What to Do When Your Dog’s Hunting Instincts Kick In

People have been living with dogs for around 15,000 years.

Around 44% of Americans own a dog—or are owned by a dog, to hear them tell it! The striking familiarity of dogs, with their social similarities to humans and their reliable presence in our lives, means that we often feel like we have a special bond with our furry friends.

Even after living with a dog for so long, they might do things which can only be attributed to instinct. Let’s take a look at some of these behaviors, and learn how we can better manage them to improve our ability to cohabitate in peace.

Digging: Why Dogs Do It

Digging is a common behavior in canines, and once served a number of important survival functions: digging dens for shelter in which to rear young, or digging in order to hunt for burrowing rodents. And of course, digging and burying, which allowed their doggy ancestors to stash food for later retrieval and thereby increase their chances of surviving lean hunts.

Our dogs may no longer need to engage in digging behavior purely for survival, but the instinct remains—and on top of that, digging may be satisfying some other need. You’ll need to do some investigating to determine what’s driving the digging before you can implement any solutions.

Digging: How to Stop It

Dogs who dig out of boredom, anxiety, or simply to vent excess energy will often benefit from increased enrichment and exercise. Give their paws something else to do by offering puzzle treats, or increase the frequency or duration of their walks. Dogs who are digging because their yard is plagued by gophers will need to have the problem treated at its source: the gophers. Dogs who are digging for its own sake, though—that is, the dogs who just love digging!—may be best served by providing a dedicated digging area, perhaps a sandbox or raised dirt bed.

dog chasing

Chasing: Why Dogs Do It

We love it when our dogs chase after things like flying discs and tennis balls. We love it much less when our dogs are chasing after things like moving vehicles, birds, and squirrels. That instinct to chase is embedded very strongly into dogs, who after all are descendants of wolves; predation is in their genes and is as undeniable as their need to consume animal proteins. Why some dogs chase comes as no surprise, even though the things they choose to chase can still bewilder their owners.

Unfortunately, a persistent high prey drive can create problems for our pooches. Not only may they endanger themselves by pursuing an animal larger or more dangerous than themselves, dogs in a chase may injure themselves on rugged terrain, run heedlessly into traffic, or unexpectedly find themselves miles from home.

Chasing: How To Stop It

Because the adrenaline rush of chasing and the joy of capture are self-rewarding, the solution here is to interrupt the chase before it begins. To do that, you’ll need to practice constant vigilance to ensure you spot potential targets before they do, and you’ll need to recognize the signs that your dog’s prey drive has become engaged.

Beyond that, you’ll want to look into retraining strategies that focus on managing impulse control, including teaching your dog to ‘check in’ with you before engaging in a chase, and redirecting their attention onto a more suitable target like a tossed treat or toy. You may never be able to eliminate the instinct completely, but with practice it can become manageable, ensuring that the time you and your pup spend together is more enjoyable for both of you.

Gifting: Why Dogs Do It

If your dog is a rodent hunter by breed or disposition, you’ll most likely end up finding a dead bird or mouse on your doormat with your dog staring up at you with the proudest grin he can muster. While more often associated with felines bringing you “presents”, it isn’t terribly out of the ordinary for our dogs to offer us dead animals, whether they caught it or just found it.

Cats do this for several potential reasons: they’re hunters at heart, they think you’re terrible at hunting mice so they want to show you how it’s done, they want to prove to you how good of a hunter they are. A cat’s reasoning for bringing you this kind of present might be purely out of the kindness of their hearts, or maybe as a teaching lesson for you.

With dogs, the reasoning behind this is most likely a little simpler. The consensus is that this is either a mirroring behavior—how often do you present your dog with food, after all?—and/or a bonding behavior. Your dog wants to bring you something they find awesome for a change. Because they love you.

Gifting: How To Stop It

Either way, your pupper means well. If you don’t want to reinforce the behavior, don’t give it attention through reward or punishment. Just remove the carcass at the earliest opportunity and put it somewhere he can’t fetch it right back out. Laugh at it (with your friends, not your dog) and don’t reward or punish him for his potentially thoughtful present.

Meet the Author: Holly Zynda

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