Little Predators

6 May 2013dogs

I’m a good dog, I am!

Our dog Winnie is a great little dog. Of course, we would say that, but it really is true. The more I read about dog development and behaviour, the more pleased I feel about how far she’s come since we adopted her.

Sweet as she is though, there’s one thing she does that drives both me and Rita spare, something that can make a nice outing into a big pile of stress. Winnie is a hunting dog, and oh, does she love to hunt. She never catches anything, but she loves to chase things. Birds and squirrels mostly, but deer, hares, cats, anything that runs away. (She will stand and watch deer that aren’t moving or that haven’t seen her, but if they run, she’s off.) She has in the past thought about chasing Gämse in the high mountains, but I managed to put her off that–she had no chance of getting anywhere near them and she would probably have killed herself falling off a cliff trying to keep up with them...

When she runs off, she can disappear for a while, and she just doesn’t listen to us. (In fact, from what we know, she probably can’t even hear us once she switches into hunting mode.) The longest she’s disappeared for was only about half an hour, a couple of weeks ago, which by beagle standards, is nothing. It’s not unusual for them to disappear for days. But even a short time out of sight crazily chasing whatever (often it’s just a smell she’s after) is dangerous. There are hunters here who will happily kill dogs that are running free, and there are other more mundane dangers too.

So, what do we do? I’ve been reading a book by David Ryan, an ex-police dog trainer and instructor. It’s giving me some good insight into why Winnie behaves the way she does, and it and Ryan’s other book give me some hope that we might be able to do something about it.

The basic problem, as Ryan describes it, is that this sort of predatory behaviour is, first of all, innate and instinctual, and second, like puppy crack. Exercising the various aspects of this behaviour is so exciting for dogs that they fixate completely on the hunting to the exclusion of everything else, and the endorphin rush they get is supremely addictive. They are never going to interrupt that to come back to you for a biscuit.

Can’t we be friends?

Ryan describes the different phases of the natural canine predatory behaviour as: track, scent, freeze, stalk, chase, grab and kill-bite. Different dog breeds have been bred over time to emphasise different phases of this behaviour more or less. We’re pretty sure now that Winnie is a cross between a beagle (or something like a beagle, a harrier or an Anglo-Français Tricolore maybe) and some sort of terrier. You can see this in the way that she concentrates on tracking (sniffing on the ground), chasing (self-explanatory), grabbing (she loves pouncing on toys) and kill-biting (typical terrier behaviour of shaking things, mostly toys, to “kill” them).

From what I can tell so far, Ryan’s scheme for helping with this problem has three steps.

First, make sure that the emotional environment of your dog is as stress-free and positive as possible. Many dogs engage in predatory behaviour for stress relief. For Winnie, life is kind of stressful in general, because of her lack of socialisation and exposure to “the human world” when she was a puppy. We do what we can to make life peaceful and fun for her, but she still gets scared by frightening things like plastic bags, people, boxes, and so on.

Second, you need to remove the opportunity for your dog to exercise its predatory behaviour. That doesn’t mean no more off-leash walks, but it does mean you need to be a bit careful. Winnie mostly does her crazy chasing in the woods, not so much on the open fields. There are only rarely deer out in the open, and I’ve not seem any hares. She will track mice in the fields and do some funny pouncing, but she never catches anything. (The only taste of mouse she ever gets is when a bird of prey leaves some bits...) Unfortunately, dogs have to be on leash on agricultural land here between March and October, so we’re going to have to be a bit clever about what we do.

The third part of Ryan’s “chase no more” plan is extensive training to condition your dog to displace their chasing behaviour to a toy that you control. I’m hoping to get some more details from Ryan’s book “Stop!”. It looks like it’s going to take quite a bit of work, but I think it will be worthwhile. At the moment, we can’t really trust Winnie out in the woods–the smells of spring have led to an increase in chasing of birds and squirrels and it’s impossible to get her to listen when she’s in psycho-squirrel-chaser mode, so we have to do something!