Canine hunting behavior refers to those actions that allow the dog to detect and capture prey. Dogs evolved as hunters in order to survive, and all modern dogs are born with innate predatory aggression, skills specific to hunting prey. This applies whether the dog is a free-living feral animal who relies on these behaviors to eat or a pampered house puppy that never wants for puppy food. Many play behaviors use the same techniques as those used for hunting.
But instinct alone does not make every dog a successful hunter. Not all dogs have the same abilities to hunt, and technique is only learned through practice. Each puppy hones its technical skill through puppy play and sometimes an adult's example. Dogs never exposed to prey as puppies can learn to become successful hunters as adults.
Why Dogs Hunt
That puppy on your lap probably doesn’t need to hunt for a living, and today, most dogs do not necessarily hunt to eat. Hunger does not trigger the behavior; it is the sound, scent, or sight of moving prey that provides the stimulus. Even a pampered lap dog reacts to a leaping squirrel, the rustle of leaves, or the scent of the bunny frozen in the shrubs. The urge to track and chase prey is ingrained in the canine psyche.
For most dogs, scent drives hunting behavior and is used to both identify and locate prey. Sight and sound also play a role. A number of refined behaviors used singly or together compose the dog's hunting repertoire.
How Dogs Hunt
Typically, your puppy's smell sense alerts it to the presence of prey, and it tracks game by following the scent trail. This may be done with head held high and reading scent cues from the air, or with a nose-to-ground posture.
As it nears the target, it slows its gait and lowers its head in the classic stalking pose. Its eyes remain glued to the prey, and it may pause and freeze in position with its body pointed at the target. You’ll see this “pointing” and freezing behavior highly developed in many gun-dog breeds like the German shorthaired pointer.
Once within striking range, the dog flushes the bird or bunny from hiding. Again, some breeds of dogs like Irish setters were developed for their flushing ability, or cocker spaniels for their skill making birds spring into the air and startling the bird or critter to run.
The prey's attempt to escape prompts the hunter's chase impulse. It drives the animal mercilessly, using its stamina to run it to exhaustion. When working with a pack, individual canines may run large prey in relays until it gives up or may herd it into the waiting jaws of compatriots. Herding dogs like Border collies use this instinct to drive sheep or cattle where they want them to go.
Dogs use their powerful jaws and sharp canine teeth for a slashing attack. But its neck and shoulder muscles usually provide the lethal blow when the dog grasps the animal and shakes it furiously to break its neck. Your puppy may use the same technique to shake the stuffing out of a favorite toy or blanket.
Larger prey requires a different technique, but are rarely hunted by domestic dogs. The dog's wolf cousins may first cripple very large prey like caribou by slashing their legs, and then the torso. Sighthounds like to run prey such as deer to exhaustion before closing in for the attack. The prey animal simply weakens from blood loss and is easily brought down. Canines eat prey on the spot but may carry small animals home when they have puppies to be fed. Retrievers are experts at bringing back prey—or toys.
Interrupted Hunting Behaviors
Not all hunting predatory behaviors are seen in all dogs. One or more of the tracking, stalking, pointing, herding/driving, attacking, killing, and retrieving behaviors have been selectively augmented or even eliminated in certain dog breeds through the domestication process. These changes better fit specific breeds to their roles in the service of humans. In most breeds, the attack and kill sequence behaviors have been inhibited, while others enhanced.
For instance, the bloodhound has been selectively bred to be an expert tracker, and lives for scent—it cares about little else. Sighthounds like the Afghan hound, Saluki, and greyhound, and many of the terriers, trigger more to movement than scent and rely on sight to track prey. The former are racers that love the chase, while the latter react similarly to cats in their stalk-and-pounce techniques.
Sheepdogs like Australian shepherds employ the stalk, stare, and chase to herd their wooly charges, but the final attack/kill sequence has been bred out. The behaviors of hunting breeds have been refined to those that only locate prey for the human hunter (pointers and setters), and those that bring it back once killed (retrievers and spaniels). Some dogs like Labradors have been bred with an exceptionally inhibited bite which promotes a soft mouth to keep the dog from damaging the game as it is retrieved. Conversely, some hunters like the foxhound even today remain adept at attacking and killing prey.
Eating wild game exposes dogs to the risk of parasites like tapeworms or hookworms. While keeping rat or mouse populations in check may be beneficial, the indiscriminate hunter can become a menace to livestock and poultry. Feral dogs may need to hunt to survive, but there are better options for companion canines.
The only way to prevent unacceptable hunting is by keeping the puppy under your direct supervision. Confine it to a fenced yard, or keep it on a leash when outside. It's best to offer dogs the opportunity to use their skills by actually hunting, herding, tracking with their owner, or participating in mock exercises like field trials, lure coursing, herding exhibitions, or other doggy competitions. Some pets may be satisfied with alternative outlets for hunting behavior and fun games.