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'Prey Drive' in Dogs, Part Two

What can be done about it?

A dog’s impulse to chase and capture moving objects—running, rolling, bouncing or floating—is no mystery, even to those who don’t own dogs. In , I talked about why dogs chase things. Now let’s see what can be done to manage that instinct.

Meet Rusty, a husky mix with a taste for the neighbor’s chickens. The invisible fence won’t hold him. His owner’s commands fall on deaf ears. But the neighbor’s threat to shoot the dog are being heard loud and clear.

Next, there’s Meghan, a lovely and cheerful sable collie. In my teens, Meghan and I earned a CD title in the obedience ring but when my town instituted leash laws in the early 1980s, my mom tethered Meghan in the front yard. Restricted to and frustrated by her limited range, Meghan’s herding and chasing instincts got the better of her and she bit the ankle of a passing cyclist. Because I was leaving for college and didn’t want to leave misunderstood Meghan in a risky situation, I re-homed her with a family in upstate Michigan. Meghan lived a long life, surrounded by love and a variety of farm animals, all of whom were willing to be herded.

Finally, Bucky, a young and playful Labrador/hound mix from the Roar in Ridgefield. As a puppy, he loved to chase butterflies and ankle wrestle. But now he’s a big boy—almost 6 months—and he’s graduated to larger targets including the cat, the kids and the school bus.

What do these dogs have in common? Prey drive. Most dogs have it in varying degrees and it can be seen emerging in very young puppies. In puppies and young dogs, the prey drive and play drive live in tandem, so you can use clever games that embrace both instincts to shape your dog’s behavior. You’ll need an obsession toy—one that grabs and holds your dog’s attention—and a repertoire of games including catch-it-if-you-can. I’ll discuss games in detail next week.

As a young puppy matures, he will focus on bigger targets—which brings us to remedying the impulse in older pets, once their drive is interrupting the serenity of their surroundings. 

To discourage a dog’s prey drive, consider two things: the breed/mix breed’s impulse and the intensity of their reaction. Interrupting a dog’s intense focus can result in displaced aggression—especially with instinctive breeds from the terrier and Nordic group, where a dog—unnaturally restrained from chasing, impulsively lunges at whoever is nearby. These bites can be as wounding as the one intended for capture. If your dog’s intensity has reached this level (as did the husky’s in the above example), don’t put yourself in danger. Seek a professional’s help to resolve your situation.

For dogs whose prey drive gets peaked by everyday stimuli such as kids and cars, refocusing their attention with chasing games (tune in next week) as you rig situations to catching and correcting the thought process can temper and focus their reactions to more appropriate activities. To curb the drive, use a leash, retractable leash or long line and watch your dog’s ears, eyes and head position.

The moment the head drops and the eyes narrow their focus on the target is the second you need to tug back, discourage them with “no,” and refocus their attention on their obsession toy. With a long line or retractable leash, you can position yourself further from your dog’s side to ensure it’s not your presence that shape your dog’s self control. 

Continue to share your questions and stories.  Happy tails!

fivefoothumansore October 04, 2011 at 04:04 AM
Here's an idea, take the dog somewhere it can run or get a leash. Let's let dogs be dogs. Oh those pesky instincts, let's engineer them out of the animal, rid living things of all instincts. Another example of the ridiculous times we find ourselves. Pick up a stuffed animal, it'll do whatever you want, you'll be a lot happier. Let the dog be a dog.
Sarah Hodgson October 04, 2011 at 01:46 PM
Hi five-foot! you bring up an excellent point and one I thought I clarified in my article but I'm glad you've allowed me to elaborate. Asking a dog not to chase things is like asking a child not to play! Dogs chase, and they bark, and they chew! some, due to personality or breed specifics, more than others. The goal is to give them appropriate outlets so they don't harm themselves or others. too many dogs are ending up homeless because they don't have appropriate outlets for their drive and they having loving but uneducated owners. You're probably right that there are some people that shouldn't have dogs, but if everyone just gave up on them--where would we be? Shelter life is not a perminant solution and stifles the natural expression of dogs! So lets band together to help educate people how to shape instincts and how to find more appropriate outlets. Long lines are great to help people give their dogs freedom to run/play while still maintaining control. Thanks for your input! Sarah
Francis Goudie October 04, 2011 at 02:05 PM
Depends too on breed. Specifically, shepherds and sight hounds (greyhounds, salkis, etc) were made to herd or chase what they see. Pit bulls, bull terriers were made to fight, and retrievers were made to (go figure!) retrieve. A lot of the thinking has been done already when you select a specific breed....so don't buy a beagle when you really need a bichon.
Sarah Hodgson October 04, 2011 at 06:34 PM
I couldn't have said it better myself! Thanks for your insights.

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