Prey Drive: Friend or Foe in dog training
Nearly all dogs have prey drive in some form. For many breeds this is stronger than others. As a dog trainer we need to understand how this works so we can make it work for us when training.
- The term ‘prey drive’ can mean different things to different people. In one arena it can be a behaviour which is desired and bred for. In another people will pay dog behaviourists to attempt to try and eradicate or re-focus this behaviour. Many dogs are wired genetically more than others to to chase moving things. Given the right environment, opportunity, genetic make-up all dogs can exhibit this innate drive. Prey drive comprises of a sequence of events as follows
- BITE HOLD
- BITE KILL
This completed sequence would be the worse can scenario, but could easily be replicated if a dog self rewards this behaviour. Many dogs will show prey drive, but through training will only complete part of the sequence. The writer’s own dog has a very high prey drive as he is trained as a field dog. He will search, stalk, chase, but will always pull off the chase on a recall command. At other times he will get to the bite hold part and return to me with the bird/throw. Other examples of dogs not completing the sequence are herding dogs. They will search out, stalk and perform a controlled chase. When the owner can control the sequence then the prey drive can be a useful tool and there are many examples in the working dog arena. However, given all dogs have a prey drive to some extent then there are a lot of dogs who have the potential to complete the sequence without being under the control of their owner.
The term ‘prey can be misleading in that people may assume it is a living wild animal. However dogs can exhibit prey drive to anything which moves. The most obvious example would be a dog chasing a ball/toy, which appears harmless fun for many owners, yet the dog completes some of the sequence. Given a ball maybe used by a gun-dog trainer to increase the prey drive of a dog then caution needs to be exercised by this harmless game of throw and chase.
This prey drive can range from chasing pets, wildlife, farm stock, cars, people on bikes and people running. Once a dog has self rewarded this behaviour then it can escalate both in what it considers prey and how far down the sequence it will go if left unchecked.
Prey Drive as a description is used liberally to explain all sorts of chase behaviours from completing part of the sequence to a dog who is actively killing and eating prey. Karen B London challenges the use of this term in dog behaviour because of its overuse to many situations in the dog world. The words ‘prey’ and ‘drive’ have different meanings and to put the words together does not give an accurate description of many of the behaviours exhibited due to this primal survival drive.
As a dog trainer how do I use this to my advantage?
A lot of my training is working with pet gun dog breeds at my training centre. These are one of the group of dogs who have a strong prey drive. It is important to harness this drive and channel it correctly. We want the dog to work in an environment where there will be live birds and have such control they will ignore them. My training facility has a game bird breeding pen next to the field. Around August time there could be 600 plus birds wandering around in preparation for the shooting season.
This makes my field a very high distraction environment and a great place to teach controlling the prey drive in the dog. It is unacceptable to lose one bird to a dog who is out of control so all dogs will be on a long line so they can work in the environment whilst learning to ignore birds who are a few feet away!!
Whilst training dogs, regardless, of breed we are looking to use the dog’s prey drive to focus training and make it fun. We need certain skills in place such as a sit, a stop, a recall, a leave command and a release command. It is only when we have these commands in place can we be somewhat confident we can control the the dog’s prey drive and channel it in the direction we want.
It is important we spend time showing the dog when it has got the ball or training dummy that we are not trying to ‘steal’ it. We need to teach a dog to give us the item freely so that resource guarding does not develop or a ‘chase me’ game starts as you try to get the item. I always advise that we do a swap for the item and let the dog know that is the behaviour we want. They soon learn you are not trying to steal their ‘prey’ and will release for a reward or the game to continue. Think of it from the dog’d point of view. He chased the item and caught it and now you want to steal it!! Approach this the wrong way and it takes a lot of undoing. It is a key skill we focus on at the Pet Gun Dog Breed training we do.