How Your Dog Plays: Hunting Behavior

Understanding Basic Canine Predatory Behavior

Raymond and Lorna Coppinger, in their book Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution, describe basic canine predatory behaviors as a behavior chain consisting of seven steps: orient, eye, stalk, chase, grab-bite, kill-bite, and dissect. These behaviors appear both in hunting and, in modified form, in play.

Orientation on (looking at, moving one’s body to point at) the target starts the sequence (“orient“).

The dog then focuses on the target with an intense, laser like stare (“eye“).

Next the dog lowers its body and moves toward the target with a slinking motion (“stalk“).

Once it feels close enough, the dog will put on a burst of speed to close the distance between it and the target (“chase“).

The chase may certainly end with a grab-bite — but the behavior chain often breaks before the kill and ends with most dogs before the prey is eaten. In play, the chain stops at or before the grab-bite. (If it moves past the grab-bite, it is no longer play!)

Dog hunting behavior… it’s all part of play!

Here we see Duke, a Corgi (a herding breed), demonstrating a brief sequence of hunting behavior during play. He is targeting a fellow dog, Gracie, off-camera, with whom he was playing just moments before. He and Gracie have just taken a break to rest and regroup and now Duke is approaching his friend, apparently hoping to re-initiate play.

In the first photo you can see a “relaxed” Duke (not staring; soft, relaxed lips and ears; sitting), but you can also see that Duke has oriented (step 1) toward his target.

In the second photo, he is “giving eye” or staring at Gracie (step 2) and he has moved to step 3, the stalk. He has lowered his body on the vertical plane and his shoulders are higher than his head.

In the third photo, he lies down; this is part of the stalk and can be a pause to reconsider or it may be that Gracie has spotted him and oriented upon him, and he is arresting his forward motion as a result. Look at the difference in Duke’s face between the third and fourth photo: he goes from a relatively relaxed state (open mouth, soft lips) to a much “harder” expression (closed mouth, tense lips) as he approaches the threshold of moving from “stalk” to “chase”.

Since this is play, his interaction with Gracie stopped even before a grab-bite, and, since Duke was exhibiting normal social behavior, Gracie responded in kind, and they spent a while chasing each other back and forth. It was a good afternoon!


What hunting behaviors can you see in the photos of Duke and Gracie? What hunting behaviors can you see in your dog’s play?