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If passing birds distract your dog, or has your dog stopped listening when there are squirrels in the trees nearby? A high prey drive in dogs can making walks challenging, especially in areas with lots of temptation. If you don’t have full control, it is dangerous for your dog, it isn’t fair on the local wildlife, and it can send your stress levels through the roof.
Many of the traditional methods for training recall aren’t enough. If they have a high prey drive, these dogs enjoy hunting so much that they’ll try to hunt rather than do almost any other behavior. But you can find appropriate and safe ways to harness prey drive in dogs while out on walks.
What Is Predatory Behavior?
Predation is an instinctive, natural behavior, and it’s found in all dogs to a certain extent. Breeds bred for their hunting skills, such as Hounds, Terriers, Sporting, and Herding breeds, commonly have strong prey drives. Some dogs may live purely for the thrill of the chase, while others want to catch and kill their target.
Simone Mueller is a professional dog trainer and author of the book “Hunting Together: Harnessing Predatory Chasing in Family Dogs through Motivation-Based Training.” She explains that “predation is a behavior chain consisting of several parts that merge into each other and that are intrinsically reinforcing for your dog. They include orientation in the environment, stalking, creeping towards prey, chasing, grab-biting, kill-biting, possessing, dissecting, and consuming.”
Predation Substitute Training
When Germany banned shock collars in 2007, dog trainers developed a new method for dealing with behaviors related to prey drive in dogs. This method is called “Predation Substitute Training,” and it helps trainers understand and channel the dog’s prey drive into another outlet.
Mueller describes the training as an eye-opener. “You suddenly see the world through your dog’s eyes, and it’s a game-changer for the relationship. You’re no longer the annoying factor who spoils the fun. You’re in this together doing amazing things that your dog loves.”
“Variations of the Predation Substitute Training protocol are a standard part of the curriculum for every science-based, force-free dog trainer in the country,” explains Mueller. She is a passionate advocate for these methods and helps raise awareness of them with a wider audience internationally.
“Conventional training programs are all about preventing or stopping the chase. Predation is ‘the enemy’ that needs to be interrupted or suppressed,” she says.
There are four parts to the PST training methodology, and Mueller emphasizes that they are all equally important:
1. Management and Prevention
Regardless of any training you do, you will never wholly eliminate prey drive in dogs. The more opportunities your dog has to run off and chase, the more they will continue to seek the addictive high this provides. This is why management is such an important part of any program you undertake. If you have a garden, make sure it is secure. It’s also a good idea to invest in a well-fitting dog harness and a long line.
You can set up your dog for success by having realistic expectations. Mueller says, “To be honest, Predation Substitute Training is not a magic pill you can give your dog to stop them from hunting. It is a work in progress. When you are out in an area where there are lots of predatory stimuli for your dog, please make sure to put safety first and keep them on a leash or long line.”
2. Predation Substitution Tools
These tools allow the dog to perform “safe parts” of the predatory sequence. Mueller uses the example of chasing deer. Instead of letting your dog chase the deer, you can teach your dog to stand and stalk the deer.
“Your dog doesn’t have to abort all predatory behavior. They can still stay within the predatory sequence and enjoy the happiness hormones in their body that this action achieves,” she says.
3. Predation Substitute Games
PST offers an outlet for prey drive in dogs through games. While playing these games, dogs have the opportunity to “mimic the parts of the predatory sequence in a safe and appropriate context.” Instead of dissecting prey, for example, they may get the chance to rip apart a bag full of dog treats.
4. Rocket Recall
Many owners think that mastering a rock-solid recall is enough to curb prey-driven behavior. While it is an important part of the solution, a recall isn’t always enough on its own. No matter how good your dog’s recall normally is, it will usually go out of the window once they are in chase mode and dopamine (a feel-good chemical) has been released.
To increase the chances of calling off a dog in chase mode, you’ll also want to work on an emergency cue. Only use this unique word when you really need it, and always pair it with the highest-value rewards.
The Importance of Self-Control
Another big part of the equation is working on your dog’s impulse control. By asking your dog for more calm behaviors while you are playing exciting games like tug, your dog can learn to think, rather than immediately react, when they see a stimulus.
Healthy Ways to Channel Your Dog’s Predatory Instincts
Harnessing the elements of the predation behavior chain that your dog loves is essential. For herding or retrieving breeds, chasing a flying disc or a squeaky ball could be enough. You may want also to try a dog sport like Flyball.
If your dog loves to scent and stalk, teach them what they can safely scent and stalk. These dogs will be ideal candidates for mantrailing and scent work games, as well as the sport of AKC Scent Work.
By taking part in these types of games and activities with your dog, they will learn that you are part of the fun. They may be more likely to focus on you and the games you are playing, not chasing the neighbor’s cat!
Punishment Isn’t the Solution
“There are so many things that can go wrong when working with positive punishment,” says Mueller. Shock collars and electric fences are common tools used to curb predatory behaviors, but they’re not foolproof either. Plus, electric fences can fail. When your prey-driven dog is in a heightened state of arousal, they may still cross the boundary to get to their target, getting shocked in the process.
There are always other training options that work just as well. “Is pain really something that you want to inflict on your dog when there are less invasive forms of training available?” Mueller asks, adding
Ultimately, Mueller reminds us that these techniques rely on inflicting fear and pain. If misused, positive punishment can cause long-term trauma, aggression, and a breakdown of trust.