The following question was asked about a dog who killed a small animal in his backyard. Is this behavior normal? Can it be helped? Continue reading for details about the scenario, and my thoughts on prey drive. Then weigh in with your own idea of what to do in response.

The question: A puppy killed a rabbit

We have a 4 month old Bernese mountain dog/Shepard mix that we adopted at 13 weeks from a no kill shelter. He is the sweetest, most gentle puppy we have ever had. We are training him to be a service dog…..

Anyway, this afternoon he was in the backyard and killed a bunny right in front of my 11 year old daughter. She is devastated. I didn’t see what happened, but from what I can tell, I think he was just trying to play with it.

Any suggestions on how to curb this behavior? I know it’s instinct, but we have cats, who he doesn’t bother and I don’t want anything bad to happen, besides the fact that my daughter will freak out if it happens again.

My response: A puppy with prey drive

All dogs are individuals of course, but I also concur about the inside-vs-outside cat mentions here. My two dogs are both herding-type, and they both have strong “vermin” prey drive – which is instinctual. One of our dogs is most likely a purebred English Shepherd, and they are bred to keep vermin off the farm.

Both of our dogs don’t really like, but greatly respect our indoor cat. She stepped foot outside once recently (unlike her to even try), and they both towered over her like she was a completely different animal. Frankly I was astounded by their immediate and pretty intense reaction. They go insane… absolutely crazy… if they see an outdoor cat. It takes all my willpower to catch their attention and have them listen to what I say (which is basically “cut it out, unacceptable” in a nutshell). If your cats are indoors, this is probably for the best. If not, it might be a good idea to carefully monitor the whereabouts of all pets until you’re sure everything is OK with your new pup, or on a permanent basis if need be.

You may want to read a bit more into the prey drive. If your pup did kill the rabbit through some instinct/prey drive (play can mimic this sometimes), often a dog will permanently be very excited/rewarded by this after they know what it’s like – and it’s the ultimate motivator for a dog. Absolutely not uncommon, but just something to be aware of for when you go places (especially if you do any off-leash recreation). Some bigger dogs have mistaken very small dogs for prey, and don’t realize their mistake until it’s too late. Again – this may not apply at all to your dog, but just something to be aware of and perhaps look into.

Also agree with a good leave-it/recall, although I also know my two might not “hear” a leave it if they were already in persuit. That said, I have managed to call these two dogs off a vermin chase after they were out of sight and working together (shocked it worked, honestly), and off tainted meat – it can work. For me, this is not training though (this isn’t the nice “leave it” you practice in obedience class, which I’ve never done myself for “leave it”). It is purely these things for me: tone of voice, relationship/bond, and volume (and perhaps a bit about timing in some cases, but emergencies can rarely be timed). And reserve this kind of leave-it/recall for when you really need it, like those emergencies, so it’s meaningful. I call this my “fishmonger” voice – the dogs know they better come back, drop that meat, leave that animal alone, etc. For regular leave-its, same kind of thing but toned way down (and add in the timing element, and focus on being calm). Tons of praise with success, always.

Growing up I had an outdoor cat who brought home all manner of creatures, from snakes to baby bunnies – sometimes alive, often not. It’s a tough but very valuable lesson to learn about what can happen between animals – instincts, accidents, and so on and as a kid I believe I got pretty resilient about it (not sure if this was good, but it happened!). Concur with the others this is a great conversation to have, although I am so sorry your daugther had to witness that – very rough to see first hand. I wish you the best of luck!

What do you think?

Have you ever witnessed your dog’s prey drive? What did you do? Let us know in the comments!

About Author

Jen deHaan is graphic designer, small business owner, and dog person living in Bay Area, California. Jen enjoys learning about dog training and behavior, and has taken several courses and seminars since 2010. She also contributes articles to leading websites, such as Victoria Stilwell's Positively . It all started with a great dog called Mikey (aka "dude"), loved and lost but remembered forever. Jen also runs a freelance business focusing on graphic, web, and UI design at FoundPixel, and a small business creating hand crafted dog products at Stylish Canine.

