Dogs are natural hunters. Thanks to years of breeding and modification by humans they have less of a need to hunt for prey, but the instinct still lies within each of our pups all the same. Though they’ve come a long way from their wolf ancestors and no longer need to hunt for food as they once did, this genetic instinct hasn’t changed for most of them.
There are still many breeds used for hunting purposes, such as Hounds and Retrievers, Pointers, and Spaniels. Though many of us keep our dogs solely for companionship nowadays, our dogs are still capable of killing smaller animals like rodents and birds — and frequently do so much to our shock and disgust.
Many a dog owner knows the heart wrenching feeling of their dog killing a bird. When our pup does such a horrible thing, we feel the need to correct or even punish them for their bad behavior. But is it the right thing to do? If you’re wondering whether or not to punish your dog for killing a bird (or birds), read on.
Should I Punish My Dog for Killing a Bird?
So, should you punish your dog for this behavior? After all, it’s wrong to kill innocent birds for no reason, right? The short answer here is no, you shouldn’t punish your dog, though you also shouldn’t allow him to keep doing it. The long answer is also no but involves a little more thought, mostly because you’re (understandably) approaching this from human perspective.
Dogs don’t see this behavior the way we do, and therefore don’t know they’re doing anything wrong. Let’s start with a few reasons dogs kill birds in the first place, to help you get a better idea of why your dog is behaving this way:
Reasons Dogs Kill Birds and Other Small Animals
Rather than this being a malicious or aggressive act as we might think, there are actual reasons why dogs kill birds and other small creatures. Here are a few of the most common causes of this behavior:
The most likely reason your dog likes to chase birds or other small animals is due to his prey drive. This is the instinct embedded in your dog’s DNA to hunt, stalk, chase, catch, or kill birds and smaller animals, and it’s related to his ancestral roots — his wolf and wild dog ancestors had to hunt to catch their dinner rather than being fed two meals a day like the modern pet dog. While it’s a baffling behavior for dog owners whose dogs are well fed, it’s not actually about your pup being hungry.
Seeing the movement of small animals works to activate a sort of light switch in his brain — it’s turned on instinctually and he becomes laser focused. If you’ve ever wondered why your dog totally ignores your calling him while he’s stalking a prey animal, this is your answer. He has tunnel vision and simply tunes you out, along with any other distractions that may be happening around him.
While prey drive is common in most dogs (albeit higher in some than others), there are certain breeds of dogs that are bred specifically for hunting birds and other critters in very specific ways. For example, a herding breed like a Cattle Dog or Border Collie might live for the chase, a Hound would be more likely to quietly stalk his prey, and a Labrador would happily rush into the water after a flock of ducks — while being very soft mouthed if she were to catch one.
This is due to their breeding practices, or humans creating their breed for a specific purpose. If you’re finding that your pup tends to go for certain animals (like birds) more than others or has a very specific style of hunting, it’s likely due to their breed. My terrier likes to chase birds for fun, but she really lights up when she sees a squirrel or a rat. This is an example of how breeds are selected for a purpose; her breed was designed to rid the farms of vermin over 100 years ago, yet the trait remains in her genetics today.
Even though not all dogs have a strong prey drive, they do tend to play a little rougher than most animals, especially when said animal is smaller than the dog in question. A dog can appear to be hunting a bird when in fact all he wants to do is play with it — whether or not the bird is interested being a very different story! Just like dogs have the instinct to chase, birds have the same instinct to escape for their survival, which causes the dog to chase more, and round and round it goes.
Sadly, when dogs play with birds they can accidentally injure or kill them by playing too roughly. While most birds are quick enough to get away, this isn’t always the case. The simple fact of their size difference can be dangerous for the bird, resulting in your dog wondering why his new friend doesn’t want to play anymore.
Why You Shouldn’t Punish Your Dog
Now that you know the causes of your dog’s behavior, let’s talk about why it’s not a good idea to punish him. Here are a few reasons why killing birds doesn’t warrant punishment:
Punishment Creates Fear and Distrust
If you’ve done any research in the dog behavior field, you’ll be aware of the damage that can be done by scolding, hitting, or otherwise punishing your dog. This is partly because his short-term memory is only effective for about 2-5 seconds after the event, meaning that by the time you get to him he’s likely already forgotten the bird incident and will be confused as to why you’re punishing him — causing him to be fearful or distrustful of you.
