I have lived with dogs for most of my life. I have spent countless hours walking dogs, both on and off lead. I have spent countless hours in off lead parks, watching my dogs socialise with a wide range of other dogs of all ages and sizes. In all of those years, I've never seen a dog fight in a park, or seen a dog really "go for" another dog. Warn them off by growling and showing teeth, yes. Seriously fight and cause harm or attempt to cause harm, no.
Yet, almost every husky owner I've met has stories of, at best, near misses, where their dog has nearly caused or even caused harm to other dogs. These stories are all very similar. The huskies, having terrible recall, are always on a leash. Another dog, often a small terrier, approaches off-leash, often barking or growling, to be met with a solid CHOMP. Sometimes the owners successfully intervene. Sometimes the little dog skips out of the way. Sometimes the husky is clearly delivering a warning snap. Sometimes the husky has a real intent to catch and kill the small fluffy animal. Obviously, regardless of whether any harm is done or not, the small dog owner is almost always outraged, shocked and terrified.
Two questions: 1) WHY???? And, 2) if this is such a big issue amongst huskies, why isn't it well known?
Ok, make that three questions: 3) What does this mean?
1) Prey drive.
Prey drive is the instinctive inclination of a carnivore to pursue and capture prey, chiefly used to describe habits in dog training
Prey drive is an instinct - ie it is genetically programmed and cannot be trained out or unlearned. It occurs in all carnivores to a greater or lesser extent. We consider it normal, and even encourage cats to hunt small rodents and birds. However, in most domesticated dogs, prey drive has been bred to minimal levels, or channelled into useful areas - like retrieving game for hunters.
Its an important thing for people to understand when they are considering a breed for themselves, their lifestyle and their family. High prey drive breeds require a lot of leadership and careful training to ensure that they operate well within a household. Working breeds, shown here in the top right corner, are often considered unsuitable for suburban life, due to their high need for leadership and exercise and stimulation ensure their prey drive is used appropriately. Guess which category Spitz are placed in?
Yes, working dogs. In fact, in spitz-type sled dogs like Siberian huskies and Alaskan malamutes, we are told that prey drive was allowed to persist for a long time by the native peoples who first domesticated them.
In winter, the dogs were encouraged to curl up with children to provide extra warmth, and work cooperatively with each other and with their mushers to pull sleds, as the people moved between winter hunting grounds. In summer, many communities let the dogs run loose, encouraging them to fend for themselves, hunting smaller animals. Consequently, the modern breed can be very good at interacting appropriately with other humans, but has a very strong prey drive, which was encouraged as little as 100 years ago.
Furthermore, although North American indigenous peoples had several breeds of dogs - Alaskan Malamutes being the most well known - all of these breeds were medium to large sized. There were no terriers, toy breeds or domestic cats around. Any small animals running around would have been fair game - squirrels, shrews, mice, rodents, gophers, beavers... So, unlike most European dogs, huskies and mallies had a late introduction to the idea of socialising with small and toy breeds. Husky owners believe that a poorly socialised husky, like our Bolo, has difficulty differentiating between small dogs and other small animals. They will chase down and grab, potentially harming and even killing another dog. Terrifying for the owners all around and disastrous for the injured dog and the husky that has just committed an unforgivable sin.
2) Why isn't this well known?
I didn't know this about huskies, prior to meeting J. I now have to explain to a lot of friends that my previously open-house-policy to dogs and people alike has changed to "you are still welcome, but your small dog isn't". Only one small dog friend immediately understood the scenario when I said that my "step-dogs" were huskies.
I think the reason that the general public don't know about husky prey drive are threefold. Firstly, huskies are not the most commonly owned dogs in Australian suburban areas. Labradors, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Cocker spaniels and Jack Terriers were the dogs every other house had when I was growing up, alongside the dozens of mutts and bitzers that have increasingly been replaced by the low allergen poodle crosses that are so popular today. This lack of exposure contributes to many of misconceptions about huskies - J has a small collection of t shirts featuring FAQs for husky owners!
Secondly, most husky owners work EXTREMELY hard to ensure their dog is well mannered, well behaved and well controlled. Puppies are carefully socialized. Many huskies raised with cats without issues. Most people are well aware that their dogs have minimal recall, so they are rarely allow their dogs to run around off lead. Those who participate in sledding have to train dog teams to be able to pass other teams without interfering with the progress of the other dogs, so sledding commands like "on by" are added to the husky vocabulary, along with "leave". Many huskies are able to ignore their prey drive instinct, or to restrict it to possums and birds, and play well with other dogs, in carefully supervised situations.
