Whole Dog Journal's Blog December 23, 2010

The Reformation of a Killer – A Chicken Killer, That Is

Posted at 11:33AM - Comments: (9)

When I brought my dog Otto home from the shelter, I knew he was a killer. He had at least one murder on his rap sheet. His cage card said, “Kills chicken.” (It was a typo…I assume he either killed one chicken, or will kill chickens.)

I do know he’s very “birdy.” Though he looks at feral cats with some interest and squirrels with a little more, his eyes light up the brightest when he sees birds on the ground. If you could ask him, he’d probably admit that the highlight of his life with me so far was the day I took him for an off-leash walk in the woods, and he startled a flock of wild turkeys. He chased that flock well out of my sight, with the birds flying above the dirt road that Otto was flying along. He came galloping back to me about three minutes later, looking a little alarmed, with that lost-dog expression, until he saw me. Then he looked as happy as a dog can look, grinning like a kid getting off the wildest, most exciting roller coaster ever. “You wouldn’t believe how much fun I just had!”

So what the heck am I doing getting chickens?

Well, we’ve built a very solid house that they will be locked in at night, with a nice little fenced-in run that they can use during the day. And for the first few months, we’ll be watching our dog closely. My stepson commented, “Well, this will be a test of your training, right?” I responded, “AND a test of our management.” The rules for now are, at night and when no one is home, the chickens have to be locked in their “safe house.” When we are outside and paying attention, they can be in their yard and he can be in his yard. When we go in the house, so does he. I’m more afraid of how well trained my kids and husband are than the dog, really.

We brought the first three hens home today. It’s pouring rain right now, so we’ll put off all the introductions until later, when we can let them in the yard and watch Otto’s response.

I feel pretty confident. Otto has learned a really reliable “off” cue and response, and as long as I have plenty of opportunities to reinforce him for looking away from the chickens on cue, I think he’ll get the idea.

Anyone else with reformed killers in their midst? Any words of advice?

Comments (9)

I adopted a 3 month old Lab who passed the test of leaving chickens and our pet turkey alone. Early on some of the roosters attacked him and cornered him, he pretty much ignores the chickens, although he's interested in the scraps they get. The turkeys turned out to be too sweet natured. When he was about 6-7 months old we lost 5 turkey hens. We originally suspected a neighbor's dogs and 3 disappeared, each about 5 days apart, of course this was when they were free ranging. But then the fourth one was found in the open pen dead and another injured (she recovered), and our dog Drake was exiting the pen looking guilty. We were so disappointed and we confronted him with the carcass and scolded him, he knew we were unhappy. So the turkeys yard time was diminished to an hour before sunset and the dog was locked in the house. Unfortunately the fifth hen "Lucky" (only incubated egg to hatch the previous year), wasn't accepted by the 20 something flock and routinely perched on one of our chicken coops. Lucky apparently got in a nesting mood and we found her dead by the same MO and suspected the Lab. He had left the grooming shop and traveled the 300 yards home to commit the crime. This time our wrath was more severe, unfortunately my husband was so distraught that he beat the dog with the turkey carcass while yelling, the dog sought refuge in the grooming shop which I denied, and he was shunned all day. He avoided my husband and spent the day at home on the porch. That evening we allowed him in the house, and he quietly laid in his bed and observed us. He knew when we were talking about him, and he knew we were unhappy with him. He wanted our loving attention again and we gave him another chance. Two months later we had 22 new turkey poults and he was scolded if he sniffed their cage or showed interest. In the meantime his interest in ball chasing was heightened. His reward for ignoring them, lots of fetch. The 10 heritage breed turkeys were killed at 6 weeks by the neighbors heelers, while we were camping overnight. The two dogs tore through 1/2" hardware cloth and vinyl coated chicken wire, a dedicated effort. Our Lab was obviously not a suspect, and has actually learned that dove hunting and retrieving is OK, while mouthing a turkey is not. The dozen remaining turkeys (who were kept in a separate enclosure) are Rio Grandes and we raised them to populate the area, so at 3 months we stopped locking them up and they roost on the heritage breeds turkey pen. We trust the dog with them, he gets lots of exercise, the Rio Grandes actually follow him, they are more aggressive then the heritage breeds. They surround him like guineas and peck at his collar, he just dances away almost like a game. I think the Labrador breed has a lot to do with his rehabilitation, and now he frequently helps herd them home when they stray too far. So I think with the right temperment, and bond with the dog, it's possible for a bird dog to coexist with your poultry. I never had a problem with my schnauzer she has always loved baby chicks. She would watch them for hours when they were in the house, and alert me if one had flown out of the brooder. She would corner them, but not hurt them. Best of luck.

