Here is a movie of Fenton, a Labrador who became a Youtube sensation after he decided to chase some deer at Richmond Park in UK. I’m sure most of us find this movie kind of funny but have also been in a similar situation with our own dogs when it becomes somewhat less funny.
What is actually going on here when it comes to the dog’s behavior? I recently went to SPARCS conference on Canine Behavior, where one of the speakers was ethologist Dr. Raymond Coppinger who has dedicated his life to studying the origin and evolution of canines. He and other speakers at the conference talked about behavioral motor patterns in dogs. Dogs just like other animal species have behavioral sequences called Fixed Action Patterns (FAPs), which occur when they are presented with certain stimuli. FAPs are genetically encoded, hardwired behaviors, which once they are started need to be completed because it is (or has been) essential for the survival of the species. This is exactly what we see in the above movie: something really primal kicks in inside Fenton’s brain when he sees the deer, he doesn’t understand that he is putting himself actually in danger of being run over by a car and I am 99.9% certain that he cannot even hear that his owner is calling him.
We humans have molded the FAPs of canines by breeding. The whole motor pattern starting from seeing the prey animal to actually eating it for dinner consists of the following behaviors:
Orient -> Eye -> Stalk -> Chase -> Grab-bite -> Kill-bite
Selective breeding of dogs has produced stunted versions of the above motor pattern. For example, if you have ever seen herding dogs at work, it is pretty obvious that they carry out the motor pattern to the point of chase, some breeds (like my Australian Shepherds) may nip the livestock a little bit but they don’t proceed to the point of kill-bite. Our friend Fenton in the above movie is a retriever, they are bred to orient to the prey, chase it and then stop the motor pattern at grab-bite, which is the point where they would bring the fallen bird to the hunter without eating it. Humans are quite genius in having been able to develop these different breeds!
What can do we do, when the dog shows these behaviors in an unwanted context like chasing the deer across a road? The answer is: it certainly will not be easy if your dog is already in the hunting mode! There is a reason why we have heard people say that it is very difficult to train a recall to a hound. To prevent your dog from getting into life-threatening situations is a combination of management and training. For example, if you dog has directed his hunting ambitions to skateboarders and other fast moving objects, it is important to try and not put him into situations where he gets to do it (I know sometimes more easily said than done in the summer) because these hardwired behaviors spread like fire. Then it is important to train attention tools a lot first when there are no arousing stimuli present. I start from seriously structured recall training, which I do every day a LOT, always reinforcing the dog coming back to me with something absolutely amazing. The frustrating part is that to override something as hard-wired as the FAPs, we have to work realistically hundreds of times harder to get what we want. With some dogs it obviously will come easier than with others, I for example have one of both extremes at home. In addition, as I always keep saying in our Cranky Canine classes, we need to take into consideration that having certain dog breeds in an urban environment is challenging and can also be unfair to the dog if we don’t provide them with enough mental and physical stimulation, so make sure to engage your dog in activities that she enjoys doing with you.