Help! My dog killed a rabbit

12 Apr 2024, 6:11 a.m. by Tracey McLennan

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Your dog killed a rabbit and you are searching for support and help to understand why that happened and what it means for your dog going forward. I get it, there are tons of people online giving out alarming information about dogs who kill rabbits. Plus – if you are anything like me – you will have found it distressing to see your beloved dog kill another animal. Most of us want companion dogs who are gentle and trustworthy. Watching your beloved companion kill another animal is often jarring – and can make you wonder just how gentle your dog actually is.

Trust me, you are not alone.

Let’s get on and look at why you might have found yourself sitting in front of your computer typing “my dog killed a rabbit” into a search bar.

Your faithful and loving dog is, for sure, descended from predators. Way, way back, before dogs were dogs, they stayed alive by killing other animals to eat. Then, as they became dogs, they would survive by scavenging more often and in some parts of the world, they became pets. They started to live inside houses and to be fed by the people who had taken them in. These days, I know many dogs who eat better quality food than the people who care for them. Debates rage throughout the internet about the best way to feed dogs.

That is only part of the story of what happened with these predators turned companion animals. In some places, dogs weren’t just tolerated and looked after. In some places, they were highly valued for their innate abilities that could be harnessed to help people catch wild animals to eat, look after livestock and kill animals that are a nuisance to people. In those parts of the world, dogs were bred selectively to enhance the abilities that would help them do the jobs that people wanted them to do. The selective breeding enhanced the predatory instincts of some dogs in quite specific ways. To help you see where selective breeding has had an impact, it is useful to know about something that is called the predatory motor sequence and you can read more about it here.

When we are talking about the parts of the sequence that could cause a dog to kill a rabbit, they are most likely to be grab-bite or kill-bite. Possess is a more gentle bite but it could cause the rabbit to die from the shock of being picked up.

Grab-bite was enhanced in the breeds used historically for fighting other animals for sport. In more modern times, some breeds are being bred to love grab-biting so that they can work to protect people or property – or to compete in the dog sports that require dogs to bite sleeves or bite suits.

Kill-bite has been enhanced in the breeds that help people to reduce the numbers of nuisance animals. Terrier breeds are often dogs who you’ll see doing that bite and hold while shaking their head behaviour.

Then there is possess – the bite that is prized in retrieving breeds because it enables the dog to gently hold and carry animals that the person with the dog may want to eat themselves. The dog must be gentle because most people do not want to eat meat that has been damaged by a dog’s teeth.

Having said all of that, selective breeding is not the whole story. People breeding dogs for specific jobs will spend lots of time looking at and choosing the dogs they breed from to try and produce puppies who will be successful at the job they are bred to do. In young puppies, you’ll see all sorts of behaviour coming out. Look at this super cute little cocker spaniel puppy at 5 weeks old performing a kill-bite.

Here’s the thing. A dog’s behaviour toward prey animals like rabbits is strongly influenced by learning. This puppy is likely to learn that holding and carrying is better than holding and shaking because holding and carrying will result in people being really happy with the puppy. So over time, the puppy’s reaction to holding things will be shaped toward a possess bite and away from a kill-bite.

Never forget that although the way dogs react toward prey is instinctive, dogs can and do change what they do due to what they learn all the time. No matter the dog’s breed, how old the dog is or what their previous history is, the dog can change what they do based on learning.

What should I do now?

The most important thing to do now is not panic.

Then you can make a plan. Here are the top three things to consider for your plan:

1. You need to understand a bit more about your dog and what need they might have been trying to meet when they killed the rabbit. I have a quick quiz that you can use to answer that question. Understanding what your dog’s innate needs are will help you plan ways to meet them.

2. The next thing to add to your plan is a way to stop it happening again. Do you need to add extra fencing somewhere, use a lead or a long line more often – or something else?

3. The final part to add to your plan is helping your dog to learn some self-control so that they start being able to control their impulses.

I have a lovely free online course called The High Prey Drive Challenge that you can sign up to that will help you with all three of these so that you can confidently make a plan. The course will be drip fed to you in a couple of emails a week for 5 weeks so that you have time to absorb all of it and put it into action.

Look at this great result from somebody who has completed the Challenge.

High prey drive dog owner reporting progress. Image text reads: Suddenly she got a rabbit scent and was off, zigzagging like crazy. I let her do it for a minute or so, then called Stop!! and she froze, thought about it, then trotted back for a treat. I was amazed

Will my dog get a taste for killing?

This is such a great question and the answer – like the answer to most questions about dogs – is that it depends on the dog.

For many dogs, catching another animal is extremely exciting and you might find that your dog is wound up for some time afterwards. If that happens, get your dog engaged in a calming activity like chewing on a long lasting chew or licking food from a toy designed to have food stuffed into it or smeared on it. Licking and chewing are both great to help dogs calm down and if you find that your dog is super excited, make sure they have time over the next few days to be doing plenty of licking and chewing.

What you can find happen is that for some dogs, catching rabbits might become a habit. This is especially likely to be the case for dogs who enjoy the biting, dissecting or consuming parts of the predatory motor sequence. Things that dogs love to do tend to be things that they try and do more often and the more often they do something, the more of a habit it becomes. Habits can be harder to change than prevent so if you think that your dog enjoyed killing the rabbit, do be diligent about making sure that they don’t have the opportunity to turn what was a one off event into a life-long habit. If you aren’t sure now, start by signing up for my free online course and it’ll give some great help and advice.

Will my dog become aggressive?

Concerns about aggression, especially directed toward small dogs is natural after your dog has killed another animal. You may even had people talk to you about the risk of something called ‘predatory drift’ that may put small dogs at risk.

If you are concerned about it, here is a video clip from one of my courses where I spent some time talking about predatory drift.

I am struggling to get over it and am not looking at my dog in the same way.

It can be very hard to come to terms with seeing the predatory side to your dog.

It is important to keep on reminding yourself that your dog hasn’t changed. They always had that side to them. It’s a deeply important part of who dogs are.

Your dog is still your lovely dog and nothing about them has changed. You just know a bit more about them.

Give yourself time to grieve for the dog you thought you had and then you will almost certainly be ready to move on and accept the dog you have.

Will training help?

Training will help. For sure it will.

It is not the whole story, though. With something as instinctive as killing a rabbit, you need to have a holistic approach with your dog to help it not happen again.

You need to:

Work on finding ways to prevent the killing happening again.

Learn to observe your dog and where they are well so that you can head off problems.

Give your dog outlets that mimic what they want to do with prey.

Teach your dog self-control.

Teach your dog a great recall.

If you need help with putting all of this together for your dog, I have a free course you can sign up for. You’ll get started right away and it’ll help you be clear about what you can do to stop your dog becoming a dedicated rabbit killer.

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Woman with short hair and a purple top walks through stunning countryside carrying a pink dog lead

Hi - I'm Tracey.

I am the founder of Best Dog Learning and Stuff and a massive prey drive enthusiast. I've lived with high prey drive dogs for over 20 years and I love them. I run the awesome High Prey Drive Club where I help my members learn to have fabulous walks and happy lives with their high prey drive dogs.

I am a published researcher in my field with both my original research and my review of the literature looking at prey drive in dogs being published in the respected journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

I am the author of Canine aggression: Rehabilitating an aggressive dog with kindess and compassion.

I want to show you how easy and fun it can be to have a high prey drive dog.

If you'd like help with your dog, I'm ready to help you right now.

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