When I was a teenager my family got a call from our neighbor to inform us that one of our German Shepherds, Duke, was in the backyard, gleefully tossing a squirrel in the air over and over. We were used to our dogs catching and killing the critters that wandered into our yard, but we’d never seen one of them playing with the carcass before. This was new.
Skunks. Possums. Birds. They all met their ends in our backyard. Duke and Bear were what a trainer I know calls “Ice Age dogs” — the kinds of dogs you want by your side when you’re surviving off the land after the apocalypse. On more than one occasion my family schlepped from door to door late at night, begging our neighbors for every bit of tomato juice and white vinegar they had, apologizing for the horrendous smell choking the entire neighborhood. We had the routine down pat.
After Duke and Bear passed away, it was almost 10 years before I walked into my local Humane Society and left with the cattle dog mix who was sitting quietly in her run between the two more hyper Shepherds I’d come to look at. She leaned up against the bars, melting every time someone stopped to pet her. I knew it was meant to be.
From the beginning, Maybelle was quiet, housebroken, obedient, friendly, and she begrudgingly tolerated my cats. She even loved visiting the veterinarian, but she also had a serious prey drive.
My shoulder joints barely survived those first few months while Maybelle learned to walk politely. Eventually I switched from a flat collar to a harness because she clotheslined herself more than once by sprinting full speed at a squirrel in the distance before I even knew what was happening. This was new to me. Duke and Bear each weighed twice as much as Maybelle and I’d walked them by myself since I was a kid. Despite their killer instinct, they weren’t as focused on the chase as Maybelle is. If you happened to be in the yard when the dogs spotted some unlucky creature, you could tell them no or call them off the chase. But Maybelle has tunnel vision. When a squirrel enters the picture she can hardly see — or hear — anything else.
Despite having a single-minded focus on chasing squirrels — and, when the opportunity arose, deer — I didn’t think Maybelle had it in her to seal the deal and catch one. After a couple of years chasing squirrels up trees and dancing along the fence line as she chased them through the tree tops, she’d never actually caught anything.
This spring she discovered a fledgling bird stumbling around the yard. She squared off with it. The bird squawked in her face and flapped its wings. Anytime the chick ran away Maybelle chased it, but when it stopped to defend itself she’d back off. Eventually the fledgling made it to safety behind the rain barrel, and the Mama bird swooped in to dive bomb the dog. Frankly, it was all pretty funny and it seemed clear that had the dog wanted to kill the bird, she could have.
But everything changed last week. I was sitting in my office when I heard Maybelle barking in the backyard. It wasn’t her normal pathetic, lonely yip that lets me know she’s ready to come in. This was the kind of insistent bark she usually reserves for truly frustrating situations, like when there’s a fly in the house that she can’t catch. I went out to the yard, where she was diving and nipping, like a proper heeler, at the bottom of my grill. At first I thought there must be a bee’s nest (she hates bees even more than flies) but then I saw the dried grass and fur strewn around the grill. And before I knew it, Maybelle had something in her mouth: a tiny, adorable, baby rabbit.
At first, she just pranced around with it in her jaws and I continued to live in denial. Maybe she was like one of those Golden Retrievers on Ihe internet, and she was just looking to adopt this bunny. (Seriously, where do people find those dogs?) Every time she dropped it she would pick it up before I could get to her or the bunny. By then I knew the poor little guy wasn’t going to survive this. And if there is one thing I learned from years of living with our Ice Age dogs it’s that sometimes the best thing to do is just let them finish the job. The only thing worse than having two dogs sprayed by a skunk is to also have a half-dead skunk in your backyard. I sure didn’t want to have to decide what to do with a mortally wounded cottontail.
Maybelle, clearly sensing my resignation, then began to do something neither of our Shepherds had ever done. She swallowed the bunny — choked it down like a snake with a field mouse.
I. Was. Horrified.
It’s pretty clear that I was no stranger to dogs with a predatory instinct. Every cat I’ve ever had, even the indoor ones, caught rodents and left them as disgusting little gifts for me. But I’d deluded myself into believing Maybelle was just in it for the chase, when, apparently, she was actually hoping to get a meal out of it.
I was angry, even saddened, by this dog-on-bunny violence in a way I’d never been before. It was like she’d done something to personally affront me, though that seems unreasonable. Every once in a while you hear about some poor dog who has been labeled vicious because he killed a cat, and I think, “Isn’t that what dogs do?” I mean, no one comes to my house and threatens to put my cat down because she’s a serial killer of moles, so why are some people so bothered by the idea that our dogs still harbor predatory instincts (and sometimes act on them)?
My best guess is that Maybelle is a cattle dog/hound mix; a combination of breeds with strong desires to chase, whether it be to herd or hunt. I shouldn’t be surprised when she actually manages to catch her quarry. She may be a world-class cuddler, but when it comes down to it, I’ve got another Ice Age dog.
Have your dog’s basic instincts ever done something to shatter the illusion of your pampered pooch?
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About the Author: Theresa Cramer is a journalist and editor by trade, a NPR addict, and an avid gardener. She blogs at Writer on the Prowl, where you will find pictures of her garden, her pets, and musings about whatever is on her mind. She is working on a book about content marketing, and how to make the transition from journalist to brand journalist.