The 7 Signs of Predatory Behaviour You Need To Know
Many typical programmes to stop barking and lunging on the leash fail because they start with a basic misunderstanding: reactive behaviour is rooted in fear.
As you will have seen if you have been following this series, when dogs struggle to cope out on walks, there can be many reasons:
So far, these reasons have been largely negative or unpleasant. Anxiety and fear do not feel good. Dogs who feel so uncomfortable that they try to escape clearly find the situation highly aversive. Fear that a stranger may come on to your property or may pose a threat to individuals with whom you share a bond is not a pleasant emotion.
Although lacking impulse control does not come with a set of emotions attached, many dogs struggle with impulsivity. This often happens when the dog is unable to cope socially.
Likewise frustration. We may think that frustrated dogs are desperate to get something they want, but if their frustration is rooted in almost compulsive levels of a need to interact, it is likely this has some anxiety and fear attached too.
Helping dogs cope with these situations is relatively straightforward. Animals work to avoid unpleasant emotions and situations and work to access pleasant ones. We may argue that most of the barking and lunging we’ve explored so far ends in relief.
That may be relief that the other individual has gone away.
It could be relief that barking and lunging meant you didn’t get touched.
It may also be relief that your pro-social behaviours diffused potential tension.
There are, however, two forms of reactive behaviour where relief is not the emotion experienced after the encounter: neophilia and predation.
What is predatory behaviour?
Predation is an instinctive canine behaviour. Sometimes this is confused with fear or aggression, but in reality, it is neither.
Predation generally means locating, chasing, capturing and consuming prey species.
It can be very hard when we look at our companion animals to remember that they have retained many elements of predatory behaviour.
A history of chasing and catching
During domestication, aspects of typical canid behaviour have been altered in the dog. Wolves, coyotes, jackals and dingos all catch prey species as their main calorie intake. Work undertaken by David Mech in the 1970s suggested that the main diet of wolves were large herd animals.
This body of work was taken by subsequent authors to be the template on which dog behaviour was built. Writers such as Ray and Lorna Coppinger theorised that the predatory motor sequence of wolves was the basis of the dog breeds we see in front of us.
We should remember that Mech’s work was limited in that it only looked at a small, isolated population of wolves on Isle Royale. Since this highly influential body of work was published, we now know much more about what wolves eat and how they capture prey species. We know some wolves consume large numbers of berries in the summer months, that some wolves depend largely on beaver as their main food intake, some wolves fish, some wolves scavenge and that far fewer wolves work as a pack to bring down bigger animals.
These days, we also know that Mech’s work, and the work of many other wolf scholars, looks at North American wolves. We simply have no idea about the diet and hunting habits of the common ancestor of dogs and the North American wolves.
Predatory behaviour in dogs
Hunting can largely be separated into four areas:
- location behaviours
- orienting behaviours
- chase and capture behaviours
- consumption behaviours
What we see in most free-ranging dogs across the world is that they live from scavenging. By and large, dogs do not live outside of the human sphere. The habits of street and village dogs are shaped by the habits of the people they live around.
We can also see this reflected in our dogs. For most dogs, there is a division between chasing and catching behaviours and consuming behaviours. Chasing and catching behaviours are sometimes known as appetitive behaviours. Many dogs enjoy the odours of prey species like squirrels and rabbits. Some also enjoy chasing them. A very small number would kill smaller animals.
Of the dogs who would catch and kill prey species, very few also consume what they’ve killed. Some rat terriers for instance can kill many rats in a session, but once the rat is dead, they lose interest in it. This is common in dogs who have killed small animals. Although they may walk around with them in their mouths, it often seems as if they do not know what to do with the dead animal.
It is far more frequent that dogs will come across dead animals and then consume them. They may even consume fecal matter in the same way, or scavenge leftovers on the pavement. The crossover between dogs who kill and dogs who scavenge and consume, however, is very unusual.
Why don’t dogs have the entire predatory sequence?
There are many theories about this. Some theories prioritise human selection for behaviour, such as the theories of Ray Coppinger. Others suggest biological changes that may have caused domestication processes, such as the domestication theory of Susan Crockford. The profound interplay between hormones and behaviour may have changed dogs for ever.
What we do know is that very few free-ranging dogs hunt like wolves, even though it would supplement their calorie intake. Like our companion animals, if they come across roadkill or kills left by hunters, they will eat it, but if they kill a rat or pigeon, for example, they may wander around with it in their mouths as if they are unsure what to do with it next. These dogs live almost entirely outside the realm of human influence over their reproduction, so it is unlikely that human selection for behaviour has caused this.
Other theories suggest that dogs have maintained the more puppyish behaviours of wolves. This process, known as neotenisation, means that dogs may simply behave like wolf puppies whose calories are provided for them and who are simply practising their skills. Young animals show some parts of the predatory sequence but many have that division between appetitive behaviours and consumption behaviours.
Selective breeding and predation
However domestication happened and whatever it did to change the way dogs access food, we cannot deny that it has been useful to adapt the instinctive appetitive behaviours of wolves. In Western dog breeds, we can certainly see that some aspects of wolf behaviour have increased, and others have decreased.
Scenthounds, for example, find the locating aspect of predation to be highly engaging when it involves using their nose. Sighthounds find the visual location and chasing aspect of predation to be much more fun. Terriers have maintained all parts of the appetitive behaviours, including digging and killing.
In gundogs, we have selected specifically for behaviours like pointing, setting and retrieving. Although selective breeding may have made some behaviours more frequent in some breeds of dog, we should not forget that all dogs may engage in these behaviours.
