Dogs will be dogs. . .

but instincts determine why some dogs herd while others hunt


On May 25, more than two dozen Canaan Dogs gathered at a small farm near Cincinnati to test their willingness and ability to ply their ancient trade as shepherds. Many of these dogs had never seen sheep let alone spent time up close and personal with the woolly critters, yet most of these novice dogs honed in on the ewes and did a passable job at showing basic herding instinct.

Herding dogs of many breeds made it possible for sheep and cattle farmers to raise animals and get them to market. Border Collies are of course the cream of the crop, but Rough and Smooth-coated Collies, Shetland Sheepdogs, Old English Sheepdogs, and Corgis in the British Isles; German Shepherds, the four Belgian shepherds, Pulis, and others on the European Continent; and Heelers, Kelpies, and Australian shepherds in the land down under were (and in some cases still are) indispensable to sheep farmers.

What makes these dogs do what they do? And why do they herd instead of hunt and retrieve or pull carts or sleds or haul fishing nets to shore?

Dog behavior

All dogs – purebreds and mixes – exhibit general canine behavior patterns. Dogs are predators with body parts designed to hunt, chase, kill, and eat. Size, color, coat type, activity level, and trainability are all incidental to these characteristics. Yorkshire Terriers and Toy Poodles, Bulldogs and Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds and Newfoundlands – all are predators by nature.

Some dogs exhibit breed-specific behaviors such as extraordinary tracking ability, fierceness in the face of ferocious or dangerous quarry, a heightened sense of territoriality, an insatiable desire to run, or an uncanny ability to round up livestock. The American Kennel Club divides dogs into groups depending somewhat on these characteristics: Sporting dogs are those that hunt and retrieve game birds; hounds track mammals by scent; terriers dig into vermin dens; and herding dogs help farmers move sheep and cattle. AKC’s working dog group includes breeds that guard livestock and territory, pull carts and sleds, and serve man in a variety of jobs. Even the toy breeds had careers – they were companions, bed-warmers, mousers, and flea-magnets in royal castles and mansions throughout the world. The non-sporting group is the only one without a common thread, but most of these dogs had jobs in the past: Schipperkes were watchdogs and vermin-dispatchers on barges and in shops; Bulldogs helped butchers control cattle; Dalmatians guarded coaches and horses; Poodles, Finish Spitz, and Shiba Inus were hunting dogs; and Lhasa Apsos warned Tibetan monks of approaching strangers.

Few dogs have real jobs these days, but many retain the instincts that served them and their masters well in the early days. Dog breeders and dog clubs interested in maintaining and sharpening these skills have developed tests and other competitions to determine whether the instinct still survives and can be polished for peak performance.

Seven steps

Raymond and Lorna Coppinger (1) describe basic canine predatory behaviors in seven steps: orient, eye, stalk, chase, grab-bite, kill-bite, dissect. According to the Coppingers, dogs do not necessarily exhibit all of these behaviors even though they are designed to implement them.

Orientation on the prey animal starts the sequence. The dog focuses on the prey with an intent stare honed to perfection in the Border Collie, then stalks the prey with a slinking motion to get into position for the chase or pounce. The chase may culminate in a grab-bite or a kill-bite but the chain often breaks before the kill and ends with most dogs before the prey is eaten.

Predatory behaviors begin at different ages in different breeds; while Border Collies and some other breeds may stalk prey at 10 weeks of age, guardian breeds generally don’t develop this behavior until they are five-to-six months old. Herding dogs orient, focus, stalk, and chase livestock, but with few exceptions, the behavior chain is broken before the grab-bite.

Flock guardians exhibit none of these behaviors towards sheep because farmers place their puppies with the sheep before stalk and chase behavior are triggered, so the dog becomes accustomed to the sheep and never learns that they might be fun to chase and even kill.

Pointers, retrievers, spaniels, and other breeds developed to hunt and retrieve game birds also have an interrupted predatory behavior sequence. Spaniels flush their birds and pointers freeze when they scent their birds; both wait until the hunter completes the shot and sends them to retrieve the downed game.

