I wish I did not know why dogs kill birds from experience, but unfortunately, when I first got chickens a dog killed one of my brand new birds. The dog was a breed known for a high prey drive and I immediately went to work on creating an impenetrable fortress around my chicken coop.
It is frustrating and upsetting witnessing a dog kill birds. We love our dogs like family, and watching them kill can rock your friendship, even if we understand it is an instinctual behavior.
So why do dogs kill birds?
Dogs like to kill birds because of their breed, high prey drive, boredom, or simply because they enjoy the chase. Because they are descended from wolves, they naturally have the instinct to kill small prey like birds. However, some dogs are more driven to kill birds than others.
Many dogs are wired to hunt and kill birds, and we cannot always blame them for following their instinct, we can only work on training different behaviors and managing when they are around birds.
Let’s discuss the reasons our dogs have the instinct to kill birds and why it might become a habit. We will also give you some tools to help change the behavior.
Why Do Dogs Kill Birds?
Modern dogs are descended from wolves, and despite their pampered lives, they still have hunting and scavenging instincts in their genes. Some dogs have been bred to retain these instinctual behaviors more than others.
Retaining some of these wolf instincts means that they might chase, capture, and kill birds, and learn to enjoy it.
Reason 1: High Prey Drive
A dog with high prey drive means they have an instinctive need to pursue, capture, and kill prey. The ritual includes searching, stalking, capturing, killing, and consuming the prey. You can see different dogs modifying pieces of the ritual as working dogs.
For example; scent hounds like to search, border collies stalk, retrievers capture, and terriers and greyhounds capture and kill prey.
While these instinctual prey-drive behaviors can help train your dog for a job, it can also hinder them if they get so focused on prey that you cannot call them off killing birds.
Dogs with high prey drives often get fixated on birds because of their small size, but might also enjoy chasing cats, rabbits, other dogs, or deer, It is hard to trust some high prey drive dogs off leash since you are worried they might kill a bird or chase other small animals.
Different dogs might have different layers of prey drive, some might only stalk birds, while others continue for the kill. Most dogs who have been bred to hunt will have a higher prey drive than others, and some dogs were specifically meant to hunt birds.
Reason 2: Breed
There are almost 200 hunting breeds that can be registered with the AKC. While there are not many people in the modern world that need to rely on hunting dogs for survival, there is still a huge community that enjoys recreational hunting as well as competing in field trials and hunting events.
Many retrievers, pointers, and spaniels were specifically bred to hunt birds with their human handlers. These breeds of dogs are usually high energy, comfortable around guns, and work in easy harmony in the field with their owners.
They were bred to have the instinct and skill to retrieve waterfowl and upland birds that have been shot by their handler and bring it back with a soft mouth. Having a soft mouth means carrying it back without crushing the lifeless bird.
However, these breeds of dogs might be more inclined to kill birds. Hunting breeds that have not been trained to specifically retrieve birds still have a strong instinct to kill birds. While many breeds like to hunt and retrieve birds, here are some of the most popular bird-hunting breeds:
- Labrador Retriever
- German Shorthaired Point
- Boykin Spaniel
- Golden Retriever
- Springer Spaniel
- Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
Reason 3: Your Dog Is Bored (Or Trying To Get Your Attention)
Bird dogs who already have a high prey drive will especially be prone to hunting and killing birds when they are bored. Since they were bred for that purpose, killing birds is a natural behavior and an easy way to entertain themselves.
Furthermore, a bored dog might not only want to entertain themselves but want your attention, even if it is negative attention. What is your reaction when your dog kills a bird?
Do you scream or yell out of disgust, squeamishness, frustration, anger, or all of these emotions combined? A dog desperate for attention might not care that you are mad, they will be happy you are finally paying attention to them.
Reason 4: It’s Fun!
Once a dog killed a bird and realized how fun it was to activate their prey drive, they might keep doing it. The best of owners might try to exercise and train their high prey-drive dog, but once your dog has figured out much fun it is to kill a bird, it can be hard to deter them.
Since dogs are scavengers and are naturally attracted to blood from any source, once they learn how easy it is to kill a bird it might be hard to distract them from their new “game.” Dogs who kill birds for fun can have a hard time with impulse control over birds and other small animals have to have their behavior carefully managed.
It is not okay to let your dog kill birds for fun. Killing wild birds in your yard can be detrimental to the ecological health of where you live, and you could be in serious financial or legal trouble if your dog kills someone’s pet birds or chickens.
Reason 5: Your Dog Is Hungry
Prey drive comes from a dog’s instinctual behavior of hunting. They are descended from wolves who have to hunt prey like birds for survival. Hungry dogs can be driven by this instinct to kill birds when they need a meal or are greedy for food.
Most dog owners try their best to give their dogs the right amount of food. It can be confusing though. Your dog might seem fat or too skinny when you feed them the recommended amount of food on the back of your dog food bag.
If you are worried about your dog being too skinny or overweight, this video is a great resource.