Posted by: ReginaTheGroomer | February 8, 2014 12:57 PM    Report this comment

I have whippets with very high prey drive. That is supposed to be a breed characteristic, so I am not about to try to dampen it -- much. Our solution has been an electric net around the chickens. This protects the chickens from not only our dogs, but any other potential predators about (free-ranging dogs, coyotes, raccoons, etc.). Yes it's an aversive, but in this instance I think it is quite justified for the safety of all my critters.

As it happens, our soft whippet (he has a high prey drive but is also quite soft) has hit the fence a couple times and now simply "doesn't see" chickens anymore. Ned is perhaps 95% trustworthy around the chooks. I like to use him to help me herd the chickens, and he does this unwillingly if at all. The shock has enabled Ned, however, to enjoy many more privileges -- namely, running loose around the farm -- than the other dogs, who simply cannot be trusted. The others have been shocked and will respect the fence, but it is entirely a different situation if the fence is off or if the chickens decide that remaining in the fence is optional. I have lost chickens this way, and I most certainly did not blame my keen whippet girl! I simply skinned them and fed each of the dogs a half chicken for supper. =7

It's all about management. In my case, I do not wish to dampen my dogs' hunting/chasing instincts -- that is what they were bred for, after all -- so I have chosen to use an electric net. As a result, my only substantial predation problems have been with raptors making off with chicks.

I am curious about the book "Chase", mentioned above, so I will look into it. However, I am extremely reluctant to damper my dogs' natural breed instincts when I can simply manage the problem. Prey drive in whippets is critical to me as a whippet fancier; I want to see a dog do what it was bred to do. I'm ambivalent about whether I even want the ability to turn that "off", as it were.

Good post!

Posted by: ohwhippets | December 30, 2010 12:10 PM    Report this comment

I agree with Unknown response. I don't feel this is right for either Otto or the Chickens.
Is it really that important that Otto's natural chicken prey instinct be diminished?
If he wasn't presented with free range chickens on his property he doesn't have a worry. If he is off his property I would expect there is a leash law in effect. Dog's should always be controlled.
Otto has proven to be a bird dog; do the chickens have to be another training tool for Otto?
I feel sad for both Otto and the chickens.
If the chickens are a source of meat and eggs they don't need to be free range to the point they are not protected from predators including Otto.
I keep chickens and I have three Wheaten Terriers. My dogs are bird dogs of convenience; they seem to only be bird aware when a chicken makes it's way into the dog yard/pen. We have had bird deaths when the birds have got in the dog yard. The dog yard is fenced by a 5 foot chain link fence. Not an impossible flight to the top rail then over, but more than a flutter. When our dogs are out of their yard they don't seem to have interest in the birds.
The three deaths we've had via the dog pen were devastating to me. They were all young birds.
We had dogs well before the chickens. Our first chickens were kept solely in the chicken coop. They evolved to being allowed to free range for a few hours daily, and now they free range by a photo sensitive automatic door on the coop.
Our dogs are kept in the house, exercised in their 5 foot fenced yard. They are with us if they are outside and out of their yard. They do listen and obey when off lead around the farm yard. We have a peaceful kingdom, but I don't have true bird dogs, unlike Otto.
I never acquired chickens to test or desensitize my dog's instinct. I am committed to keeping my animals healthy, happy, and safe.

Another reminder: Chickens are a great means of spreading parasites. They are able to harvest them via insects, worms and such they scratch from the soil. The free ranging chicken poop is remarkably efficient means of expanding the parasitic load in your ground and making them available to Otto.
Free range chickens introduce another type of management aside from that of a Otto's natural prey instinct management.

Posted by: Susan L | December 29, 2010 8:21 AM    Report this comment

We have had chickens and dogs for many years. In fact when our dogs are on the BARF diet they eat raw chicken (purchased from the store). They like to chase and kill the occasional squirrel, rabbit and mole, but rarely eat what they kill. Our chickens are locked in their house at night (coyotes). We have a fenced area on concrete they can come out to with food and water in the mornings. If a dog friend is coming over or our dogs will be in the back part of the yard where the chicken pen is located they stay in this enclosure. If we will be around the back yard the dogs can go into the backyard and the chikens can come out of their pen. We have little problem with the interaction. All of our dogs have been introduced to the chickens as adult dogs, rescues. Legend used to be very interested in the peeps when they were young and kept in the garage but had little interest in the grown chickens. Cody never had any real interest. Gabe doesn't have interest until the rooster attacks my husband, then he is aggressivly protective. Syd loves to "herd" the chickens. She can move them for hours. Not chasing, moving. A chicken will accasionally get killed when it flys into the dog yard alone and freaks out, then it is prey. An older chicken that will not move for Syd and sits down will occasionally get hurt as she trys to get it to move.
When the chickens are in a group and used to the dogs they do not run or flap and the dogs are not tempted. It is a chicken that ends up alone and panics that gets killed usually. At a previous farm we had geese and those dogs learned quickly that fowl can hurt you and they never bothered the chickens. So yes. You can deal with the situation with management and patience.

