It’s a common myth among dog owners that their dog would not chase and kill sheep. However, the breeds of dogs shot for sheep worrying include everything from Huskies to Jack Russell Terriers.
Livestock attacks happen more frequently than reported. Sheepwatch, a campaigning organisation set up to try to solve the problem, reported 2,474 deaths of sheep in 2017, among them 408 pregnant ewes but since the crime is underreported nationally, it is believed the figure could be as high as 15,00 sheep annually.
The peak times for livestock worry are during the lambing season of January to March however attacks can happen at other times too.
So, why do we claim that any dog is capable of chasing livestock? In the wild, a dog would chase livestock in order to kill for food, but the modern pet dog is generally well fed, if not overfed, so is not chasing livestock to fulfil a primary need. Why then do dogs chase livestock? The answer is simple – they enjoy it.
Predatory chase of this nature tends to be an impulsive action with no real goal in mind. The action of the chase stimulates the part of the dog’s brain which is associated with arousal and the seeking system and bypasses the parts of the brain associated with reason and choice.
The act of the chase releases the pleasure seeking chemical messenger dopamine into the dog’s brain so he gets a real high of pleasure. This is the reason dogs will become repeat offenders, not because they have ‘tasted blood’, but because it becomes an addiction to pleasure seeking, indeed the thrill of the chase.
Predation is intrinsically rewarding and studies show it is almost impossible to interrupt an intrinsically rewarding behaviour. No other reward trumps it. I’m sure many people have seen the video of the dog Fenton chasing deer in Richmond Park. The dog was ‘in the zone’ and completely oblivious to his owner’s frantic calls.
When in that ‘pleasure zone’, some dogs just chase sheep until the sheep reach a point of exhaustion, but there is not a single dog bite on the sheep, suggesting the chase element is the most rewarding to those dogs. Other dogs will bring down sheep and partially dissect and consume them, suggesting they have an entirely different motivation
Is it about lack of Exercise and Training?
It is misleading to attribute such intrinsically rewarding behaviour as chasing to a lack of exercise and training. There are some highly trained dogs who can be recalled from such a chase, but their owners will have put in hours and hours of work to reach that point.
For most dogs, even those you consider to be well adjusted and well-trained dogs, whilst there is a small window to recall the dog before this chase begins, once the chase is on, they are very much in the pleasure zone and not listening to any interruptions.
Not all livestock attacks happen when dogs are out on walks, it is reported that two-thirds of the attacks on livestock were from dogs who had escaped from the house or garden. The biggest issue here is not whether the dogs are sufficiently exercised or stimulated, but how they are able to escape.
It may be a training issue in that the dog has not been taught an alternate behaviour to running out of the front door if it is opened, but any responsible dog owner should be ensuring that the area the dog escapes into is secure.
If you live near a busy road, you make sure your dog can’t escape onto it and the same should apply in areas where there are livestock.
Dogs are opportunists and if they find a route to escape, no matter how well trained and exercised they are, they will still follow their curiosity and impulses, especially if they have had a history of chasing livestock or a well-developed prey drive.
How to stop your dog chasing livestock
The only solution is management to avoid the dog being in a position where he can chase livestock.
This means ensuring your houses and gardens are escape proof. Good rehoming charities like National Animal Welfare Trust insist on six-foot high fenced gardens and it is something all pet owners should be encouraged to undertake.
If you live in a suburban area or semi-rural area, be aware of grazing livestock on open land. Cattle and sheep are often used for managing areas of open land. Make sure you read the signage and notices and please keep your dogs on a lead at all times.
Farmers will sometimes put up and take down signage so please keep an eye on what is being displayed. It would always be safer to keep your dog on a lead until you’ve successfully made a thorough visual check beforehand. The consequences are unthinkable.
And finally, do regularly practice your dog recall. We’ve put together an advice sheet on recall and we also have a free webinar recording featuring TV trainers Jo Rosie Haffenden and Nando Brown.
Happy walking and remember to be safe out there!