News Item | PAWS Chicago

Prey Drive

by Keri Buscaglia | Oct 31, 2014

Understanding and managing the prey-driven dog

The first time one of my dogs brought me a bird, I ran away from him with my arms in the air yelling, “Drop it! Drop it!” As you may imagine, my reaction and calm delivery of these commands did not yield the result I was hoping for. Instead, my hunter just looked at me with excitement in his eyes, patiently waiting for me to gush over this gruesome gift. 

It’s been years since this inaugural experience with a prey-driven dog and yet I react the same way every time a dead animal is gifted to me. Just last weekend, my two dogs were prancing around the yard with their latest victim and I ran away from them, arms waving and yelling for them to drop. 

In addition to the poor chipmunk victim, we have birds, squirrels, deer, raccoons, possums and skunk, all of which our German Shorthair Pointer, pursues with confidence and enthusiasm. She’s even taken down a wild turkey. 

Her prey drive is so strong that she will bust through screen doors, jump fences and open doors on her own, if it means getting outside and making the chase. This ceaseless dedication made me want to know more about prey drive and specifically, how best to channel her behavior to not only keep her safe, but understand how to I could potentially turn this drive into something enriching and positive. 

So I called Joan Harris, Director of Training and Behavior at PAWS Chicago. 

“High prey drive can be a problem because the sight of a squirrel, cat, bird or sometimes even another dog can switch something on in their brain. They become completely focused on their ‘prey’ and if you happen to be on a walk, that could mean a wrenched shoulder, a fall or complete loss of control,” Harris explained, “Or depending on the target, it can also mean a kill or injury.” 

According to Harris, prey drive is a genetically driven instinct that all dogs possess at some level, born from the fact that dogs evolved from wolves. Logically, the canine prey genes present in the dog’s wolf ancestors also has a presence in the modern dog. All dog breeds were developed with a specific task or purpose in mind. Retention of a certain level of inherent drive was important to make them suitable to perform these tasks.

“A healthy dose of prey drive in our pets is exactly what’s fun about our relationship with our dogs because it’s what they rely on to play fetch, Frisbee or tug games,” said Harris, “But if left unchecked, it can also be the source of stressful behavior like chasing after running children or anything else with fast movement.” Harris added that inexperienced pet owners or those with small children may be wise to stay away from adopting a dog that shows signs of having a high prey drive. 

The Stages of Prey Drive

There are five stages of the prey drive: the search, the stalk, the chase, the catch and the kill and Harris said not all dogs show all five stages or with the same intensity. 

“Parts of the prey drive sequence are useful where working dogs are concerned, but can be more of a problem for the average pet owner,” she said, emphasizing that we, as pet owners, shouldn’t reprimand our dogs for exhibiting prey drive, but rather, redirect their attention. 

“There are training methods that work to distract high-prey dogs and can help them ignore the stimulus that triggers certain phases, like ‘the chase’,” she said. 

One habit that is good to get into is learning to scan your surroundings for possible prey your dog might want to chase, Harris suggested, and that means taking mental notes of the route you take on walks to see where the squirrels are or the yard with a dog that elicits a reaction. 

“When you see a prey stimulus, engage your dog so that you get eye contact and then hold that eye contact until you pass the animal,” she said, “Using high-value treats will help establish that your eye contact is much more desirable than the chase.” 

Another training strategy involves developing a strong recall – or having your dog come quickly when called. 

Begin in a controlled environment and then work your way up to practicing in places that present various prey stimulus. 

Next up, your tone of voice. I filled Harris in on my approach; yell until they drop and as anticipated, she wasn’t a fan. 

“That actually feeds into the excitement of it all,” she said, “Yelling at your dog is just going to get them more energized and ramped up about the hunt and the chase. Happy and playful will get you a better response.” 

In addition to training, Harris suggests engaging your dog in activities that are mentally challenging and stimulating. 

“We want to try and replace that desire to hunt and chase with something that will employ their brains and instincts the same way, things like swimming, searching for hidden treats or toys, or even you work to tire them out physically as well as mentally,” Harris said, “One of our most popular classes at the PAWS Chicago Training Center is our nose work class. It’s a great way to develop those senses, challenge your dog and work on controlling its prey drive.” 

The most important takeaway from Harris was more of a reminder than a tip and it’s this: once a dog with a high prey drive, always a dog with a high prey drive. 

“Your dog is who he is and so your best bet is to find outlets for that high energy,” she said, “That means daily physical activity to burn it off and maintain a stable, healthy mind, which is equally important.”

Breeds with Strong Prey Drive

Afghan Hounds, Alaskan Malamutes, Australian Cattle Dogs, Basenjis, Beagles, Bullmastiffs, Doberman Pinschers, Jack Russell Terriers, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Samoyeds, Shiba Inus, Siberian Huskies, Weimaraners, Whippets, and Yorkshire Terriers.

The Working Sequence of Prey Driven Animals

Border Collie: Will use the search, stalk and chase sequence while working sheep on a farm. 

Labrador Retriever: Will use the search, chase, bite and hold sequence while retrieving a duck. 

Terriers: Will use the full prey drive sequence for vermin control.

Tips for managing your prey-driven pooch

Play - They usually enjoy any activity that involves fetching a ball or Frisbee, tugging or chasing. Toys of all sorts are another good release. Dogs can pounce on them and shake them.

Training - Agility, flyball, tracking and nose work classes are all great ways to channel prey drive. See the back inside cover for more about these training classes at the PAWS Chicago Training Center. 

Gear - A solid five or six foot leash and a well-fit collar with your dog’s identification tags will help when it comes to managing your walks. In addition, your trainer may suggest a no-pull harness, head halter or other appropriate tool for training and walking. But remember, all tools can fail, break or malfunction, so training is still essential.

Encountering Other Pets – In and Out of Your Home

Having a high-prey drive dog in the same house as other pets is a challenge, and sometimes impossible. Success depends on the dog’s history. If a high prey drive dog is brought into a home as an adult and has a history of chasing other species, this behavior may be too engrained to reverse. However, if the dog is young it can be conditioned to behave well with other pets; this means no stalking, staring or chasing them. 

Even so, it’s critical to always make sure that your other pets have an escape route and someplace to hide where your dog cannot reach them. And never leave them alone together or let them out unsupervised in the yard at the same time.