A reader is concerned that her terrier is eating dead rabbits and wonders how this behaviour can be stopped. Tony Cruse advises.
Q: I live in a very rural area and we have lots of wildlife surrounding our home. Unfortunately, this winter we seem to have had a lot of dead rabbits. My nine-year-old terrier has no interest in chasing rabbits, but he will stop and eat a dead one if he comes across it. If I approach him when he has one, he ‘wuffs’ at me and runs off, further into the field.
He then carries the rabbit all the way home and I have to retrieve it from him in the garden (which I can usually do after a little while).
How should I tackle this problem? Is there any way I can train him to leave the poor, dead rabbits alone? He is very possessive of them, and is not like this about anything else. However, he is also very greedy and will do most things for food.
Alice Ward, Lincolnshire.
A: Tony says: As dog owners, we often think it’s awful that Fido wants to consume a dead bunny. However, it is a natural behaviour for a dog to want to eat what he perceives as ‘food’. After all, dogs are opportunistic scavengers. Providing the rabbit is infection-free, it actually provides a healthy meal containing everything from protein and fibre to vegetation (from the rabbit’s stomach contents).
Your dog is probably anticipating your reaction, so barking at you and moving the ‘meal’ away from you is his strategy to prevent his meal from being snatched away. Unless it is an absolute emergency, never challenge a dog over something he has found. The dog can become fearful and start guarding items, especially if it is allowed to be repeated.
One way to address this is management, which means preventing your dog from being able to pick up a dead rabbit. So, when in the area, keep him on a lead. Another management tool is a muzzle. If you choose this option, spend some time getting him used to wearing it first.
As a training option, consider teaching a leave command. Repeat this many times, initially away from the rabbits. When your dog hears you say ‘Leave’, it means: ‘Here comes a tasty treat delivered from my owner’. Choose some delicious treats, and without any distractions around, say ‘Leave’ and drop the treat for him.
Do this multiple times on walks, in the house, and in the garden until when you say ‘Leave’, he is looking up and moving towards you. You can then try this near the distractions, such as dead rabbits or anything else he may pick up.