Terriers generally carry the sequence through to the kill and are therefore still valuable as pest control. Dogs of many other breeds kill small wild animals and non-resident cats even if they get along with other pets in their households.

Size may determine modus operandi, but not the instinct to do the job.

Once dogs get past about 25 pounds, size doesn’t appear to have a lot to do with the propensity to herd, hunt, pull, or do other canine jobs. Canaan Dogs weigh 35-55 pounds; German Shepherds tip the scales at 80 pounds or more; and Corgis reach 25-35 pounds, yet all have herding abilities. Hunting dogs range in size from the Cocker Spaniel (25-30 pounds) to the retrievers (60-80 pounds). Sled dogs built for speed weigh 35-50 pounds; those built to haul heavy freight reach 90 pounds.

Dogs will be dogs

The jobs done by dogs have largely disappeared or have been replaced by careers as pets or participants in a variety of sports or service jobs, but canine predatory instincts are alive and well. The onset and ultimate conclusion or interruption of predatory behaviors follows breed-specific patterns developed and fine-tuned by genetic selection and training. However, these instincts are part of the whole dog repertoire, a fact that prudent owners keep in mind when dealing with a pet dog and choosing a new breed or mix to add to the household.

The most obvious manifestation of predatory behavior is the stalking, chasing, and often killing of critters in the dog’s home territory. Dogs will chase, catch, and kill cats and other animals that enter or pass by their yards even if they live harmoniously with cats, ferrets, Guinea pigs, rabbits, or other pets in the household. Some dogs will accept the presence of animals they grow up with but will stalk, chase, grab, and even kill newcomers. This tendency makes it tough to bring an adult dog that has a well-developed prey drive into a home with pets of species that it considers fair game.

Development of predatory behavior varies in individual dogs as well as between breeds. Some dogs of herding breeds show little or no aptitude for the job, but others seem born to the task. Some adult dogs are great with cats; others – to the chagrin of new owners who acquired their new pets from a shelter or rescue group – see cats as prey.

Puppy owners can assess the potential for prey drive in their pets by watching puppy play. If squeaky toys, rolling balls, butterflies, birds, falling leaves, or objects dragged along the floor elicit stalking, chasing, pouncing, and biting from puppies, chances are the pup will also chase anything that moves and will carry this behavior into adulthood. If the pattern begins early, it may be tough to teach the pup that the resident cat or ferret or Guinea pig is off-limits. If the pattern begins later, after the pup has learned to accept other household pets, he may still be a threat to wild animals and wandering cats.

Herding breeds, especially those without livestock to work, will stalk, circle, gather, and drive children, a habit that makes it tough for kids to have friends over to play. Dogs with a predatory sequence that includes bite-and-grab can easily frustrate a game of catch, badminton, or croquet or provide constant interruption to batting practice in the back yard. The impact of predatory behavior can be minimized through training and by removing the dog from the scene, but the behaviors cannot be erased once they are established.

Dogs with a high degree of predatory behavior are a challenge to train, especially if the family includes small children or other pets. As puppies, these dogs stalk, chase, and bite ankles, hands, pantlegs, floppy slippers, and dolls, blankets, or stuffed toys dragged around by toddlers. As adults, they may injure or kill other pets and resident wildlife, including the neighbor’s roaming feline or the nest full of baby bunnies in the garden.

All puppies exhibit some predatory behaviors, but some breeds and individuals seem to have an extra dose. Border Collies are notorious for their workaholic personalities that include the orient, eye, stalk, chase sequence. Terriers developed to hunt and kill vermin; hounds designed to track and run down quarry; herding dogs that work by nipping or nudging livestock; and hunting dogs used to confront large game generally have a heightened prey drive that make them unsuitable for owners without the time, circumstances, or inclination to provide proper socialization and training that can ameliorate problems.


(1) Dogs, A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger, University of Chicago Press, 2001; page 116

More books

The Truth about Dogs by Stephen Budiansky, Viking Penguin, 2000.

The Domestic Dog: Its evolution, behavior, and interactions with people edited by James Serpell; Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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