The Problem with Prey Drive

04 Jan
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One of the biggest problems I come across in the behavioural consultancy side of DD, is a very high prey drive.
Every week I get emails from people asking me  to come and consult on what to do about their dog that wants to chase the neighbor’s cat/rabbit/guniea pig or charges after motorbikes or chases deer etc. I had a request for help last week from a family who have a Weimaraner and they are at their wits end because of his need to chase birds while out on a walk.
Prey drive is probably one of the more difficult things to fix because most dogs are natural born hunters, and asking them not to chase something is like asking a guy not to feel attracted to Pamela Anderson as she struts along the beach in a red Baywatch swimsuit!
Some things are just meant to be as far as dogs are concerned… it s very hard to tell a dog whose very breed dictates that he go hurtling after a hare, to sit there nicely as one walks past him, and not want to do anything about it. ‘Apples don’t come from Orange trees’, as the saying goes, and a dog that has a couple hundred years of breeding to chase birds, is not going to sit back while one flies by past his eyes.
I find it staggering the amount of people who go to great lengths to procure a fantastic Springer Spaniel or a gorgeous Weimaraner, and then complain to all and sundry that their dog chases everything and never wants to sit still on the couch. Hmmm..go figure!
Having said that, all is not lost if you have a dog with a high prey drive; there are ways to manage it and to get to grips with the problem. Trust me, I speak from experience.
I have a silver Weimaraner called Nelson or Nelly, as we call him. I adopted him when he was ten months old, from a couple who had just come to the end of their tether with his separation anxiety, his prey drive, his binge eating, the list was endless….
As I tell people all the time, he is the very reason I became a behaviourist; if I could fix him, I can fix anyone, I thought.
When I started out on my quest to fix Nelson’s prey drive it was because I just found it irritating…I’d rescued this beautiful silver dog with wonderful blue eyes and had given zero thought to what lie beneath the skull before I said yes to taking him on. I just thought he’d be a great companion to our family.
Well, on day two of owning Nelson, he ran after a sheep and pinned it to the ground. Dogs are mostly off leash in England and there are sheep fields everywhere, not a great combination if you have a dog with a high prey drive, is it?
Add to that the fact that farmers in England are at liberty to shoot dogs that scare their sheep and this becomes a VERY serious problem.
On day five of owning Nelson, we were in a woods where I knew there were no sheep so he was, yet again, off leash and he, lo and behold, found the only deer stupid enough to come close enough to the highly prey driven Weimaraner. I searched for him for an hour, I don’t think I had ever been so angry.
Anybody spot the completely stupid thing I did there from the get go?
Well…… seriously, what the heck was I thinking letting my dog off leash in the first week of owning him? He didn’t even hardly know me by sight by day two, and here was I letting him loose to run the countryside with some ‘Lassie-fied’ romantic notion that he’d race back when I called, happy to be with his new mum! Man, was I stupid!
I stumbled along for a while, trying training tips from various dog trainers, reading umpteen books and even asked a farmer if I could get Nelson put in with a ram so that he could ‘learn his lesson’, I’m ashamed to say. Thankfully he refused.
It wasn’t until about six months later that I had my breakthrough, and that was given to me by top British behaviourist Kendall Shepherd, who explained to me in depth what Nelson’s drives were and how I should be managing them. From that point on, I researched the breed ((perhaps I should have thought of this sooner, lol?) and started to study dog behavior in depth.
Over the years,  since I started working with dogs professionally, I have worked with many many dogs with high prey drive and the number one thing I do now is first of all, research the breed and find out what is likely to drive the dog.
This may seem like a no brainer but it isn’t…not all dogs are food driven, so merely having a meatball handy when you see a rabbit is not going to cut it. Some dogs are ‘thrill of the chase’ dogs who don’t actually need to kill something, they just want to have the fun of the catching of it. Some dogs are very relationship driven and people pleasers, like Pitt Bulls. Some dogs are very play driven, like terriers and labs. Each dog and each breed has a unique drive that one needs to fully understand before we attempt to change a behavior.
Once I have that foundation in my mind, I start to actually work with the dog and build a relationship wth him that is based on mutual respect and having good old fashioned fun together. You can’t rush this, it takes time and practise…dogs affections aren’t bought that easily I’m sorry to say otherwise all prey drive problems would be fixed easily in hours rather than days.
I’m never going to ask a dog to do more than he can give me, so I operate on what is called the ‘swimming pool effect’; I let the dog ‘dip his toe in the water’ of the situation that’s a problem. Throwing him right in at the deep end is asking too much of him and gives him no practise time to get mentally ready for a situation. Yes, both of us are going to step out of our comfort zone during this time, but we do it gradually, consolidating and then upping the ante, as we do with everything here at the ranch.
