From the book: The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs Copyright 2009 by Alexandra Semyonova — All Rights Reserved
Myth 5: But my own dog is obviously a hunter, because he kills cats (or rabbits, or sheep).
A hunter is not just an animal that kills, it’s an animal that kills to eat. The behavioral sequence of a true predator that kills other animals in order to eat them looks like this:
Scent > track > watch/orient > stalk > chase > grab > kill > dissect > eat
This isn’t just some arbitrary behavioral chain, it’s a functional chain – a series of steps aimed at reaching a goal. The goal is to eat. You can only call an animal a predator when he displays the whole chain, and when he does so in order to get a meal. You can’t call an animal a predator because he just so happens to look like some ancestor who lived by hunting, or because he sometimes shows parts of the old behavior just simply because of how his body is still put together. Domestic dogs do not kill to eat. If you dump them in the woods, they will starve unless there’s a popular camping site somewhere nearby where there’s enough human garbage to keep them alive.
The dog evolved at the trash dump. He didn’t need to kill to eat. Aggression not only lost its function, but it actually became a threat to the dog’s survival in our proximity. The killer bite disappeared from the dog’s natural behavior pattern. Other parts of the pattern were less subject to human selection against them, parts of the chain we didn’t care one way or the other about. Yet others were still useful for finding edible parts of the trash pile. So partly human selection, partly human indifference, and partly the demands of scavenging operated to move the dog further and further away from whatever predator ancestor he may have had.
This is, however, a very recent occurrence in terms of evolution. 130,000 or 12,000 years is but the wink of an eye. Dogs are still shaped basically the same way they were half a million years ago. They still have four legs and the ability to run fast. They still don’t have hands, only a mouth for grabbing things.Their sense of smell is still acute, very good for finding the edibles among all the paper and plastic. Their hearing is still acute, but it’s now tuned into lower tones than the ears of predators (whose ears are tuned in to higher tones). Some original ancestral patterns may still be latently present in the form of reflexes. A dog may watch/orient toward something that moves, for example. But this is a pattern that goes back to an ancestor even before the reptilian-mammal split – just about all animals do it, it’s not specifically a hunter’s thing. A dog may reflexively snap at something that shoots by close to him, which may be a hunter’s reflex – but this still isn’t hunting, anymore than a monkey reflexively catching a baseball coming at him is tool-making.
Some of the old patterns just look like they’re still present because the dog’s body is shaped the way it is. Young dogs chase each other in play, but so do young cows. They are feeling the joy of using their bodies, which happen to have four legs, and they are practicing social skills. When domestic dogs bite each other in play, they’re not practicing hunting. They’re practicing not biting too hard. When they grab something or pick something up with their mouth, it’s not because they are hunters with an urge to bite – it’s just because they don’t have any hands. When they look like they’re stalking a mouse, they’re probably just curious, since dogs like to know what’s in their living space. The stalk and stare stance is just the way their body is put together, although to be honest we don’t do it much differently ourselves when we want to creep up on something. Dogs might want to chase the mouse away but probably aren’t thinking about killing it, and they certainly aren’t planning to eat it.
So what about our these cat and sheep killing dogs? Let’s look first at the dog as he probably was in the very beginning, at least 12,000 years ago. To do this, we have to go to villages in the Third World, where these original mutts can still be found hanging out around the dump. They are direct descendants of the original dog, but so are our own dogs. So what’s the difference? The difference between our own dogs and these Third World dogs is that humans have never messed around with the village dogs’ genes to make them into gun dogs or fashion dogs. These village dogs have been selected purely by the necessities of the ecological niche they live in – natural, not human, selection created them. That is, aside from rather insistent human help in wiping out aggression altogether by killing dogs that scared or attacked humans and their cattle, children or chickens. We can assume that these Third World village dogs represent the original, natural dog. These natural dogs don’t display the hunting sequence as explained above. If they show these behaviors at all, then it’s only separate, isolated parts of the chain. They engage in these behaviors mostly during play, and there is no real aggression involved, same as the great majority of our own dogs. Mostly, these dogs wander around in villages or watch humans who come to the dumps, staying in the background, getting close to people yet staying just out of reach, lazing around in the shade, neither chasing nor biting anything at all. Flight is their first reaction to anything that is perceived as a threat (unless they are cornered, of course).
