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How I Survive (and Even Encourage!) My Dog’s Hunting Instincts

Riggins has killed and devoured all sorts of small prey during our years together, and that's OK -- if kinda gross.

Wendy Newell  |  Jan 21st 2016


My Riggins is part German Shorthaired Pointer, which means hunting instincts are in his DNA. Being a mom to such a dog presents certain challenges. After all, what’s a parent to do when their lil’ darling has the urge to kill?

If you’re like me, you make it more fun in some cases, and in others you give the prey a heads-up.

Riggins playing innocent. (All pictures by Wendy Newell.)

Riggins playing innocent. (Photo by Wendy Newell.)

Riggins is 10 years old now and has slowed down a lot. He still has the ol’ hunter in him, though! Just now, he was crying to go outside. I let him out, and he took off like a bullet after the bird who dared walk around by our back fence. Even as a senior, the speed he can achieve when preying is impressive.

Last week, I had five dogs in the backyard — I’m a dog sitter, and Riggins often shares his space with friends. When I went outside to bring everyone in, four sweet pups met me at the door, but Riggins was on the opposite side of the yard barking his head off. “LEAVE THAT OPOSSUM ALONE,” I screamed. I didn’t even have to see the beady-eyed marsupial to know he was there, balancing precariously on the fence. Opossums have it rough in our neighborhood.

All terrain hunter.

Riggins, my all-terrain hunter. (Photo by Wendy Newell)

Before becoming a dog sitter, I was in sales and traveling three out of four weeks a month. Riggins stayed with my folks while I was away, and during that time our backyard was unguarded and welcoming to other animals. One day when we were home, Riggins trapped an opossum on the chain-link fence. Normally, the odd little creatures would just stop there and not move a muscle until I came and pulled Riggins away.

This time was different. She was not going down without a fight and was hissing at Riggins, her coat looking all torn and raggedy. I was afraid she was sick and told Riggins to steer clear. A closer inspection revealed that her coat wasn’t matted and torn, she was a mom with tiny little babies hanging onto her. Full confession: I’m not a fan of opposums. I think they are mean and more than a little gross, but even my heart melted just a little for the little fluff balls, who had no idea how dangerous an environment for them our backyard was.

Mommy and her babies who where no match for my baby!

Mommy and her babies, who where no match for my baby! (Photo by Wendy Newell)

I told mommy opposum to run and find another home. She did not listen. I suppose I could have done more to keep the family safe, but I didn’t, and Riggins LOVED that. It turns out, baby opossums aren’t very quick because one by one those poor little souls met their maker. For a week, every time I ventured to the backyard, I had to conduct another eulogy and move the victim to a final resting place in the trashcan.

The fact that Riggins killed but did not consume the babies was fascinating to me. He has been known to gobble up a ground squirrel or two. We have gone to a local leash-free hiking area since Riggins was 6 months old. At about 1, he realized he was free to chase all the woodland creatures he wanted. I would pass fellow hikers going the opposite direction, who would cringe and say to me, “He [Riggins] is eating something.” Yup. A ground squirrel. Apparently they are delicious.

Practicing his killing skills with a stuffed skunk.

Practicing his killing skills with a stuffed skunk. (Photo by Wendy Newell)

The last straw, though, was during one hike when he brought the little creature to me and presented it as if I were his queen and he my knight, laying it purposefully at my feet. Riggins beamed with pride while the ground squirrel looked up at me, begging for his little life. Before I could command, “RIGGINS LEAVE IT!” my precious baby boy chomped down on his gift’s head and took off down the hill for a quick snack.

Even a cool mom like me has her limits. Sure, boys will be boys and hunters will hunt, but I was so disgusted (and concerned for his health) that I broke down and got a retriever bell for him. Riggins wore that bell on every hike we took for years. When Riggins celebrated his 8th birthday, it was obvious he didn’t have the speed necessary to catch the woodland creatures anymore. He would try and get close enough to cause little heart attacks in his prey, but he wasn’t able to catch them. He no longer needed his hiking bell.

Sporting his hiking bell.

Sporting his bell. (Photo by Wendy Newell)

Other than the retriever bell, I haven’t done much to stop his hunting fascination. I figure it is genetic, and why should I take that away from him? In fact, when he was supper active, I designed a squirrel death-race in my backyard just to give him something to do.

A carefully placed squirrel feeder lured the bushy-tailed creatures to a tree in the center of the yard. When Riggins spotted the intruder, he would slowly inch forward until it was time to sprint, and then, like lightning, he would make a beeline for the tree. There would be a moment of shock before the squirrel came to his senses and sprang into action, leaping to the nearest tree and then to the fence. It was a long jump, and there was always a chance that the squirrel would fall and find himself face to face with his sharp-toothed enemy.

There is definitely something delicious up in that tree.

There is definitely something delicious up in that tree. (Photo by Wendy Newell)

I always imagined there was a gang of daredevil squirrels in the neighborhood who would “double-dog dare” one another (pun intended) to take on the course in my backyard. It’s how they earned their squirrel street cred.

Even with such a high chance of death, only one squirrel ever met an untimely end on the course, and that was because he was up against Riggins and his friend Lousy, also part German Shorthaired Pointer. It really was an unfair fight of two against one. After that, I stopped putting food out when I had multiple dogs staying with me.

Riggins and Lousy - partners in crime.

Lousy and Riggins, partners in crime. (Photo by Wendy Newell)

Do I feel bad about the opossums and squirrels who shuffled off this mortal coil because of my baby boy? A little. Kinda. Not really. My son’s happiness comes first, and he likes to hunt. What can I say?

How do you cater to your dog’s natural instincts? Let us know in the comments!

Read more about Wendy and Riggins:

About the author: Wendy Newell is a former VP of Sales turned Grade A Dog Sitter. After years of stress, she decided to leave the world of “always be closing” to one of tail wags and licks. Wendy’s new career keeps her busy hiking, being a dog chauffeur, picking up poo, sacrificing her bed, and other fur-filled activities. Wendy and her dog, Riggins, take their always-changing pack of pups on adventures throughout the Los Angeles area, where they live together in a cozy, happy home. You can learn more about Wendy, Riggins, and their adventures on Facebook and Instagram.