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.