  • Oh yes, we have dealt with prey drive.
    Growing up we had a rottweiler/german shepard mix who since we had a very large yard was always bringing us something she was proud of.
    She’d get possums, squirrels, treed a raccoon once, and several neighbor cats who were dumb enough to enter our yard. Funny though, she never bothered our two cats. With her we just made sure to supervise if possible, and pet our cats around her, hold them, and I think she just knew they were part of the family – any other cat though had better watch out!
    We didn’t encourage her behavior but we couldn’t always catch her either.

    Ziva my current dog and American Pit Bull Terrier also has a high prey drive, it’s in her breed Terriers were bred to be hunting dogs. It’s definitely important to know your dog’s heritage when getting a dog. Prey drive is really strong in certain breeds. Ziva though has never bothered our cats, she’ll chase cats we see outside but we’re just careful to monitor her.
    We do a lot of training, recall training “Come”, and have a very strong bond. She listens to me and respects me. I’ve been able to call her successfully off of chasing a cat from a full sprint and she was on the other side of the field where we go to play.
    It was like what you said though, in the heat of the moment it is your bond and training that kicks in. If your dog is used to not listening to you then you can’t expect them to listen in a high energy and excited moment like a chase. Tone of voice and body language are important, as well as not overusing the word, “NO”. In this case I yelled, “Ziva, NO! COME!” And she did.

    Prey drive is something that can be worked with even in more extreme cases. We were able to foster a kitten last summer, it was really hard for Ziva. In the beginning she just wanted to eat it. Through lots of desensitization she ended up decided that it was her kitten, she followed it around, mothered it, slept with it, and was a constant hovering guardian for the kitten.

    I wouldn’t worry too much about the puppy but don’t be too hard on him for just doing what is in his nature, start with basic training and obedience, develop a strong relationship with the puppy. Teach him to leave your kitties alone and to respect their space, don’t let him crowd, bully, or harass the family cats. “Leave it”, “Come” and “No” are important to teach and not over use and you’ll be fine. :-)

    http://www.DzDogs.com

  • I agree it’s completely normal. Zoe has killed a few squirrels and unfortunately for me it was at the dog park in front of like 20 people, several of which were completely horrified and freaking out. They are dogs and they are predators. Small and furry animals are prey. It’s what they do. We’ve worked for years on premack and controlling her prey drive. We’ve gotten her to the point where she can give me some attention around prey animals but when it comes down to it she’d rather hunt than pay attention if given the choice. She’s a work in progress. :)

  • Cookie has a very strong prey drive. She’s mostly happy catching mice bur squirrels and bunnies are an attraction too. Up here, in the middle of the bush, we look at things differently, I guess – she’s welcome to do her hunting.

  • Our dog Tino lived in the wild for months…given his weight when we rescued him – probably many months. Chasing, killing and eating whatever he and his brother Bernie could get their paws on was how they survived. He continued to chase and catch rabbits, birds, squirrels, etc. after we rescued him…but how do I stop that? I didn’t even try.

  • I’m sad the little girl had to see this. I think some animals have the instinct more than others and if you are aware of it, you can do your best to monitor/manage it.

    Not trying to be combative or an idiot here, but cats kill things all the time, but for some reason when a dog does it, it freaks people out. Why do you suppose that is? BTW, a couple years back I went home and lunch and watched a cat stalk and capture a chipmunk. I actually pulled out my phone to video it, it (to me) was a fascinating game they played.

  • I live with prey drive. Everyday. I have personally witnessed the loss of a rabbit and one of my guinea fowl, courtesy of my dogs. I make every attempt to manage it.

    My dogs go nuts over outdoor cats, but I trust Neeko and Faolan around my cats while we are at home. Bruce must be under constant supervision with the cats.

    • Janet Chua

      “How to overcome 30+ common dog and puppy behavioral issues”. This programme is simple and straight forward so you can carefully work through each step at your own pace. First you will learn how to become the pack leader and then how to address the problems that your dog has. One big advantage is that you can watch videos for any behavior – they are all included – everything from puppy training to dog obedience. https://thebestonlinedogtrainer.wordpress.com

    • Janet Chua

      Thank you so much for this article–so many helpful tips here. But, I just saw this post (“How to overcome 30+ common dog and puppy behavioral issues”) and actually was reading about this same topic the other day. I did some searching around and stumbled onto this cool article… I thought it was helpful… https://thebestonlinedogtrainer.wordpress.com