Do low-flying birds drive your dog to distraction, or have they stopped listening when there are squirrels in the trees nearby? Walking a dog with a high prey drive off-leash is challenging, especially in areas where there is 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. Hunting is such a pleasurable activity for these dogs that they will seek to do it above all else.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but finding appropriate and safe ways to harness these drives is a much more effective training strategy.
What is Predatory Behavior?
Predation is an instinctive, natural behavior found in all dogs to a certain extent. The hunting skills developed in some breeds are particularly honed. Hounds, Terriers, Sporting, and Herding breeds commonly have strong prey drives.
Some dogs may live purely for the thrill of the chase, and 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 prey driven behaviors. “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 international audience.
“Conventional training programs are all about preventing or stopping the chase. Predation is “the enemy” that needs to be interrupted or suppressed,” she says.
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.”
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 quash the strong drives that your dog has. The more opportunities your dog has to run off and chase, the more they will continue to get 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 and invest in a well-fitting harness and a long-line.
Set your dog up for success and don’t have unrealistic expectations. Mueller offers some sensible advice. She 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 allow the dog to perform “safe parts” of the predatory sequence. Mueller uses the example of chasing deer. Instead, 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 through games where the 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 treats.
4. Rocket Recall
Many owners think that mastering a rock-solid recall is enough to curb prey driven behavior. While it is an integral part of the solution, it isn’t sufficient 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 the feel-good chemical dopamine has been released.
You’ll also want to work on an emergency cue to increase the chances of calling your dog off once they are in chase mode. Only using this unique word when you really need it and always with the highest value rewards is key.
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 frisbee or a ball could be enough, or maybe they would enjoy taking part in flyball.
By taking part in games and activities like this with your dog, they will learn that you are part of the fun and they will be more inclined to focus on you and the games you are playing rather than the neighbor’s cat!
The Importance of Self-Control
Another big part of the equation is working on impulse control. By asking your dog for more calm behaviors while you are playing exciting games like tug, this can help them think first rather than immediately react when a squirrel comes into their line of sight.
Punishment is Not the Solution
Shock collars and electric fences are common tools used to curb predatory behaviors. However, as Mueller explains, “there are so many things that can go wrong when working with positive punishment.” You rely on inflicting fear and pain and, if misused, it can cause long-term trauma, aggression, and a breakdown of trust. Plus, electric fences are not infallible. When your prey-driven dog is in a heightened state of arousal, they may still cross the boundary to get to their target – and get shocked in the process.
Ultimately, as Mueller reminds us, “is pain really something that you want to inflict on your dog when there are less invasive forms of training available?”