Starting at the ‘shallow end’ as it were, we use the relationship that now exists between me and the dog where he sees me as the fountain of all good things, and introduce a very light prey stimulus. This could be a ball being thrown, or one of those silly fur toys with no stuffing in, dangled on a fishing line, it depends on the dog. At that point, I start to use the relationship building tool that I have with that dog and encourage the dog to be with me as opposed to chasing the object of his desire.
Food is honestly not a great idea with prey drive; its fine to have as a reward at the end of a training session but in all honesty, theres not a dog alive who’s going to find a Pupperoni as riveting as a Squirrel…but the dog can definately be encouraged to find YOU far more riveting than a Squirrel. ….and that’s exactly the time I start to use a great ball game or a game of tug of war or something the dog loves so much and knows he can get instantly.
Dogs are premium risk assessors….if the Squirrel is moving quickly and he has to catch it to get it, but on the other hand there’s you, the person he adores and finds most attractive and amazing in the entire world and there you are with that amazingly fun game…? Well, you’re right, he’ll choose his human…and if not, then I’m afraid you’re not interesting enough for him! Go back and work on being more dazzling to your dog!
Sometimes we humans don’t understand the very importance we have in the lives of our dogs and don’t pounce on this core thing to problem solve.
People talk a lot about ‘relationship centred training’ and talk about getting ‘check in’ from your dog, they’ll go on for ages about positive dog training, which I am very much in favour of…but nothing, nothing provides a better foundation for your life with your dog than getting to know him, his drives and building a fantastic friendship with him that supercedes anything the world can offer.
This relationship is not anything to do with how much food you can shove down his neck when you re training him…its nothing to do with taking him for a walk and fixing him great food every day, those are things anybody could do for your dog. I’m talking about taking the time to just ‘be’ with him, to sit, to breathe the same air, to rest and to communicate with no words..to play and really be in the moment with your dog, no cell phones, no texts, no interruptions at all. The kind of care you take to build a relationship with a human friend when you get to know each others likes and dislikes, learn to share laughter and have masses of fun togther. Its the kind of relationship with trust and respect at its very core…soulmates.
Combine this with cool calm confident benevolent leadership and you have a recipe for life with your dog that is going to enrich you both immeasurably.
Over time, you can up the ante, and introduce more exciting stimuli in a controlled situation, where YOU know its going to happen but the dog doesn’t, so that you are always ready with your distraction game. The trick is to remember that it takes time and patience and cannot be rushed.
If a clockwork mouse is a level one distraction and a deer is a level 10, then you clearly need to set your dog up for success and go through the different levels, consolidating each one and really ‘owning it’ before moving on to the next.
You will be setting your dog up for complete failure if  on the first day, you expect him to just see you with a ball and think ‘Ahh….Mum wants to play, I’ll completely ignore that chipmunk with a lamb chop tied to his head’!
More serious cases of prey drive do require more stringent measures,  and very often, professional help .
I’ll be honest, sometimes we have to use an aversive to stop the dog from chasing… by the term ‘aversive’ I don’t mean that we use shock collars, or pinch collars or choke chains etc; everything we do here is designed to help the dog, not maim the poor thing!
Normally we would use the depth of the relationship that we have spent so long building as an aversive…just as a child knows and is shamed by his parents disapppointment at his actions.
Finally, I am always telling my clients to be a cool calm confident leader, and then here I am talking about deep relationship building as a way to conquer or even prevent problems..whats that about? Can we do both?
Of course, its no different to being a parent, really.
Our dogs understand and communicate body language very effectively with us and each other, and they are heirarchical creatures, as are we……
A dog is going to respect a being who is cool calm and confident in the same way that we do as humans. Anybody, or dog, who runs around in circles yelling and screaming, acting all agitated and furious is never going to be looked upon as a viable leader. Your dog expects and wants his leaders to be far more like Clint Eastwood than Richard Simmons, that way he can relax and know that you’ve ‘got this’ and he doesn’t have to go chasing down every bike, truck, kid on roller skates etc out of fear.
Even as a cool calm confident leader, you can still have a closely bonded relationship with your dog….your dog would just prefer that you instill and maintain some boundaries though, and preserve the required heirarchy, so that he can relax. Think of it, yet again, in the same way as building a relationship with your child; there have to be boundaries, even though you love them, so that the child doesnt grow up rude, nasty, spoiled and out of control.
Having a dog with high prey drive can be either a life sentence, or an opportunity for you to really take time to build a different better relationship with your dog, and reap the rewards in every single area of your life together.
I know which I would choose………….

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