Predatory Behavior Primer

After reading about the tragic injury of a small dog by a larger dog at the local dog park, I have to admit that the first thing that came to mind was that, the larger dog might have perceived the smaller dog as prey. I can’t say this was the case for sure because I wasn’t there, and no one that was there seems to have a good grip on what happened. However, after reading the lengthy online discussion, it is clear to me that many dog owners are misinformed when it comes to dog behavior.  As a result, I am going to write a series of blog posts about predatory behavior, it’s relation to play and how to keep off leash dog play safe.

What is Predatory Behavior?

Predatory behavior in any species of animal is essentially any behavior that is used to find, catch, kill and eat other animals for food. This behavior is hard-wired and it is compulsive even though most dogs we know do not need to hunt for their food.

In her book, Chase! Managing Your Dog’s Predatory Instincts, Clarissa Von Reinhardt describes the full range of canine predatory behaviors as a chronological sequence which includes:

  1. Finding the prey
  2. Orientation posture
  3. Sighting the prey
  4. Stalking/encircling
  5. Chasing/driving
  6. Attacking (grabbing)
  7. Killing
  8. Dissecting
  9. Consuming and/or carrying away and burying (storing).

Typically, the behaviors follow in sequence but behaviors may be more exaggerated or absent all together in dogs.

Is predatory behavior learned or is it instinct?

After reading the list of predatory behaviors I am sure some of you have seen your dog engage in some (or all) of these behaviors without appearing to have been taught. According to von Reinhardt, there are many ways that these behaviors develop in dogs:

  • They are both hereditary and shaped during early development. Through selective breeding, many herding, guarding and hunting breeds have had certain behaviors enhanced others reduced. Your dog’s parentage and early development may be unknown if you are rescuing a dog however, if you are obtaining a new dog as a puppy, knowing the behavior of your puppy’s sire and dam will give you insight into what your puppy may behave like. If your dog’s parents had a high disposition to predatory behavior, your puppy is likely to be the same.
  • They are natural instincts aroused by the environment. This means that there is a multitude of things (or combination of things) in your dog’s environment that may provoke predatory behavior. This is why you may see these behaviors in some circumstances but not others. We’ll expand on the list of potential triggers later on .
  • They are learned in part by imitation. Dogs that have the opportunity to learn from experienced dogs may show stronger predatory drive.
  • They are influenced by the actions of other dogs. One dog’s predatory behavior may kick-start another’s and the two dogs (or more) may gang up on the prey together.
  • They are frequently, though not always, linked to hunger. This is simple, a hungry dog is more likely to engaged in hard-wired food seeking behaviors.
  • They need to be practiced. These behaviors require strength, speed, determination and the ability to see, hear, and sniff out prey. Performing the actual behaviors is practice but play is also practice.
  • They may depend on the dog’s individual nature and preferences.  Regardless of breed, breeding or experience, some dogs may love the hunt and others may prefer to curl up on the sofa.

Are some breeds more predatory than others?

Since predatory behavior is the result of a complex combination of instinct, experience and environment, it is difficult to say that one dog (or even one breed), is more likely to demonstrate predatory behavior and a recent publication backs this up. What we can say is that a dog from “working lines” (breeding stock purposefully selected for predatory qualities) may be more likely to have a significant amount of predatory instinct and be able to learn predatory behaviors after fewer learning opportunities.

This does not mean, however that all Pitbulls and Rottweilers are cat killers or that your Bichon or Pug is harmless and you need not ever worry about predatory behavior. The nature of these behaviors is such that they may remain dormant until the perfect storm of circumstances (like a dog park) reveals them.

If a dog is showing predatory behavior, does that mean he is aggressive?

The general consensus among dog behaviorists and trainers is that predatory behavior is not, in fact the same as what many people call aggression. In fact, in the Handbook of applied dog behavior and training, Volume 2, Steven Lindsay writes states that aggression and predation are “significantly different in terms of functional purpose, evolutionary history, and neurobiological origins”. What this means in plain English is that:

  • predatory behavior is primarily directed towards finding food, where aggression is more about reacting to perceived threats or securing resources.
  • because prey acts differently from competitors or threatening individuals, the behaviors for catching prey evolved differently than those aimed at securing resources or keeping threats at bay.
  • Your dog’s brain functions differently when engaging in predatory behavior vs. aggression.

The Takeaway Lessons

What dog owners and the non-dog owning public need to understand is that:

  • Predatory behavior is the result of instinct and experience and environment – the perfect blend of nature and nurture.
  • All dogs have the potential for predatory behavior.
  • A dog that is wonderful with adults, may, under some circumstances perceive dogs, cats or pet bunnies and in extreme circumstances small children as prey.
  • Predatory behavior and aggressive behavior are different although they may appear the same to the unknowing eye.

Now that I have explained predatory behavior, I do want you to understand that I know this is not always behavior we want to see in the dogs we live with – I would be devastated if my dog killed our cat, or anyone else’s cat for that matter. In the next couple of blog posts, I am going to help you learn to recognize predatory behavior and distinguish it from play and I’m also going to help you learn how to keep your dog from becoming either predator or prey in the company of humans, dogs or other animals.

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One thought on “Predatory Behavior Primer

  1. Thank you so much for your research into this. I have a rottie from “working lines” who has a lot of prey drive. I have worked very hard to help him learn to not chase bunnies so he is not tearing my arm off every time we see one on a walk (we see around two or three every walk!) Now a quick “leave it” and then a distraction or a treat work well especially if he is tired out from our walk. However he does get riled up with young children who run and scream (I understand this is normal behaviour for children and would never want them to stop) and it is harder to distract him in these situations. We do not have children in our family and have rarely socialized him with small children. I would love your opinion on how best to socialize him with children so that he does not react in a bad way.

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