Like many young mammals, dogs enjoy predation-like behaviours which mimic adult behaviours. We see these commonly in play behaviour, where predation behaviours can also be seen, such as chasing, biting and pulling. A dog may grab their toy, fling it up in the air, pounce on it, stab it with their paws, grab it and shake it, just as foxes do on many videos on the internet.
Playful behaviour is not the only place we see these predation-like behaviours. We also see these transfer to other activities.
One adaptation is in herding dogs. Here, there are clear parallels between the ways in which wolves separate herd animals from one another or encourage flocking behaviours, and the ways in which herding dogs work.
We may see pseudopredation in many dogs who chase, catch and grab moving objects. That includes toys such as balls but also moving machinery like cars, trolleys, scooters, wheelchairs, lorries, tractors, wheelbarrows or even lawnmowers.
How predation and pseudopredation affect our dogs
We need to remember there are two types of herding dog we should consider. The first are British and New World dogs largely within the English-speaking world. Possibly, these breed types began to develop around the 7th century CE along the Atlantic corridor in sheep-herding communities. Scandinavian, Icelandic, Shetlandic, Scottish, English and Welsh herding dogs fall into this group which, according to Johannes Caius, were relatively well established by the 15th century CE. By the time of colonisation, British speakers were taking these dogs to America, Australia and New Zealand.
There are other dogs who undertake herding work over Eurasia, particularly in the Northern European Plains that stretch from Northern France through Belgium, Holland and Germany into Poland, Hungary and beyond. Most evidence is that these dogs were multipurpose rustic farm dogs who herded occasionally.
Although it is likely these dogs did not truly emerge as breed types until much later, they too can herd. However, unlike the Atlantic corridor herding dogs, they do not have an adversarial role with the sheep. More like livestock guardian breeds who imprint on the flock and are bonded to the group, their role is more in tending and keeping the flock together.
How predatory instincts can end in barking and lunging
Many dogs struggle with species that wolves would typically prey upon, from sheep and goats to cows and horses. Some would also chase small creatures like rabbits and squirrels. For dogs who smell or see a squirrel, their natural instinct may be to give chase. If they are always on lead, having their needs thwarted can cause frustration. As you know, this can end in barking and lunging.
This is also true of wildlife and some other domesticated animals.
Other dogs struggle with moving objects that possess features of the animals they would naturally chase. Small parts of these objects cause instinctive responses that happen more quickly than other more rational processes. These tiny actions are called sign stimuli and they cause an instinctive response in dogs that can be very difficult to control.
For instance, a flash of light or movement at a certain speed can set off a chain of neurological processes that mimic the jobs they have been selected to do. We can imagine how frustrating it must be to a border collie whose brain is telling them that cars are sheep that need to be controlled or a malinois whose brain is telling them to keep the moving items in a group and drive off other predators.
This frustration on lead often manifests around wildlife, livestock or domesticated animals. We may also see it with moving machinery. The frustration then drives barking and lunging because the dog cannot do the behaviours their biology is telling them to do.
One typical scenario that can be very worrying for guardians is when the dog fixates on children’s movement, on joggers or on cyclists, particularly if the dog is likely to nip or bite.
The Seven Common Signs of Predatory Behaviour
As you can imagine, this behaviour is more frequent in breeds who have been bred to work with livestock. However it is not uncommon in some bull breeds too. Although we may typically see this more frequently in collies, shepherd dogs or bull breeds, we should remember that all dogs have the ability and biological coding to do this.
If the target is still or when the dog first notices the trigger, we may see certain behaviours. Typically, you will see the head and shoulders drop. The front legs will bend slightly at the elbow. You will notice your dog’s eyes fix on the target. They may slow down. Some dogs may begin to creep forward. Collies are known for stalking, so you may see this too. They may even drop to their stomach and begin to crawl forward. This behaviour is often silent.
As the trigger moves, you may then see a burst of momentum as your creeping dog turns from silence and stillness to action. If they are on the lead, they will lunge forward.
It is not unusual for dogs to then bark or lunge if they are unable to make contact or to control the movement of the trigger. They may become incredibly frustrated.
What causes predatory behaviour?
Firstly, genetics has some effect. Human selection for particular behaviours means that some breeds more frequently engage in this behaviour.
Second, inappropriate or ineffective socialisation during early development will also contribute to this behaviour too. We know that emotional arousal makes it more likely for puppies to sensitise to relevant stimuli, and so the first encounters a dog has with common triggers are hugely important.
Sadly, many puppies become sensitive to movement instead of habituating to it. We hope that our puppies will get used to cars, cyclists and children. In fact, emotional arousal just sensitises them further.
Lack of support and guidance can also contribute. In hoping multiple exposures will overcome the problem, many guardians just keep doing what they’ve been doing. We also forget that herding dogs are also selected because of their relationship to humans and their ability to follow our cues. It may be that some dogs struggle because we expect them to self-regulate rather than recognising our responsibility to co-regulate.
What programmes work with dogs who struggle with predatory instincts?
We need first to acknowledge that programmes based around fear and anxiety may not work. Of course, it may cause the dog some anxiety if they are not permitted to carry out very instinctive behaviours that come naturally to them, but this is not the same as fear-based anxiety. Multiple exposures, time and space are not likely to work with dogs who want to chase. They will just contribute to their frustration.
Helping your dog learn how to cope with frustration and impulse control will be important. These should be foundation skills for dogs who chase.
You may also need to help your dog by giving them more structure and guidance. Your main role will be in helping them disengage from triggers and focus on other activities. Helping them learn to channel their impulses can be very important. This blends controlled chasing with impulse control. It is one reason why programmes like Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed programme is particularly helpful for dogs who seem reactive but whose behaviour is rooted in ancient instincts that struggle in a modern world.
If you’d like more information on this topic, you can also check out the Lighten Up YouTube channel.
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