Dogs learn more effectively when you give them a chance to think and work things out for themselves, rather than punishing them when they do something wrong. The punishment method will eventually teach them what not to do but does nothing to help them figure out what to do instead. This breeds confusion and fear, and eventually leads to your pup to shutting down due to the sheer stress of being punished.
It Wasn’t a Malicious Act
Despite how vicious it may have looked at the time, your dog wasn’t being malicious when she killed the bird. She was acting on her instinct to chase or play, which is pretty much out of her control as we discussed earlier. Dogs don’t have malicious intent the way humans do; their actions always serve a purpose. The only animal that kills for sport is humans, believe it or not!
Trying to remember that your dog’s actions aren’t rooted in evil will help you to understand that she shouldn’t be punished for her actions. She was just being a dog, and despite how hard that can be for us humans to understand, it’s a natural behavior in predatory animals that stems from centuries of survival instincts that are not really under the dog’s control — no matter how well behaved she usually is.
He Wanted to Impress You
Despite our shock and disgust when our dogs kill birds and other animals, this is often an act of love in your pup’s eyes. Bringing you his kill is the ultimate gift, a way of showing he cares, and a demonstration of his willingness to share his prize with you. Punishing him for this will not only confuse him but it lets him know that you don’t feel the same way, giving him reason to distrust your bond.
While my dog has never killed any birds, my cat once delivered a dead bird into my bedroom and laid it pristinely at the foot of my bed, causing me to scream in disgust when I found it! Though I was mortified, it was her way of showing me she cares. I probably ruined her gesture of affection by freaking out, but I did know better than to punish her for it.
Things You Can Do to Prevent Your Dog Killing Birds
Now that we’ve broken down the most common causes of this behavior and the reasons you shouldn’t punish your dog, let’s look at this from a more proactive angle. Here are a few things you can do to prevent your pup from killing birds and other small animals in the first place:
Keep Him on Leash
One way to prevent your pup from chasing after birds in the first place is to keep her on leash in areas that you know will have birds present. This could be your neighborhood park, any nature trails you frequent, or any other areas you like to take her where there will be birds for her to chase. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so managing your dog’s access to birds is a good place to start.
If you’re worried that pups won’t get enough freedom this way, you can try a long line leash. These can range from 10 feet all the way up to 50 feet, giving her the freedom of being off leash while you hold all the control. It takes a little time to master the art of the long line, so don’t get frustrated if you find yourself tangled up on your first walk with it. After a few tries you’ll figure out what works best for you, and you’ll be a pro in no time!
Save Off-Leash Play for Controlled Areas
All dogs deserve (and need) to run and play freely on a regular basis, so when it’s time for your dog to play off leash, consider taking her to a controlled area that likely won’t have too many birds for her to chase. This could be somewhere like your local dog park (which any smart bird will avoid), a fenced in field or other green area, or even your own back yard if you have one.
Giving your dog a place to play without birds to distract her will burn off her pent-up energy, get her the exercise that she needs to stay fit and healthy, and allow you to relax about any potential bird attacks happening. Also, allowing her to sniff as much as she likes will use up her mental energy, giving her the feeling that she’s been thoroughly exercised and allowing her to calm down — which lowers her desire to chase.
Teach a Solid Recall
The one thing that any dog owner should know is the importance of teaching a rock-solid recall. Not only will this help you when your dog starts to chase birds and other small animals, but it can save his life in situations where there are cars or other dangers present that he might not be aware of. The moment your dog looks like he might take off running is the best time to apply this, but it can work when he’s in full gallop as well once you’ve really got it down.
The best way to achieve this is to call your dog to you often, for no apparent reason and at random times throughout the day. When he comes, praise him, and give him the highest value treats that you can — cooked chicken, hot dogs, or anything good and smelly. Pretty soon he’ll associate his name being called with something delicious, and over time this command will trump anything else he might be interested in! The trick is to practice consistently, with different levels of distractions as you progress. He’ll get it eventually!