All of our dogs are well versed in these commands, and no matter what, will NEVER turn around to attempt to interact with a dog that we have already passed, something that was a common problem with my previous little dogs. Obviously, we go an extra step in using a muzzle with Bolo , who was not properly socialized as a puppy and has very poor social instincts.
Thirdly, huskies have a good reputation with the general public. Due to their long association with families, huskies are rarely involved in attacks on humans. They have not had the misfortune of other breeds, who have been labelled as "dangerous". Today, an elderly lady walked up to me and a friend in the park and stepped without any fear into the midst of Czar, Frankie and Bolo. As far as she was concerned, they were lovely dogs - of course, she is right! She illustrated for me that the reputation of huskies is untarnished.
Also, public information on prey drive rarely mentions huskies. A websearch on prey drive in dogs brings up articles on hunting and herding dogs, whose prey drive has been shaped over hundreds of years of breeding. Lists of dogs, like the one displayed here include the Alaskan malamute but not the closely-related husky.
Malamutes sometimes cope poorly with smaller animals, including other canines; however, this has been difficult to document in detail beyond observational data.
In contrast, both the dogtime.com and wikipedia articles on Siberian huskies doesn't mention prey drive at all. It is only when you start to read husky club websites, that you start to see it appearing. Rescue organisations like NVSDR and Siberian Husky Rescue repeatedly state "No cats or pocket pets" and often specify gender/size/activity level recommendation of companion dogs already living with potential adoption or foster families.
3) What does this mean?
For the majority of huskies, prey drive IS manageable. Simple positive reinforcement of commands like "on by" and more sophisticated training techniques like those suggested by Cesar Millan, are widely and successfully used. For more difficult cases, husky owners seem happy to take further precautions like using muzzles, rather than risk the unthinkable - having their dog harm or kill another dog.
However, there are incidents. Unlike all the other breed owners I have walked around off lead parks with, in uneventful peace for many years, nearly every husky owner has a near miss or an actual disaster story. They describe the constant stress and fear of walking their dogs through off leash areas, or in streets where dogs are wandering in and out of unfenced yards. This leads to a build up of resentment towards other owners, especially those with yappy terrier types, and a perception that owners who allow their dogs to wander off leash are foolish, idiotic and even negligent. Husky owners talk about other dogs who were out of their owner's control, even though it may be unclear whether the other person realised the risk and attempted to recall their dog. The danger is blindingly obvious to the person heaving to restrain their lunging husky, so they assume that it is also clear to the other person. I would argue that it is not clear.
Arguments can then spring up between terrified and stressed owners - one knew the risk and did everything in their power to prevent an accident, while the other was oblivious to the need to intervene and is horrified to have a threat to their dogs suddenly appear after many years of happy socialization. When the off leash dog has been injured, the owner who did not recall their dog may feel guilty for not protecting it properly and may even lash out with accusations against the husky owner. The law is murky in this area, and even owners who have failed to follow signage saying dogs must be on leash can escape penalties while the dog that has followed its instincts may be seized or declared dangerous.
I guess it is a credit to Melbourne's dog friendly suburbs that there are so few incidents between dogs around here. In nearly 15 years of frequenting off lead parks and beaches, I have never seen a dog fight in a public space. It is true that most suburban families select breeds with a reputation for high sociability, and most dogs, even those who yap, are playful or warning, rather than outright malicious. Personally I think the history of the more commonly seen breeds, who often originated in parts of the world with a wide range of dog sizes (Great Danes to Yorkshire terriers for example), coupled with excellent training and development of individual puppies is a key factor. (There are, unfortunately, dangerous individual dogs in all breeds, often due to abuse and neglect or even training for aggression.) I have met owners with a wide range of views on feeding, grooming, training and almost every dog related topic on the face of the planet, but I have never met a suburban owner who felt that it was acceptable to allow their dog to harm a person or another dog.
I firmly believe that if every other breed owner understood the issues with prey drive in huskies, they would immediately recall and secure small dogs on sight of a husky. Their failure to do so, is not down to idiocy or neglect, just simple ignorance. The husky owners have done such a good job of promoting their dogs' excellent points, controlling their dogs' undesirable instincts and minimising harmful incidents, that they have allowed the general public to see huskies and mallies as gentle teddy bears, despite their wolf-like appearance. Without starting a witch hunt or fear campaign against huskies, responsibility for huskies continued good behaviour rests largely with the husky owning community, who have shown that they will take this responsibility very seriously.
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