Posted by: CHRISTIE T | December 28, 2010 7:03 PM    Report this comment

My Jack Russel LOVES to chase any mouse-sized animal that comes into our backyard.These are mainly mice and chipmunks and occasionally squirrels. I saw him hit one chipmunk that was instantly dead. Nearly all the wild things seem to know "Tony" likes to hunt and avoid our yard.

But Tony is a hunting dog! And one less mouse is one less mousetrap in the house, so I am perfectly glad o have his help!

Posted by: aagun c | December 28, 2010 6:13 PM    Report this comment

Since you already have chickens, I guess it's too late, but I have to say I don't like the idea. Don't you feel you are, in a sense, torturing Otto to keep his most-desired object in front of him as a no-no? That's the way it feels to me, and I agree with the poster who said you can't trust a basic instinct like that. I've had sporting dogs--2 cockers and a golden mix--and all chase birds and rodents. Sometimes catching them, and on a number of occasions killing them. I try to protect the birds but now and then one is flushed from a hiding spot, or is sick or injured or just stupid and doesn't move fast enough. Rabbits can normally outrun my dogs, but if it gets stuck in a corner or cornered between the 2 dogs, it's toast. I would never keep a bird in the house because it would frustrate the heck out of my dogs--not good for either dog or bird. They do enjoy watching and chasing them but they really want to catch and possibly kill (the golden did most of the killing, but one cocker ate a baby quail).

Posted by: Unknown | December 28, 2010 1:24 PM    Report this comment

My dog escaped several times soon after I adopted her and has killed chickens, and at least one rabbit, as we as moles in our yard. For this reason, I feel that we can never allow her off-leash, and we can never have small pets such as cats or birds. I would love to believe that she can be reformed, and have purchased "Chase" by Clarissa Von Reinhardt to work on these issues as well. Our trainer believes that good training can beat her urge to chase and kill prey, but I just don't know...she even went into predator mode towards a Chihuahua at the vet's--not acting in a dog-aggressive manner, but chirping and alert, as though the poor thing was a bird or a mouse!

Posted by: Seana P | December 28, 2010 11:00 AM    Report this comment

I have only had my rescued Boston Terrier for about 8 months and I know zero about his history since he was a stray. We don't even really know his age (I was told he was 4-5 yrs old but, based on the graying I'm seeing on his face, I suspect he might be older). He was already neutered when found but his appearance suggests that the surgery happened after he reached maturity. All of this is only for background. What concerns me about him is that he has a predilicton for chasing cats (I have two)--not just chasing but pouncing on and treating like personal toys. I'm not sure he could (or would) actually hurt one but I don't wait to see--I break it up and correct him ("NO--Leave it"). He has also gone after a friend's cat (and she did basically the same as I do). I make a point of paying attention and rewarding the times that he lets the cat(s) pass by or starts in their direction but stops when cautioned to "Leave it!". His behavior seems to depend on his mood--and it seems that the chase is just fun for him--still, I don't quite trust him and I don't know that I ever can totally.
This brings me to my last point--I had another Boston (passed away a year ago)--I'd had her since a pup and she was the best dog. She never had harmed another creature (well maybe a flea or two) though she liked to dig for moles (never caught one) or chipmunks(likewise)--the smell of fresh earth seemed to be intoxicating to her. She LOVED chasing toys and was totally ball crazy. BUT she played well with other animals that I had (including a cockatoo--they were best Buds!).
One day, when she was about 11-1/2 yrs old, we were on the porch and a mouse ran across in front of her--quick as a wink she grabbed it and shook it to death. Maybe she was getting a bit senile and forgot herself--or maybe it was just instinct kicking in from her distant terrier anscestors.
It did give me pause and that is the point that I bring up---instinct is the hardest to overcome. Those dogs that are bred to hunt (or have those genes at least) may never be able to totally overcome those tendencies and must always be monitored and protected from the instnces that would allow gratification . They might be OK MOST of the time--but, on occasion, the instincts will kick in and it happens too fast to stop.

Posted by: PJKutscher | December 28, 2010 10:24 AM    Report this comment

It is definitely a question of management. There are many people whose dogs serve as flock guardians for their birds, but there are many more who left their dogs unsupervised and came back outside to discover their favorite dog had killed their favorite chicken. If you want to see the results of chance (and stupidity), check out all the sad and horrific stories on backyardchickens.com.

Posted by: Sharon D | December 28, 2010 10:19 AM    Report this comment

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