If we now move over to look at the dumps near big cities in the industrial countries of South America, we get a different story. Here, besides various small, modest dogs of the kind we call “mutts”, we also find larger dogs that we can identify as belonging to real, modern breeds. These are city dogs who have either escaped their owners or been abandoned by them. Unlike the mutts, these city dogs do display the killing bite. Now this is no wonder, and here’s the reason why. These are countries where the machismo culture still rules. The South American dumps are full of pit bulls and rotweilers. These are breeds in which humans have worked hard to revive the killing bite, putting together concentrated and precise breeding programs to produce killer dogs. These human-selected dump dogs will even threaten humans who come to look at the dump, and they are, unlike the mutts who are also hanging around, truly dangerous. This contrast gives us the key to why some people have a problem with their own dog killing other animals, which they then mistakenly attribute to “hunting” behavior.
For about the past hundred years, since the very first official breed registers were established, we have been messing around with the natural dog in a very intense way. Once we understood how inheritance worked, we began reviving various parts of the dog’s latent behavior chain to suit our own preferences. We did this by selecting for differences in body and brain as we bred dogs. Indeed, genes only specify potential, but by messing around with them we have messed around with potential. I will explain how this works later, in Myths 38 and 39. For now, it’s enough to say we created the pointer, exaggerating the “orient > watch” and the start of the “stalk” parts of the sequence, to get a dog who freezes up at the beginning of the stalk. This is the pointing position. The border collie is bred for the watch and the stalk. She “gives eye” and approaches the sheep in the stalk position, posed for the pounce. She may even nip at their heels, but without attacking. The retriever is bred for the grab bite, and executes this bite without progressing to the killing bite. The pit bull has the killing bite and the shearing dissection bite, but without the preceding parts of the sequence (no stalking, freezing up, nor any warning at all).
If your dog is killing cats or rabbits, it’s probably a breed in which breeders have been too enthusiastic about reviving the grab bite by breeding for a changed brain. We often see this in various hunting dog breeds, as well as in breeds that are commonly chosen for police work (e.g., the German shepherd, the Belgian shepherd Malinois), and in breeds that we have specifically molded for real killer aggression (the pit bull/American Stafford, the boerbull, the fila Brasileiro, etc.). It is the interference of the modern consumer in the dog’s genes, which has created dogs with one or two selected exaggerated reflexes. In their romance with the wolf, these people tell themselves the dog is displaying parts of some predator’s hunting chain. They forget that many of these behaviors had acquired a different meaning and function as the dog scavenged the local dump. Scenting and tracking is just as necessary to find edible bits of garbage. Running is just as good for escaping as for chasing something. All animals have to bite and chew to eat, even the vegetarian ones. So even if these behaviors are leftovers of some hunting ancestor, these dogs only show various parts of the sequence, these parts have gained a new meaning and function, and showing fragmented parts of a hunting sequence does not make a dog a predator. A predator will display the whole sequence, and she will display it only when it’s functional and useful to do so. Our own breeding behavior hasn’t revived the ancient natural chain. Rather, we’ve taken advantage of this scavenger’s shape and her play behavior, applying artificial selection to create dogs who show separate and exaggerated behaviors, which we then kid ourselves has something to do with some wild predator. All we’ve really done is create abnormalities. Often distortion of the dog’s body has gone along with this. All of these dogs would still be hopeless at the real hunt and would probably die of starvation if they had to make a living of it.
Aside from our consumer interest in her genes, there are also other reasons why your dog might be killing other animals. If your dog is not a pit bull or one of the others we’ve bred for exaggerated size and/or aggression, and if you allow her to develop normally by playing with other dogs while she’s young, she will learn to control her bite with great precision no matter how excited she is. This is a thing all natural dogs learn, as a matter of course, since there are no humans around to keep them from interacting with other dogs during their puppy days. If you overprotect your puppy, not allowing her to play often and long with other dogs, you prevent her from learning to control her bite. She can bite too hard without even knowing she is doing it, and without meaning to do any harm. She just has no idea what she can do with her teeth. This is not because she is a hunter, but rather an educational deficiency.
