Thursday, March 19, 2009


The dog came upon a pair of Muscovy ducks resting in the shade. He crouched and slowly stalked toward them, taking careful steps, punctuated by pauses with one front leg raised. The large male was closest to the dog, the female a few yards beyond. As the dog crept closer, the big drake rose and began to move. He slowly took a few steps to the right. The dog responded by moving to the right and a little forward. The Muscovy turned and moved to the left; the dog matched his movement and crept closer. The big drake changed direction again. Staring intently and slowly stalking, the dog seemed to be engaging his quarry in a synchronized waltz – back and forth and back again.

Suddenly, he broke into a course. The big drake lifted into flight in ample time, but the dog seemed not even to notice. Just beyond, still nestled in the tall grass, was the duck. She hadn’t seen the dog’s rapid advance; it began at the precise moment when the big male’s body blocked the view. By moving the drake into position, not only was the dog able to surprise her, his course was a perfectly arranged straight line from one target to the next. The duck lifted off just as the dog leapt forward to take her. If he had managed to grab her, the struggle would have been interesting. The tiny dog weighed about the same as the duck.
I am partnered with Jack, the little greyhound in this story, and I watched this scene play out. Jack was not taught to execute such a clever hunting strategy; it is simply part of his canine programming. Domestic dogs are descended from free-roaming canids who practiced predation for hundreds of thousands of years. No matter how we have morphed and styled them, stretched and shrunk them, today’s dogs have the tools and often the inherent inclinations to execute some or all of the sequence of predatory behaviors seen in their wild forebears.

Through selective breeding, great emphasis has been placed on a portion of the sequence, resulting in specialization. Tracking dogs search, herding dogs stalk and rush, retrievers rush and grab, sighthounds seek and course, and terriers grab and kill. All dogs possess the ability to finish the sequence with prey of the right size that they are able to catch, but not all actually will.

We often resist and even punish the things dogs do that they are naturally inclined to do and predatory behaviors seem to upset us the most. A dog up the lane killed one of my chickens once. He didn’t eat her. I went to his house with the chicken’s body, intending to ask his people if the dog might be kept from wandering down to my barn. I no sooner got “your dog killed my chicken” out when the man grabbed its lifeless body and began to beat the dog with it.

We seem to forget that dogs are animals or that they are a different species. We have a model of a dog in our mind and he or she is often a huge departure from the actual dog in our life. Jack caught an enormous grasshopper one day. I watched as he ate every bit of it. That turned my stomach but I didn’t try to stop him. He once caught a bird but just held it awhile. I believe that he would kill a squirrel if he got hold of one and maybe a duck. He has dispatched a few sweet anole lizards, abandoning them when they are dearly departed. When I come outside, he will take me to them and show me their little grey bodies. He will give them one more bite. Then, with great excitement, he will move through the foliage, poking with his long muzzle and scratching with both paws, looking for more.

1 comment:

MRESDI said...

Love the verbal visual of the hunt. We also must check all the favorite lizard spots every time we enter the backyard. Sonya just enjoys it so much.. Poor lizards.