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Keeping hens for fresh, humanely-farmed eggs and as pets is increasing in popularity, even among city-dwellers who've taken to installing coops in their backyards. However, if you're a dog owner, special considerations need to be made before you decide to keep chickens. To ensure your canine pal respects your hens or other small domestic animals, you must consider basic dog behavior and instinct. Dogs have two responses to small prey animals such as hens: One response is prey-driven; the other is territorial. You need to address and change these innate behaviors.
The Prey Drive
The prey drive is present in all dogs, but stronger in some dogs than others. You can see it in puppies, in the way some will instantly and instinctively go after a tennis ball when it moves, and persist in efforts to obtain it, while others will follow it with mild curiosity or show little interest. Humans select working dogs for a combination of high prey drive and other innate drives important to the work, then put those drives to use through training.
When a dog with a strong prey drive sees or scents nearby prey, he will give chase. Some dogs will persist in the pursuit until the prey either stops and fights, or lies down and appears to die. Some dogs will kill the prey at the culmination of the pursuit; some will walk away.
Your hens, being prey animals, have an instinct to survive, and demonstrate the classic "fight or flight" response if a dog charges. If roosters are around, they will try to defend against the dog while the hens flee. Injuries result all around.
Hens in Danger
Hens are in danger when they are moving, because they may attract the attention of a dog or other predator. If a flock of hens is moving about, gossiping, doing what hens do, they are sure to attract the attention of any nearby dog. If the dog has a strong prey drive, he may run into the flock, scattering the hens, perhaps grabbing some, and causing a ruckus that will bring nearby roosters running to do all they can to protect their flock. Even if the dog is not attacking the hens, the hens are in danger of breaking their necks in the chaos of trying to escape. Some may suffer heart attacks. If the dog has been trained to kill small prey, or if he is bred to hunt small game, the risk to the hens is much higher than it may be if the dog is descended from generations of lap dogs.
For detente to exist between your dog and your hens, you must teach your dog that hens are to be protected, not attacked. If your dog is a herding breed such as a Sheltie, he may be tempted to "herd" the hens; allowing him to do so would only result in injuries to the terrified hens; they are not herd animals, and their instinct is to flee. If the dog is a terrier type, it may be difficult to convince him attacking the hens is wrong, because terriers were selected to be persistent and to "go to ground," pursuing and dispatching prey such as a badger or gopher even when it goes to its underground den. A standard poodle, Labrador retriever or other retriever-type dog may chase down a hen but not attack it, because they were bred to retrieve prey that's been shot. That's little consolation to hens who are running for their lives. Dogs who are highly protective of their territory, which could be any dog, including a bichon or Maltese, may chase or attack hens because they believe they don't belong. Your job is to make the dog understand that the hens do belong.
The first rule, even if you totally believe your canine buddy is a little angel, is to keep the hens in a safe area. Your little angel could reveal the natural predator within and dispatch an entire flock of hens before you realize what's going on. Securely protect the hens from your own dogs, as well as from any roaming visitors such as neighborhood dogs, feral dogs and coyotes. After that's done, train your dog to ignore the hens.
Teach your canine buddy the "Leave It" command, using positive reinforcement. Each time your dog ignores the hens, he gets a treat and the verbal cue "Leave It." You can also pick up a hen and hold her gently in your arms in front of your dog while someone else has the dog safely restrained. Say "My hen (or Mommy's hen, or Daddy's hen), this is my hen," repeatedly, while petting the hen to show the dog that the hen has status in the pack. One thing you have going for you is the dog's natural instincts to please you and protect his pack, so you should be able to successfully teach your dog these manners. This introduction also can work well with your dog when you bring a new cat or kitten into your home.
By Michelle A. Rivera
About the Author
Michelle A. Rivera is the author of many books and articles. She attended the University of Missouri Animal Cruelty School and is certified with the Florida Animal Control Association. She is the executive director of her own nonprofit, Animals 101, Inc. Rivera is an animal-assisted therapist, humane educator, former shelter manager, rescue volunteer coordinator, dog trainer and veterinary technician.