Punishment can also be a reason for a dog to kill cats or other animals, even if she isn’t of a breed that we’ve made into killers. If a dog is often punished in the presence of other animals, she will eventually start to become aggressive towards those animals. It is a proven fact that dogs don’t associate punishment with their own behavior. Rather, they associate a punishment with something that just so happens to be nearby when the punishment takes place. In other words, your dog won’t understand that you are punishing her for growling at the cat, or chasing the cat away from her treat, or for being too interested in the sheep. What the dog perceives is that you often punish her when the cat’s around, or whenever the two of you get near sheep. Now, it is also a proven fact that punishment very often arouses aggression. When you put these two facts together, we get a logical result. The punished dog will try harder and harder to chase the damn cat away before you notice the cat and start acting all angry again. All you see is that the dog is still chasing the cat, and that it’s getting worse, so you punish her even harder. The cat becomes more and more aversive to the dog, and the aggression, which punishment quite normally evokes, becomes more and more uncontrolled. If the dog now gets a chance to chase a cat (or a sheep), she may very well kill the other animal. This does not mean the dog is a predator, because even rats and mice, prey species who have never hunted, display the same aggression when punished in the laboratory. A dog who kills other animals is often the result of the owner inadvertently training the dog to feel aggressive towards other animals.
So now we have several situations in which a dog escapes and then comes back later, after having killed a cat, or a rabbit, or a sheep. She may leave the dead animal behind, or she may come back to you carrying the whole dead cat or rabbit in her mouth.You think you are dealing with an instinctive hunter.
But let’s look yet a little closer. If you go back and look at the hunting sequence, you may notice that something is missing in your dog’s behavior, namely the last two parts of the real hunting sequence. Your dog does not rip apart the cat she caught, nor does she eat it. The pit bull (and the other aggressive breeds) will often execute ripping, dissecting movements during an attack. But they also will often continue to attack long after the other animal is dead, and then they suddenly calm down and walk away. You will not see a real predator do either of these things. The dog who suffered a educational deprivation in her youth just doesn’t know she’s biting too hard. She isn’t intending any harm at all, let alone having hunting intentions. The punished dog is not naturally aggressive.Her reaction is punishment-induced aggression, which has nothing to do with hunting. She just wants to get rid of the cat, if possible for once and for always, so the punishment will stop.
It does sometimes happen that a purebred, non-pit-bull-type dog, who has been allowed to play with other dogs while growing up, and who has never been punished around other animals, will escape and play ravage with a herd of sheep. Even so, these dogs are not really hunting. They are playing. The dog will chase a sheep, grab it, possibly wound it badly or kill it. Then the dog will switch to chasing another sheep who is trying to run away, executing the sequence all over again. To this dog, the game is only interesting as long as the other animal is still moving. Eating is not the point.The dog that kills the sheep still hopes to see dinner waiting in his food bowl when he gets home. This makes the game and its motivation essentially different from what a real hunter does. The real predator isn’t playing when she chases another animal. The real predator is involved in a serious activity, namely, food acquisition. The real hunter has to put a lot of energy into merely surviving, and she is therefore careful about her energy expenditure. Hunting is done as efficiently as possible. The wolf takes a single prey and eats that prey with hair and hide. It is this very fact that enables ranchers to know whether it was a wolf, or indeed a dog, who attacked the herd in the night.
Your pedigreed dog is not a product of Nature, but rather a product of consumer society. Our interference in her genes has moved her back several steps in time, removing a number of typically doggy characteristics, and actually making her less of a real, natural dog. We have been able to do this because the dog descended from an animal that sometimes hunted. She has the same basic body shape and has some of the old structures in her brain in a diminished or changed form. But this is not at all the same thing as saying the present day domestic dog is a predator. A present day domestic dog who kills has nothing to do with predation. Her behavior is either a distorted and non- functional revival of separate behaviors that struck our fancy, or it is due to lack of education. It has nothing at all to do with the serious business of getting food or with the natural behavior of the domestic dog as a species.
Fact: The domestic dog is not a predator. The domestic dog is a scavenger, including your killer dog.
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