Understanding why dogs will chase livestock

Understanding why dogs will chase livestock

Off the back of a paper from the University of Southampton, NFU Scotland Animal Health and Welfare Policy Manager Penny Middleton has taken a look at some of the key issues surrounding dog behaviour around livestock.

All dog owners need to remember it is a normal behaviour for dogs to chase moving objects, in particular other animals, be that wildlife or domesticated animals (livestock).

Why does my dog chase livestock?

Before dogs evolved to the animals we know and love today they had to chase/hunt in order to eat. Modern dogs are well fed, so, why do dogs still chase livestock?

The answer is simple-they enjoy it!  

Predatory chase is an impulsive action, the thrill of it releases Dopamine into your dog’s brain, which is highly rewarding.  Your pet then learns to associate this pleasure with the act of chasing, be that a squirrel, a ball or a sheep.

Thus, chasing is intrinsically rewarding, and this type of behaviour is very difficult to interrupt or prevent.  It will become addictive meaning individuals are likely to become repeat offenders.

Are some breeds more likely to chase livestock?

We have purposely bred different breeds to have more developed elements of the instinctive stalk-chase-kill behaviour that is present in all dogs.  Therefore, we see reports of some dogs just chasing sheep until the sheep reach a point of exhaustion without a single dog bite on the sheep and other reports of dogs bringing down sheep, inflicting serious injuries.

However, the whole sequence is there in EVERY breed, including those often considered as lap dogs. Thus, ANY dog, be it pedigree, crossbreed, or mongrel can chase wildlife or livestock and become addicted to this behaviour.

How do I to avoid my dog chasing livestock?

1.    Training
For most dogs, even well-trained dogs, there is only a small window to recall the dog before this chase begins, once the chase is on, they are very much in the pleasure zone, are not listening and are unlikely to respond to recall.  That does not mean dogs cannot be trained to recall from ‘the chase’ but this takes many hours of work, over many months, from puppyhood and continued through into adulthood.  

Solution:  Seek advice from a reputable trainer or behaviourist on how you can start and maintain this training throughout your dog’s life.

2.    Interact
Many owners have more interaction with their mobile phone or friend than they do with their dog on a walk. This is also true for those who jog / run with their dog… again you are not interacting with or engaging the dog’s attention. Thus, there is a lack of control and your dog is likely to leave you and find its own amusement.

If you aren’t interacting with and watching their dog, your dog is not under control. If they come across a field of livestock, you have lost that all-important window to call the dog back BEFORE the chase ensues.

Solution:  Make walks interactive, have fun with your dog on your walk, seek advice if necessary, on how to do this.  Remember if you are not keeping an eye on the dog and the surroundings, your dog should be on lead.

3.    Avoid opportunity
The best solution is ‘management’ to avoid the dog being in a position where it can chase livestock.   One of the shocking statistics from North Wales Police is that two-thirds of the attacks on livestock were from dogs who had escaped from the house or garden.  

The biggest issue in respect of pet dogs and chasing is ‘how they have the opportunity to chase?’ This is usually either due to escape from property or not being under close control in the vicinity of livestock.

Solution: Ensure houses and gardens are escape proof and don’t allow the dog to take itself off for an unsupervised walk, or part of a walk. Pay attention to your dog and your surroundings when it is out and off the lead.

Taken from a paper by C. Williams and A.McBride

Author: Penny Middleton

Date Published:

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About The Author

Penny Middleton

Although city born I have always had a strong interest in animals and the countryside. I have a Master’s degree in Livestock Production from the University of Aberdeen and spent some additional time doing research work some of which necessitated working on farm with livestock. I worked as an Inspector for the Scottish SPCA for a number of years before taking over more detailed work for them on legislation, lobbying and training before moving to my current role within NFUS.

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