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How to manage predatory behavior: it's especially important to keep babies and children safe.

Some dog owners ask: Would it be possible to train away my dog s instinctive chase behavior? Life would be so much easier if we never had to worry about our canine companions chasing squirrels, rabbits, cats or other tempting targets--if we could modify the so-called prey drive, which veterinary behaviorists more properly refer to as predatory behavior.

What It Means. Simply put, predatory behavior is a hunting instinct that directs a dog to stalk, chase, capture and (usually) kill prey. "Wild and feral dogs are hunters, but domestication and differential breeding have modified breed and individual predatory motivation," explains Julia Albright, DVM, a resident in the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine. The modifications include removing the instinct to kill prey, as has been done in herding breeds. For example, says Dr. Albright, Border Collies are known for a specialized type of herding called "eye" in which they can herd the targets without injury--in fact, without touching or barking. Herding breeds such as Border Collies, Australian Cattle dogs and German Shepherds are often exuberant chasers.

On the other side of the coin are dogs for whom the hunting instinct has been highly refined. According to Dr. Albright, examples include Greyhounds, which are known for killing cats; and terriers, which are notorious for chasing and killing small prey. In general, sighthounds, such as Greyhounds and Whippets, and scenthounds, such as Basset Hounds, Beagles and Foxhounds, display highly-tuned predatory behaviors that have been purposefully bred into them over generations.

When It Affects Humans. Much

of the time, predatory behavior can be managed by a dog's owner. Simply leashing the dog in situations that are known to stimulate the behavior--such as walks in areas where squirrels proliferate--can contain the problem. In some cases, extra care must be taken around small household or neighborhood animals like cats, birds and mice, or in out-and-about situations: "A big problem is a dog can be so focused on the potential 'prey' that it becomes oblivious to things like oncoming traffic," says Dr. Albright. "Skateboards and bikes also often elicit predatory behavior."

However, predatory behavior can pose a grave danger to children and should never be taken lightly. According to Nicholas Dodman, DVM, program director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, predatory aggression is thought to be at the heart of some of the most serious dog attacks directed toward babies. In his book The Dog Who Loved Too Much, he notes that a struggling, crying infant may appear to be wounded prey to a dog and thus trigger the predatory instinct. He adds that there are approximately 10 infant deaths per year in the United States "that arise from the misdirection of this innate canine behavior."

Dog attacks that don't kill can still injure and maim, especially children. Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 368,245 people were treated in emergency rooms in 2001 for nonfatal dogbite-related injuries; of these, 154,625--or 42 percent--were children under the age of 14. Nearly 50,000 of those treated were kids four years old or younger.

While dogs with high predatory or chase instincts may be more likely to go after children, every dog--even the gentle family pet--should be considered a potential threat to babies and small children. The safest course of action is to assume that predatory aggression can be triggered in any dog and take appropriate precautions. "We recommend that every dog stay at least three feet away from infants," says Dr. Albright. Other protective measures: never leave a dog and an infant alone together; don't assume that a crib or a closed door will protect a child from a dog; teach the dog basic obedience skills; do not play aggressive games (such as wrestling) with your dog; and teach children who are old enough to understand some basic dog-safety rules.

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An Excess of Energy. In the appropriate setting, predatory behavior can be a boon to both dog and owner. Dogs with high drives to chase and hunt often have boundless energy, making them excellent companions for owners who pursue an active lifestyle. These dogs enjoy running, hiking, swimming and other high-octane activities. They may also excel at a variety of canine sports, including herding, racing, field trials, agility and disc dog.

"Most herding breeds are high-energy and need lots of activities," says Dr. Albright. Daily off-leash play and running sessions are a must; otherwise, these dogs can channel their energy into pursuits that owners may not enjoy, such as digging, chewing or excess barking. On the flip side, herding dogs often don't do well in small, confined spaces, such as apartments, or with sedentary owners.

"Other breeds known for predatory behavior, such as sight and scent hounds, are lower in overall energy and do just fine in apartments or with less active families, given daily exercise," says Dr. Albright.

Modifying the Predatory Instinct. With all this in mind, is it possible to reduce the predatory or chase drive in a dog? According to Dr. Albright, it's possible--but not easy, and it won't work in all cases. "Predatory aggression is the most difficult to treat, because it is 'hardwired' or instinctual behavior in dogs," says Dr. Albright. "Avoiding situations [that trigger the behavior] is the most effective solution--in other words, don't let your dog run loose--but attempting to give the dog a good treat as you pass a potential prey animal may teach the dog a better alternative."

Coupling the treat alternative with desensitization may provide good results. Take the example of a dog that chases squirrels. In the first step, the owner would bring his dog, on leash, within sight of a squirrel but not close enough that the dog reacts. As long as the dog doesn't react, the owner will feed the dog bits of chicken or another high-value treat. Over time, the owner will allow the dog to move progressively closer to a squirrel, again feeding treats when the dog doesn't react to the squirrel. If the dog gets excited and goes into chase mode, the owner retreats until there is again no reaction to the trigger. This process is repeated until the dog can closely approach a squirrel with no reaction, but instead looks to the owner for a treat. The owner can reinforce the lesson, which is "Squirrel = treat!" by providing random treats at squirrel sightings from then on.

Unfortunately, this approach doesn't work for all dogs. Some may do brilliantly as long as the squirrel isn't moving--but then immediately move into default chase mode when the squirrel darts away. For others, the thrill of the hunt might prove much more compelling than any treat you could offer. "To dogs of certain breeds or temperament, the treat will never be more rewarding than chasing the squirrel or cat," says Dr. Albright. "The chase itself is the reward."

If training doesn't help in your case, manage the situation by avoiding triggers, using a leash where appropriate and channeling your dog's drive into more acceptable pursuits.
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Title Annotation:BEHAVIOR
Publication:Dog Watch
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2009
Words:1180
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