Visiting Veterinarian : Animal instincts
Here's a fact of nature. Dogs and cats are born predators. Nobody thinks it unusual if Tom, the cat, eats Jerry, the mouse, and although we may not like it, we are not really surprised if Sybil, the Siberian, runs after the neighbor's cat. After all, dogs are carnivores. All their survival instincts tell them to hunt. The problem is when an individual dog (or two or three dogs as a pack) crosses the line that we humans have drawn for acceptable behavior by a pet. It is totally normal for a dog to chase small animals, even to kill and eat them, but when the prey turns out to be Farmer Green's Rhode Island Reds or your daughter's new kitten, we've got trouble. Predatory behavior. Why do some dogs coexist peacefully with everything from chickens to bunnies to horses, while other dogs create havoc, headache, and heartache for everyone involved by repeatedly killing? It's a complex situation. Let's start by talking about breed predilections.
Selective breeding by humans for specific traits has reduced predatory behavior in many dogs. For example, retrievers have been bred over many generations to promote an animal who will partner with a human hunter, not killing prey itself, but retrieving the bounty from the field, carrying it gently back for the master's dinner. They are genetically programmed to go fetch. Likewise, pointers are programmed to point, not kill; spaniels are programmed to flush birds out of the brush and leave the shooting to the people. Does this mean that no Labrador or golden will ever exhibit predatory behavior? Of course not. The instinct is reduced but not eliminated. What about breeds so often touted as dangerous such as rottweilers and American Staffordshire terriers (a.k.a. pitbulls) who have been selected for their abilities as guard dogs and fighting dogs, respectively? In my experience these breeds are no more likely to chase prey than any other. The trouble with rotties and pitbulls is their size and strength and their tenacity and ferocity when they do manage to catch something. A little dachshund may pursue the cat, stimulated by the echoes of the past when his ancestors hunted badgers, hare, and stoat, but a modern-day match between him and Felix is unlikely to result in kitty losing one of his nine lives. Not so for rotties and pitbulls. Dogs like these can kill a cat in seconds by simply grabbing it with their powerful jaws and giving a good shake. Hard to read, but true.
Which brings us to northern breed dogs. Siberian huskies. Alaskan Malamutes. Akitas. There's a reason these are classified as Working Dogs. Take the husky, bred to live in the vast arctic plains, to use his wits to survive. When the nearest grocery store with a can of Alpo may be hundreds of snowy miles away, a sharp predatory instinct is useful if you don't want to starve. If you are pulling a heavy sled for hours across the tundra, a fierce desire to run and roam is a positive attribute. If your sensitive paws tell you the ice ahead isn't safe, even though your human musher is urging you forward, a streak of willfulness can save lives. A Siberian husky is an independent, energetic dog that needs a job, a lot of exercise, and a savvy owner. But what makes a perfect dog in the Yukon can make for a heap of trouble in Yonkers. The Northern California Sled Dog Rescue says that, for a Siberian husky, "obedience is optional.... If you want a dog who will be at your beck and call, get a golden retriever." Other breeds that have a reputation for predatory behavior include herding dogs such as border collies, German shepherds, Australian heelers, and sight hounds such as Afghans, greyhounds and borzois.
"But my husky never bothers our chickens," you protest, "and they have been together for years!" Exactly. That's the result of experience and early socialization. A dog raised closely with another species will be less likely to perceive that animal as prey. But the natural instinct is still there. Your dog may be fine with your cat, your rabbit, or your chickens, yet still attack a newcomer or an unknown animal. There is strong motivation for a dog to exhibit predatory behavior. It's fun. Add the element of social facilitation, i.e., the presence of other pack members, and the behavior escalates. And in the end, there is a big reward - a yummy chicken dinner. Once a dog has the experience of a successful hunt, he will remember it and be highly motivated to hunt again. It's really not much different from the kids screaming for KFC as you drive through Buzzards Bay until you get off the highway and buy a bucket. You just can't blame the dog.
You can try old-timey remedies like tying a dead chicken to his collar, or newfangled training devices like remote shock collars. They probably won't work. You just can't get away from the reality that this is normal, innate canine behavior. Dogs will be dogs. This puts the burden of responsibility directly on the owners. What's a person to do? First, think carefully before getting a new dog. Does your lifestyle match the breed's needs? Can you provide the new member of the family with enough exercise and training? Is your physical environment adequate? You may be able to assess an individual puppy's potential for chasing prey by observing how he plays. Pups that stalk, chase, pounce, and tussle aggressively with their toys may be more prone to doing the same with small animals as they mature. Next, be sure to provide early socialization. If you want your dog to befriend your rabbit, rat, guinea pig, cat, ferret, horse, chicken, cockatiel, iguana, and children, introduce them to him when he is a puppy. Channel predatory impulses into harmless activities, making sure your dog gets plenty of exercise, and providing games like fetch.
If your best friend still crosses the line, whether he's chasing cats or killing chickens, there is only one foolproof solution. Confinement. Serious, foolproof, systematic, unfailing confinement. You must eliminate any opportunity for your dog's predatory instinct to be aroused or acted upon. Your neighbors have a right to know that their poultry and their pussycats are not endangered. Your dog deserves not to be vilified, shot at, or destroyed for just doing what comes naturally. It's up to you.