Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."
The Dangers of Dogs Chasing Cows
The behavior of dogs chasing cows isn't without risk. While cows look like rather peaceful animals, when they are in a state of panic, they can potentially injure and even kill a dog.
This is especially true when there are calves to protect. A study found that cows found dogs more threatening than unfamiliar humans. This is possibly because dogs resemble potential predators. Dogs can therefore be attacked by cows and risk being easily crushed, butted or trampled to death.
Not to mention, if a dog manages to escape and starts chasing a farmer's livestock such as sheep or cows, a farmer has the legal right to shoot and kill your dog. This law is in place in many states in the USA, and it goes back over a hundred years.
In California, landowners are allowed to put out poison on their own property to control livestock-killing dogs, as long as they post conspicuous warning signs regarding the poison, according to Liz Gjelten in an article on Nolo.com.
Regardless of whether your dog is alive, shot or poisoned, you will be financially held responsible for any damage to the property or animals.
Therefore, it goes without saying that you are responsible for your dog's behavior. It's your responsibility to keep your dog on a leash around farms and prevent them from causing any unnecessary stress or harm to farm animals.
Why Do Dogs Chase Cows?
Despite being fed in shiny bowls and allowed to sleep on our comfy beds, our modern, domesticated dogs retain strong instincts reminiscent of their past as hunters.
A dog's predatory drive instigates dogs to become attracted to the sight and scent of ‘prey’ animals and their instinct to chase such animals, should they start to run away, are very strong.
Dog owners are often baffled when their dogs are found chasing cows or other livestock and this is often because they tend to undervalue their dog’s innate predatory drives, and at the same time, overestimate how well their dogs are trained.
Cows act as a very strong distraction to dogs, and not many dog owners have had the opportunity to train their dog's recalls under such level of distraction.
Some dog breeds may be more predisposed to chasing cattle than others. This can be because many dogs were selectively bred to herd livestock and are therefore naturally drawn to movement and herding groups of animals.
How to Stop Your Dog From Chasing Cows
As seen, dogs have their own reasons for wanting to chase cows. It goes without saying that you'll need to intervene as quickly as possible to prevent your dog and the cows from being hurt.
Lower Your Expectations
Unless you have a dog with whom you have developed a very strong bond and trained for a very long time, you can't expect training to sink in to the level of proficiency required to control the impulse of chasing cows or other livestock.
You are battling against ingrained instincts here, and controlling such instincts requires advanced training and a good level of doggy impulse control. This won't happen overnight, so you will need to manage your dog in the meanwhile, preventing rehearsal of the chasing behavior and gradually working your way towards a level of proficiency.
Even then, you can never totally rely on training to keep your dog safe. If your dog escapes the yard to chase cows, or worse, you have no fence, you can't expect him to resist the temptation of chasing cows given the opportunity, just as you wouldn't trust a toddler kept unsupervised nearby a road full of traffic, especially when boredom may sink in.
If your dog is walked on trails, and he takes off after cows, you can't expect him to come when called once his instincts take over if he wasn't trained enough to deal with this level of distraction. Once again, you'll need to spend time training a firm foundation in presence of a variety of stimuli and situations before expecting a reliable response.
Failure to train adequately in advance and then letting your dog off-leash too early can prove disastrous especially with young, inexperienced dogs.
Prevent Rehearsal of the Problematic Behavior
When dogs get to practice problematic behaviors, those behaviors tend to put roots, becoming more and more established and difficult to overcome. Practice makes perfect, so if your dog has just started chasing cows, nip the behavior in the bud by preventing future rehearsals.
Management will therefore be your best friend. Management entails taking steps to prevent your dog from rehearsing the problem behavior until you are able to actively work on the behavior. In many cases, management may be the best solution and the safest option.
If you must therefore walk your dog near meadows where cows graze, keep your dog on leash, and walk him at a distance from the cows so the temptation is lower.
If your dog escapes the fence, fix any holes or weak spots, and take steps to prevent your dog from escaping such fence. There are many fence ideas for dog owners nowadays.
If you do not have a fence and cannot afford one, there are also some ways to keep your dog outside without a fence. You'll need to ensure such methods will withstand though your determined dog.
If it will take some time to erect some type of fencing or build a dog run, putting your dog on a leash or long line before exiting the door can be your best temporary management tool.
Training a Reliable Recall
All dogs should be trained a reliable recall. This cue can save your dog's life and keep him out of trouble. You cannot expect though to have your dog respond to your recall in presence of cows if he struggles coming when called when out in the yard with nothing going on or when he sees birds or squirrels.
Training a reliable recalls requires lots of practice and foundational work. You'll need to gradually expose your dog to more and more distracting situations and at increasing distances, raising criteria slowly and at your dog's pace. You'll need to reward your dog generously for ignoring tempting sights and choosing to come over you.
Only once the recall is proofed, can you expect a good level of response, although there is no such thing as a 100 percent reliable recall. Dogs are not robots, and a day may come where they may be exposed to a situation you haven't yet practiced with.
Here are some tips for training your dog to come when called. If you are ever not sure whether your dog will come when called in a specific situation, keep him on leash just to be sure. Every time you call your dog and your recall goes to deaf ears, you are weakening it.
Remember: owning a dog is a big privilege, but it is also a big responsibility. Always make sure your dog is not a nuisance.
Provide Outlets for Natural Instincts
You cannot totally get rid of a dog's instincts, but you can ask for alternate behaviors (always rewarding generously) and provide some outlets for their instincts.
For example, you can have your dog herd "rolling sheep" by engaging him in the sport of Treibball or you can have him chase "fake ducks" by enrolling him in the sport of flyball. Playing with toys can reduce your dog’s desire to ‘play’ with other animals such as cows while releasing any pent-up energy through exercise.
And on top of exercise, don't forget to provide mental stimulation through food puzzles and fun brain games!
In Case of Danger
There are things that everyone should remember. The classic is avoiding getting between cows and calves. Plus, keep dogs on leads, but if your dog is being threatened by cows, let them go. Cattle will chase dogs instead of you
— Stuart Roberts, the deputy chairman of UK's National Farmers’ Union (NFU)
- Fraser-Williams AP, McIntyre KM, Westgarth C Are cattle dangerous to walkers? A scoping review Injury Prevention 2016;22:437-441
- Welp T, Rushen J, Kramer DL, et al. Vigilance as a measure of fear in dairy cattle. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2004;87:1. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2003.12.013
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Adrienne Farricelli
Sp Greaney from Ireland on January 08, 2021:
This occassionally happens where I live and farmers get very annoyed with dog walkers. It's really the responsibility of the dog owners to ensure the dog is trained to react when called. This is very good advice.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 08, 2021:
We have never been presented with that particular problem, but I can easily see where it could be a problem on farms, etc. Your advice, as always, is good.
FlourishAnyway from USA on January 07, 2021:
You are so right that it is a privilege to own (parent) a dog and with that comes responsibilities of keeping them safe through proper training and safety measures like fencing, oversight, and leashing. It’s hard to fight genetics!
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on January 07, 2021:
This is an interesting article, Alrienne. I think all anial protect their young, so I guess this is no surpirse. I never had a dog around cows, so this is all new to me.