Somewhere toward the end of the last ice age, we formed an alliance with wolves: Maybe the ancestors of dogs got food scraps while our own ancestors gained protection from predators and other humans. These social species eventually collaborated on a vast scale, possibly even hunting woolly mammoths together.

Illustration of a dog with a tree
Rachel Stern

Since then, our relationship has gone through a few updates. We became herding partners, and now we’re beloved best friends living in heated homes. But there’s one part of this shared lifestyle still in need of modernizing: the tendency to let dogs chase, injure or kill wild animals. Domestication has not dampened their primal instincts, and even small pooches sometimes believe they can take on the wild world with their teeth. 

Scroll the social media feed of any wildlife rehabilitation center to see the sad results: From Washington, D.C., to Atlanta to Oklahoma to Seattle, the stories of maimed songbirds, snakes, turtles, opossums, otters, raccoons, rabbits, foxes and fawns repeat themselves. Sometimes animals have no visible injuries but have been chased to exhaustion. Even sadder are the countless conflicts we rarely hear about: those wild animals killed outright by dogs or by humans who think their pets should have exclusive use of the outdoors. Bears and coyotes, attracted to human-made food sources, end up being punished for problems that people could have easily prevented. 

The impact of free-roaming cats on wildlife has long been a hot topic, but the role of dogs gets less attention. Many people see antagonism toward wildlife as natural behavior and therefore intractable. Describing her Scottish terrier puppy’s harassment of a black rat snake and his delivery of a groundhog to her door last year, my neighbor responded blankly to my expression of sadness by saying, “He’s a ratter. That’s what they do.”

The impact of free-roaming cats on wildlife has long been a hot topic, but the role of dogs gets less attention.

When I relayed that conversation to HSUS senior director of urban wildlife programs John Griffin, he noted that splintered attitudes toward wildlife often culminate in dog-wildlife encounters. “If that terrier brought them a charismatic species—a fledgling robin or Eastern bluebird,” he says, “then it would probably be a different feeling. That’s part of the bias that exists.”

Create a haven for wildlife.

A humane backyard is a natural habitat offering wildlife plenty of food, water and cover, plus a safe place to live free from pesticides, chemicals, free-roaming pets, inhumane practices and other threats. And it's so easy to build!

humane backyard with a bench and birdbath
Meredith Lee / The HSUS

Being a friend to animals means considering not just our pets and the wild animals we cherish, but also those who have little to no perceived value or legal protection. In many states, groundhogs can be killed all year, as can coyotes and other animals viewed as “pests,” with no limits on the numbers. Open seasons on raccoons, skunks and opossums often last for many months. Add other forms of human destruction—pesticides, habitat removal—and it’s a wonder these animals have anywhere left to go where they are not under constant stress. The least we can do is avoid unleashing our dogs on them, too. Here are some steps to keep both dogs and wildlife safe. 

fence iconDon’t rely solely on fences. Fencing inhibits quick escapes—a lesson we learned when our dog cornered an opossum at midnight. Thankfully my husband intervened in time, but that was the end of those late-night leashless walks. Especially at night and at dawn, when wildlife are most likely to be out, six-foot leads can help prevent conflict. 

Walking dog iconCreate structure. We all thrive on routines, and dogs aren’t the only smart animals in our environs. Squirrels, deer, rabbits and many others take note of times and places that appear safest. Take your dog out around the same times every day when possible, and create pathways she can follow.

Rabbit in tree stump iconLearn who shares your space. Do you have a persimmon tree where an opossum eats fruit in autumn? A potting bench that a skunk hides behind? A shed where foxes are raising their kits below? Your dog will sniff them out even if you don’t. Learning the habits of wild animals will help you give them the space they need.

Binoculars iconKeep an eye out. A dog’s obsession with a certain spot in the spring, for example, might indicate a pending attack on a rabbit nest. Armed with this knowledge, you can pull her away, add a temporary barrier that allows rabbits to come and go but prevents dog access, and leash your dog until the rabbits have grown. When you see dogs harassing wildlife, you can also redirect their instincts, making noise and offering treats to distract them.

Bird feeder iconRemove concentrated attractants. Bird feeding leads to some of the most preventable and sometimes devastating conflicts between humans and wild mammals. It can also make wildlife more vulnerable by attracting them in large numbers to the same spot. Birds find far more food and shelter in native plantings anyway, so I encourage people to create habitat that helps all animals and diffuses their presence across landscapes. (Extra bonus: Wildlife gardens offer the best Cat TV for our indoor feline friends!)

Being a friend to animals means considering not just our pets and the wild animals we cherish, but also those who have little to no perceived value or legal protection.

Most of all, remember that just because dogs were originally trained to hunt wildlife doesn’t mean they can’t be retrained, or at least redirected, now. Terriers may have once been “ratters,” but my neighbor would no sooner expect him to catch rats than woolly mammoths. Rather than allowing pets to terrorize groundhogs and black rat snakes (who actually are ratters), why not think of them as partners in a new endeavor, one that forges a more peaceful coexistence? 

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