to rehome her, or worse, put her down.

    1. Hi Margaret, it sort of depends on the dog and the “motivation” being the killing. I have a rescued female Central Asian Ovcharka (It’s a Livestock Guardian Breed that originated in what was the southern part of the old USSR as well as Turkey and Armenia) that had been stray for several months and hunting in the suburbs to feed her pups. That means she was hunting rodents, cats and small dogs. She was EXTREMELY reactive even on leash, more so than is common for the breed . HOwever, after some dedicated work, she is very good on leash and is able to be kenneled or in the house around other dogs that she knows without fighting.

  4. I recently adopted a 14 month old border collie that attacks children. He also growls at strangers coming into my house. Yesterday he bit my nephew’s 6 year old in the leg without any provocation. Is it possible to stop this behaviour?

  5. I recently rescued (from a very crowded shelter) a 4 year old Pit bull/Bulldog mix. She is really a lovely dog. Very quiet and loves to cuddle and be around humans. I also already had a 1 year old Olde Bulldog. They get along great. But we noticed that when giving lasting treats, the pit/bulldog mix will steal the treats from the Olde Bulldog. Must recently, we gave both dogs a stuffed kong, and the pitbull/bulldog finished she slowly crept to the room where we had the bulldog eating his treat (because of the signs we decided when giving long lasting treats they should be in separate rooms) and she attacked and punctured the olde bulldog. He is recovering well, and even after the fight, he wanted to be near her, but we are afraid to let them be together. What can we do? We thought about taking her back to the shelter but do want her to be put down.

  6. This blog article is problematic. Not all predatory behaviour is indiscriminately. I have a GSP with high prey drive towards cats however he was highly socialized with toy dogs and babies. He’s never exhibited any body language to suggest similar behaviour with dogs or babies. This type of carte blanche fear mongering could cause serious issues for some dogs and families are absolutely no reason. This is the first time I’ve seen a post on this site that I would call irresponsible.

    1. Hi Jade,

      You are correct, not all dogs who have a high predatory drive toward one target will necessarily find other targets in the near vicinity to go after. But that does not mean that the drive to do so is not present in the dog. Since your GSP has a high prey drive towards cats, would you ever leave your dog alone with a cat? No, probably not. Many dogs with a prey drive would be perfectly fine with small dogs or babies, but that does not mean that those small dogs and babies are 100% safe either, even if you think they are. This article is not fear-mongering, as you put it. It is meant to be a cautionary piece for things to watch for in case your dog does have a prey drive, like your GSP does towards cats, as it “could” mean that a desire to act on their predatory drive may be present, even if they never act on it. And just because your dog may not exhibit those behaviors, aside from the cats, does not mean that another dog of the exact same breed, or any other breed for that matter, won’t act on that desire in the exact same situation. Just like humans, dogs are not carbon copies of one another and will react differently under different situations.

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