It can happen so quickly. You and your dog are enjoying a pleasant walk when suddenly a squirrel darts across your path. Before you can react, your dog has seized the creature and shaken it to death. While it may be alarming to watch your dog follow its primal urge to kill, this is normal behavior for canines. Below, we’ll discuss how to stop your dog from chasing wildlife as well as why this is important.
Why dogs enjoy chasing animals
- The prey drive: To survive, wild canines need to know how to stalk, chase and take down their prey. Even though dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years, these vital survival skills are still a large part of their genetic makeup.
This prey drive is not the same in all breeds. Terriers, for instance, typically have a high prey drive. That shouldn't be surprising, though, since most terriers were bred to locate and exterminate small pests and vermin. Then, there are the scent hounds. These dogs — which include such breeds as the beagle and the bluetick coonhound — were originally bred to hunt game animals for their owners, so they also tend to have high prey drives.
- The herding instinct: Other breeds — such as collies and Australian shepherds — chase animals because they have strong herding instincts. These dogs were originally bred to run after strays and to keep their flocks or herds together.
The importance of managing your dog's prey drive
Although it's a canine's instinct to hunt prey, it's important to stop your dog from chasing deer and other wildlife for several reasons:
- Your dog could be injured or killed: Dogs can become laser-focused when chasing prey. It's not unusual for even a traffic-savvy dog to run into the street while chasing a squirrel. Another issue is that some animals will turn on your dog if they feel threatened. A deer, for instance, can stomp on or kick your dog if it feels cornered or is protecting a fawn.
- Your dog could get lost: Dogs will often run for long distances in pursuit of prey. This can become a major issue if your dog is visiting an unfamiliar area and is unable to find its way back to you.
- Negative impact on the ecosystem: When left unchecked, some dogs can wreak havoc on the local ecosystem. For example, a German shepherd in New Zealand reportedly killed 500 kiwis. Dogs have even been blamed for the extinction of some wildlife species, including the Hawaiian railbird.
Dealing with a dog's prey drive
A dog's instinct to chase prey can lead to a variety of issues. Some dogs, for example, will react to a passing skateboarder with the same aggressive gusto that they would toward a running deer. This could frighten the skateboarder, resulting in an injury. While it can be difficult to eliminate a canine's prey drive, there are steps you can take to stop your dog from chasing birds and other wildlife:
- Training: Teaching your dog impulse control is the key to curbing its prey drive. Carry high-value treats. When a distraction — such as a squirrel running by — occurs, ask your dog to pay attention to you while showing it the treat. If your dog reacts properly, reward it with the treat.
Teaching a dog to come when you call it — known as recall — is also important. Start by asking your dog to come to you from short distances when calling its name. Gradually, increase the distance between yourself and your dog, and reward your pup if it responds when you call it. Some trainers will keep a long lead on their dogs. That way, if the canine decides to run, the trainer can quickly stop it by grabbing the leash.
- Don't let your dog wander: The best way to keep dogs from chasing wildlife is to keep them in a fenced-in yard, or secured on a leash when outdoors. It's especially important not to allow your dogs to wander off their leash in a wilderness area that they are unfamiliar with or where they're likely to encounter wildlife.
- Channel your dog's instinct: Dogs love to chase, so it's important to meet that need. You can do so by throwing balls and other toys to give your dog something to pursue. In addition, dogs love toys with squeakers because the noise mimics the sound of an injured animal.
If you're a responsible dog owner, you are probably interested in minimizing the impact your canine has on the environment. Keeping your dog's prey drive in check is one way to practice sustainable pet ownership. Controlling your dog's natural urges to chase animals will also help keep it safe and out of harm's way.
Lizz Caputo is a Content Strategist at Figo, animal enthusiast, and owner of a rescued senior American Bully. Her hobbies include checking out new restaurants in her area, boxing, and petting dogs of all shapes and sizes.
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