When Davie was 5 months old, 4 weeks after we had rescued her, she chased and nipped a jogger in the multi-use off-leash park we visited often. I was still fairly green then, and her action not only completely took me by surprise, but also concerned me. Was she an aggressive dog? As it turned out, in a different context she was that too, but her chase‘n’connect had nothing to do with aggression.
Aggression, in a broad sense, is a forceful, hostile action to make an object or subject disappear: drive it away or eliminate. Although that is the intent sometimes when dogs go after things, often it is not.
Harming or getting rid of the jogger was not the reason why Davie charged after him, and it is not why most dogs chase. To the contrary, they want to catch up, decrease distance, make it halt. To eat it? Is the chase drive predation? Not exactly either.
In ecology, predation is an interaction between two species in which one hunts and consumes the other. Although some dogs do consume a small animal they manage to catch, as a species they don’t hunt for food, but live on what humans provide – purposely when they fill the bowl with kibble twice a day, or unintentionally by leaving food waste behind. Even feral dogs prefer garbage to hunting prey, and only kill if there isn’t enough waste. During a three-year field study that observed a feral dog group, they were observed to break into a chicken coop twice, and hunted a red fox once - unsuccessfully. They did scavenge on already dead farm animals. (When livestock was killed, it was done by owned dogs, not feral groups.) They were playful with horses.
So, when dogs chase, despite common belief, it is neither aggression because the intent is catching up, perhaps even interacting, not getting rid of, nor predation because the kill’n’eat part is missing. What is it then? Play? Yes, indeed. Running away or towards is perceived as a strong play signal the dog, instinctively, responds to with chasing or darting off. Movement gets most dogs’ attention, and chasing after it is a strong biological impulse.
But now it gets complicated: although chase is play in its nature, it can result in injury and even death. During normal play, there is a behavior cycle of: arousing, running and calming. There is a brief pause after a chase, and play signals that start it up again. Some dogs, though, don’t play right. They lack self-control, become frustrated if they’re too slow, or so worked up that they lose inhibition and are handler unresponsive. Then, play quickly changes into something drastically more serious: all aspects of predation except consumption: catch up – hold on – rip – kill, but not eat. In addition, such out-of-control hyperarousal is contagious, which means that other dogs might join in a pack-like fashion, like humans do in a mob.
That predatory drift can also kick in if a socially inept, or small dog, panics during a social encounter and runs, yelps, squeals or struggles, and sadly also when young children run, screech, flail their arms or mock-fall. There was an incident a few years ago in Alberta in which two otherwise well-mannered German shepherds grabbed a toddler they knew, and were never aggressive with before, by the neck and killed him.
Having that awareness, the question arises if we should allow dogs to chase at all? I mean, we love to watch them having fun, but are they strengthening predatory skills? Are we fostering a heightened sensitivity to everything in motion? A trait some dogs are genetically already prone to.
In my opinion, good welfare includes running and playing; dogs have to be able to feel their legs every so often. Withholding it is denying them part of their nature. The crucial ingredient that prevents that play gets out of “paw” is, once again, training.
Davie’s jogger problem was quickly solved with a ball and Frisbee. We also worked on halt – my “freeze right where you are and wait till I get there” command, and on impulse control when she played with other dogs.
Herding is structured chase, and working dogs are extremely well trained and have a solid not-chase switch: a slow-move, halt or down position they wait in until released again. The dog knows that access to the flock, or herd, is controlled by the handler, and because he really really wants to be on the stock, the motivation to be receptive to and obey the human’s directions is high. Herding dog breeds, working or not, are inherently attentive to their people, and fairly easy to train. Davie was no exception. She was extremely biddable and eager to please us, and agreeable to chasing a ball instead of charging after running humans. Like the human shepherd who makes access to sheep contingent on the dog’s behavior, I controlled access to the ball. Sticks are everywhere, and that allows the dog to control the game. With a toy, the game is always under the person’s control, not the dog’s.
As a side-note, do not play laser games. It is a sure-fire way to make a dog a neurotic light seeker and chaser. In a flash he’ll fixate and react to TV flickers, light shining through blinds, doors that open and close, ceiling fans, and shadows.
Remotivation can be a little harder to attain when a dog has a one-track mind and is zoned in on the environment and reactive to wildlife or pets. The reinforcement for impulse control and obedience can’t be to chase a flighty animal, and yet that might be exactly the dog’s biggest motivator. Even then, with a combination of managing and coming up with something really special to reinforce NOT chasing - hint: a “good boy” and shoving a treat into his mouth likely won’t do, success is possible with most dogs.
I see nothing wrong allowing a well-trained dog to chase squirrels, provided it is safe for both animals. The pooch should not pull or whine, but offer attention and wait for a release command, and follow when his person walks on or at least come when called. A dog who is completely fixated, tuning everything else out and continuing to bark up the tree even when the squirrel is long gone, indicates that there is potential trouble brewing in other chase contexts as well.
Davie’s drive to chase was channeled into appropriate outlets and she never went after a person again for the rest of her life - or cyclists, skateboarders and cars. But she did kill once – a tame rat that unexpectedly appeared in our fenced-in yard. It was the day after we moved into our home. The previous owner did not own the rat, but had fed it regularly and did not inform us of its existence. The kill was not preceded by a chase, there was no arousal before and afterwards, and Davie didn’t try to eat it. She grabbed it by the neck, shook it, and then flung it at hubby Mike’s feet. It was: I belong here and you don’t. It was aggression.