So if your high prey drive active dog is not getting enough calories from the food you give them, they might start killing birds to supplement their meals. Here is a great scientific guide to help you determine how much to feed your dog.
How To Change The Behavior
If your dog is killing birds it is important to change that behavior. Killing wild birds can be bad for the environment, and killing pet birds or poultry can be an emotional and financial disaster for you and the owner of the birds.
Let’s look at some ways to channel your dog’s prey drive into more appropriate games, good impulse control training, or ways to manage the behavior.
It might be hard to imagine, but dogs can learn impulse control! Training impulse control for your dogs means they learn to resist the urge to perform an unwanted behavior. Unwanted behaviors include eating toys, digging, and killing birds.
Here are some basic behaviors that teach impulse control and can help temper your dog’s murderous behavior around birds:
This video from Victoria Stilwell helps you learn to teach impulse control with games, making it more fun for you and your dog.
Exercise And Training A Different Behavior
If your dog is killing birds out of boredom, they might need more exercise or training. Regular obedience and trick training is a great way to give your dog mental stimulation. Many games will wear your dog out mentally and physically.
Some dogs, like hunting dogs, are more prone to killing birds and it is much harder to train them to ignore birds. Instead, you might choose to embrace the behavior to kill birds but do it more ethically.
There are many dog sports and games you can play with your dog to tap into that instinctual hunting urge to kill birds while still preventing them from killing small prey. Check out these games that will not only give your dog much-needed exercise, wear them out mentally, but replace the behavior of killing birds.
Small dogs like terriers and dachshunds were originally bred to hunt out vermin on farms, so killing birds is an easy next step for them. Barn Hunt competitions tap into those instincts to find and kill vermin without letting them complete the kill.
As you will hear in the video, in Barn Hunt, your dog is trained to search through hay bales and barns to find rats who are kept safe in comfortable tubes.
Don’t worry, these rats are family pets and are as spoiled as your dog.
Much like Barn Hunt, Earthdog trials allow dogs to satisfy their instinct of finding and killing vermin. Not only is it a great choice for dogs who kill birds, but it is a good sport for dogs that like to dig.
Breeds (like many terriers) that were bred to dig for rodents might find killing birds just as fun. By satisfying their natural tendency for digging and hunting with a sport like Earthdog, your dog will be less likely to kill birds and other small creatures out of boredom.
Lots of different breeds love to play fetch, but it is a favorite game of retrievers, other classic bird dogs, and herders. Chasing after a ball or toy and then bringing it back mirrors the same behavior of chasing a bird, catching it, and bringing it back.
If your dog is killing birds, instead try to channel that energy into a good game of fetch. Many dogs are natural at learning this game, others need a little help to learn how to bring back the toy.
Fetch is a great way to exercise your dog, but some dogs can become ball obsessed. Be careful, a dog who will not quit playing fetch can hurt themselves or develop anxiety.
Flirt poles are amazing for dogs that have a high prey drive and kill birds. A flirt pole is a very long stick with a rope attached to it that has some sort of toy tied to the rope. It triggers the need to chase a lure while physically conditioning and tiring them out.
If you attach a feathering cat toy, it will resemble a bird and help take attention away from killing real birds. Using a variety of movements, your dog’s prey drive is triggered and they chase and try to catch the toy.
You can purchase a flirt pole or make one yourself. Here is a great video about how to use a flirt pole with your dog that kills birds.
Some dogs have such a high prey drive and instinct to kill birds that it can seem almost impossible to train them impulse control around birds. For example, sighthounds like Greyhounds and Afghan Hounds were bred to work independently so they have a hard time listening once they lock onto a bird.
With dogs who have these genetics or personality, the best thing to do is manage the behavior. Always have them on a leash outside of a fenced-in yard to keep them and the birds safe.
In your yard, avoid feeding the wild birds. It puts the birds in danger and will drive your dog crazy.
Some people have found success by putting bells on their dog’s collars, much like you would on a cat! The tinkle of the bell warns any potential victim and drastically reduces the risk of your dog killing birds.
Witnessing your dog killing a bird is terrible. It might be little consolation, but everyone has their ups and downs as dog owners, and some days are a lot worse than others.
Hopefully, you and your dog are in a place where you can figure out why your dog is killing birds and can train and manage the behavior.
If your dog has a naturally high prey drive or is a natural hunter, you will need to have them on a leash unless in a fenced-in area, while playing games like fetch and using a flirt pole. This distracts them from killing birds without impairing their natural prey drive. Fetch and a flirt pole will replace killing birds as the new fun game.
Furthermore, the same principle goes for dog sports like Barn Hunt and Earthdog. Dogs still get to hunt but do not harm any small creatures or birds.
Replacing killing birds with fun games, exercise, and training will not only keep birds safe, but training and connecting with your dog will strengthen your bond with your dog. As a bonus the more you work with your dog, the more you can predict their behavior and trust them around birds.