Have you ever caught your dog looking far too sharply at the neighbor’s cat? Or perhaps Spot brought a squirrel home from the park once? Maybe you have a farm and your dog got in to the chicken coop and killed a bird?
Well, if this, or a similar scenario, is you, then you may be dealing with a dog that has a high prey drive.
Identifying Your Dog’s Prey Drive Level:
These are: nonexistent, neutral, low, medium or high
Nonexistent – Your dog will clean Tabbys’ ears, share his food with her, or allow your cat to sleep on his back with little to no reaction or interest. This dog sleeps with the cat, lets the budgie sit on his head, counts your Chihuahua as his closest confident, and generally reacts positively to all small animals. Unless they bite him, then some grumbling, a paw-pat, or a good bark in the face is warranted.
Neutral – While Spot might not love the cat, he never goes out of his way to chase or hurt him, in fact generally ignores Tabby’s existence. They may harass one another (let’s face it, cats can give as well as they get, and sometimes personalities just don’t mix), or play chase. But it’s often plain when a dog chases an animal it sees as prey. There is a singular focus there, you can almost feel that, yes, they are chasing dinner. You dog has never chased the cat this way.
Medium – Perhaps Spot will chase anything that flees, might even harass a smaller animal, but generally falls short of actually making contact. He obsesses over the neighborhood cat and will chase it, although more for the excitement value than a real intent to kill. He might even rough up small dogs or the household cat, but never breaks skin, or follows through to killing. Most likely not a terribly worrisome level of drive, but keep an eye on him.
High – Will assume an alert, ready body language and stance any time he is near a smaller animal that could be seen as prey (cat, small dog, rodent, bird etc.). Will focus to the point of obsessive on the smaller animal until you have taken him from the area. Will chase and snap at the smaller animal. Will run the smaller animal down and go for the kill.
It’s different when dogs of equal size shed one another’s blood – that’s a fight for different reasons altogether, for dominance, pack position or just protecting their turf. But when a dog breaks the skin, draws blood, kills and eats, another smaller animal (including another dog) – that is his instinct to hunt, and kill. Don’t ever underestimate this dog.
“Well, cats kill all the time,” you say. Yes, because a cat’s natural prey drive is ALWAYS on, even if he or she is well fed and lazy. But domestic cats are small, and only a threat to birds and rodents. However, if you are guardian to a large breed dog that finds cats tantalizing, or chickens tasty, or smaller dogs snack worthy, you have a big problem.
Q: But We Live on a Farm… My Dog is Just Acting Naturally, Right?
A: Granted, this is a different situation. A farm or ranch can be a very different place for pets to live. In fact, they may not necessarily be pets, but employees. This includes Collies, Shepherds of various breeds, sight hounds, scent hounds, or other sporting and working breeds.
You may be pleased that Spot keeps your barn clear or rats and possums. However, if your farm or ranch dog goes to another property and kills chickens, a lamb, or the cats, you have a problem right away. People will not take kindly to this behavior, or the result. Be aware that in most states, it is entirely legal to shoot a dog that is trespassing on your property – regardless of who owns it or whether or not it was causing any damage. If your dog wounds or kills livestock, you can be sued for damages.
Frankly, you have no right to let a dog you know has a high prey drive, run free. You are liable in all cases, and you are at fault for whatever your dog does.
Q: So My Dog Has a High Prey Drive. What Can I Do About it?
A: If you live in the city, or a residential area, you get your dog assessed by someone experienced as soon as possible. You need to know the degree of drive your dog has, what is possible and what is not.
If the prey drive is low, then your dog could be trained out of the behavior. If your dog’s prey drive is high, she won’t be trainable as at this point you will be trying to remove a fundamental natural instinct that drives your animal in every aspect of their daily lives. The behavior can then only be preventable – by your close daily attention and efforts.
In this case, steps must be taken to ensure your dog has no access to other people’s small pets, and preferably not the local wild life either. Encouraging this behavior is unnecessary in this day and age.
1. Keep your dog ON leash AT ALL TIMES, when out of the yard. No off leash parks, period.
2. Make sure your yard is completely escape proof.
3. If your yard has some weak spots, fix them, or put your dog on a line.
4. Reinforce all outside gates and doors in your home and garden. Consider adding spring-loaded door closing/ auto-latching mechanism to all outside doors, to prevent an escape in the instance that a door is accidentally left open by a visitor.
5. NEVER leave your dog alone in the house or yard with another person’s dog or cat, even just for a minute.
6. NEVER EVER take your dog into a house that has a new baby, or young children smaller than your dog. If you have very small children of your own or a baby, reconsider keeping your dog.
5. DO NOT reward the prey behavior in any way shape or form. This includes ‘playing’ or ‘puppy’ behavior directed towards you such as chasing, nibbling and even gentle biting.
6. If you want other pets, get a dog of equal size, or a caged animal safely out of reach and secured.
Q: Do I Need to Euthanize My Dog Upon Discovering He Has a High Prey Drive?
A: No, of course not. But you must be vigilant, take the steps necessary to keep the smaller animals around your dog safe, and be realistic. Just because a dog has a high prey drive, doesn’t mean she can’t be an amazing pet IN EVERY OTHER WAY. It just means you need to be a responsible pet owner, and you and your family must be able to accept and adhere to the above boundaries at all times.
With the above information, you and your dog will be just fine. Take care, and enjoy your time together!
Cat & Dog Behaviorist