Even nonhunting breeds of dogs have vestiges of the instinct

May 31. 2014 7:14PM

We have a chipmunk living under our front steps. In nice weather when we have the front door open to the screen door, Larry our Chinook lies there and watches the chipmunk, who seems to be watching Larry. Larry doesn't lunge or paw at the screen; he just seems to be entertained watching.

Yesterday, there was something - a snake or mouse? - behind the house siding under our deck. Suddenly, Larry became a hunter. He was pouncing and pawing at whatever it was until we called him away and brought him inside. (We didn't want him digging under the house).

Then today on our walk, Larry seemed to be hunting again. He was doing fox pounces and running around, clearly having found something interesting (probably another chipmunk). I couldn't see what it was, and he didn't catch it, but his behavior was really interesting to watch. Chinooks aren't a hunting breed, but all dogs, regardless of their breed, have the vestiges and behavior patterns of their wild relatives.

A few weeks ago, I got the following email from a reader: "Today my friend and I were running our dogs on a golf course. I have 2 Australian Shepherds she has a Duck Toller. All of a sudden they all took off and soon we heard that bark like they found a critter. When we caught up with them we found all 3 around a small groundhog. We got them away, and my older dog had blood around her mouth so we assume she did some damage. My question is do I now have to be very aware of her should we meet any little dogs? Is that behavior more apt to happen now that she has attacked another animal? Are they able to differentiate wild from domestic?

"Several factors are at play in this scenario. One trigger is the "pack mentality" - the fact there were a number of dogs involved. Just as crowds of people can turn into a mob, behaving vastly differently than each would as an individual, "group energy" played a role in this event.

As part of the hunting behavioral sequence, chasing is often a group activity. One dog starts the chase, and others join in - great fun in a play situation. Not so much fun when the pack is after a small animal.

The sudden appearance of a wild animal triggered the chase. Just as Larry's hunting instincts seem to have been awakened by whatever was under the house, these three dogs were incited by finding a groundhog.

As to the reader's question about whether these dogs might now consider small dogs to be prey, there's no sure answer.

Dogs do not think groundhogs, mice, porcupines or any other noncanine is a dog. A groundhog or other small animal doesn't smell like a dog, look like a dog, and most important, doesn't communicate as a dog does. To a dog, it clearly is not a dog. If these three dogs are normally good in their play and interaction with other dogs, including small dogs, the chances are that this experience won't affect their behavior. On the other hand, if they're not, my recommendation is to exercise caution when these dogs are around small dogs, especially in the near future, until they can determine if this experience has triggered something bigger.

I've written in the past about a phenomenon known as "predatory drift," which can play a role in a dog's interactions with other dogs (available on my website, alldogsgym.com). The bottom line is that dogs are dogs, and they will always react like dogs. It's one of the things we love most about them - and one of the things we need to recognize and pay attention to.

Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. To suggest a topic for this column, email gail@alldogsgym.com or write c/o All Dogs Gym, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. You'll find past columns on her website.

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