The Power of Prey-er

I’ve heard some trainers talk about prey drive as though it’s something you can condition out of a dog. But a dog’s prey instinct is installed at the factory, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. All we can do is find creative ways to work with it.

Sierra has a prey drive like no dog I’ve ever seen. Granted, I’ve never had Border Collies, but still; she has infinite patience, and is a super-efficient hunter. The back of our house is littered with dead mice, lizards…you name it. I’m just glad she has a natural fear of rattlesnakes. Her backyard twilight hunting adventures are not a problem, but her instantly flashing into prey drive mode at the sight of other dogs when we’re out for a walk at the park is an issue. That, and the fact that if Bodhi is near her when it happens, she’ll turn on him and snap repeatedly in an attempt to guard the prey from him, even if it’s at a distance. Her behavior has the bonus effect of sending Bodhi over the edge into reactivity. Nice, eh?

Once Sierra has morphed into Prey Drive Girl (can’t you just see the red cape and the big P on her chest?), it’s as though the outside world doesn’t exist. She’ll go from walking happily along to suddenly focusing intently on something in the distance. She’ll then lower her head and slide into her Stalk Walk, body slinking along gracefully as she remains zoned in on the object of interest. In those cases where I don’t let her get close enough to greet the other dog (which is most of the time), the sequence sometimes ends with her exploding at the end of the leash in frustration. At other times, especially if the dog-owner team is moving toward us, she lies on the ground in wait for the other dog to come closer. On the few-and-far-between occasions when I allow her to greet, she’ll quickly shed the prey pose like a cloak, and walk or run up to the dog. This often ends with her play-bowing.

Sierra’s behavior appears to be identical to the traditional search, eye-stalk, chase sequence. But because she’s never attempted to grab and shake a small dog, and because she does this to large dogs a well as smaller ones, some people might say it’s not true prey drive. (It is.) Of course, that’s probably not much comfort to the nice, unsuspecting dog owner who comes walking up the dirt path with her little Cocker Spaniel and spies Sierra lying on the ground, head low, staring intently at her dog. Let’s just say a lot of owners give us a wide berth.

When I used to let Sierra play with other dogs in the park, she would stalk them before they’d even entered. She’d be wandering around having a good ol’ sniff-fest when suddenly I’d see her lying in the middle of the park, stock-still, staring intently at something outside the park. Most often, this was because she’d spotted a dog and owner in the distance, headed toward the park. That was fine with her…she could wait. And wait. And wait… finally, the dog would enter (although some, upon spying Sierra, tried their best not to come in), and Sierra would spring up and rush at them. She never, ever attacked a dog, regardless of how small it might be. It was always more of an obnoxious, greeting ritual. Once she’d reached the dog, she’d either jump on them to encourage play (did I mention obnoxious?), or trigger a mutual sniff-fest, or, as she did in a few cases, suddenly put on the breaks just as she reached the dog as if to say, “Oops, sorry, you’re obviously not a fan of the prey-and-play style of greeting. My bad.”

So how do you deal with a dog who’s not at all interested in your treats, toys, or anything else once she’s in prey drive mode? What I’ve done is to go back to basics and condition a super-rock-solid attention response. When I say her name, no matter the distraction, I expect Sierra to look at me. We started doing this on walks when no one was around, and then when people were off in the distance that she was midly interested in, working our way up to other dogs at a distance, and then closer. Naturally, she is rewarded with a super-yummy treat for complying. I keep the treats rotating so she never knows what she’s going to get, and they retain their novel appeal.

Being attentive to Sierra’s body language is another part of the solution. I can tell, even from the back with her walking out ahead of me (walks are not taken with her by my side the entire time—the dog’s gotta sniff), when she’s first spotted a dog in the distance. At that split second, I call her name. Then I’ll usually say, “With me,” which is our version of a loose leash heel. We’ll either turn and walk in another direction, or, if I think she can handle it, we’ll pass the dog at a distance. Sometimes I’ll just ask her to sit and stay. So far it’s been working well. Early this morning as we were crossing the field from the parking lot to a dirt path, we encountered a man taking his white husky mix out of the dog park. I was able to have both dogs sit, and kept Sierra’s attention as well as Bodhi’s, thereby keeping her calm and also helping Bodhi to remain calm, watching me rather than erupting at the other dog.

I won’t pretend this issue is “solved”—it’s not, by a long shot. But we’re working on it. I’d suggest to anyone working with this challenge to not only train attention, loose leash walking, and sit-stays (first at home and then gradually around stronger and stronger distractions), but also to use impulse control exercises such as tossing a ball but asking the dog to wait until released to go and chase it. “Leave it” can come in handy as well.

The other part of the solution is to give the dog legal outlets for that drive. Chasing a ball is great, as is chasing a furry, squeaky mouse (stuffed!) on a long rope, lure coursing, and other things of that nature. I’ll even let Sierra chase birds and bunnies that are safely behind fences at the park. You can’t take the prey drive out of the dog, but you can certainly attempt to live in harmony with it.

6 Responses to The Power of Prey-er

  1. Places and Pets says:

    Thanks Nicole – your writing is great – just makes the whole sequence come alive – the humor is awesome. Now when I think of Sierra, I’ll probably always visualize the red cape.

  2. Caryn says:

    I love this article. There is so much truth here.

    I managed to work squirrel-drive out of Parker after about 6 months of intensive work and clicker training. He is what I call “bomb-proof” now when it comes to the sweet little critters. We’ve had them run across him path, run up to him and stare him down, and Parker just sits there and looks at them and then at me.

    Better believe we’ve got the jackpot of all treats for those moments. 😀

    That being said, there are other critters that he hasn’t generalized this behaviour to and there, his prey drive still exists.

  3. dakota says:

    Love it! I remember these stages with my little Jill Russell Terrorist rescue. Thanks.

  4. Sara says:

    I think we need a lot more research into obsessive-complusive behaviors, especially with what is actually happening in the brain before we can successfully treat the symptoms. Tough stuff.

  5. Jenni says:

    Awesome article/blog Nicole! I have the exact same ‘issue’ with both my dogs, the older one has now mostly calmed down and looks to me for treats whenever there is another dog or anything exciting. Loved how you described the lying down waiting mode, this is my girl! But my girl, like your Sierra would then only sniff a dog at a park before returning to me to play ball. It is our youngster pup that at 7 months has developed this intensity on other dogs outside our house. Bring a dog into our yard and he plays beautifully. Meet the same dog at the park, and we have a barking, lunging and crying dog who is resisting treats of all levels (chicken, cheese etc! The real good stuff). I will start doing more attention and sit-stays to make these fool proof, then add in the leave it! We shall slowly build this up. 🙂 Thanks so much for your tips and advice!

  6. Grace says:

    I think it’s a lot easier to even out the prey instinct with a puppy – my puppy had to focus on and then hunt any moving animal in his kingdom (a kingdom which expanded to include the entire park when we went out walking). But soon after I got him at 11 weeks, I would hold him in my lap while the baby squirrels came up to get nuts from us, and he gradually, over a couple of months, arrived at a place where he still was intensely interested and watchful, but had quashed the impulse to leap at the little guys. Our phrase for watching but not chasing is “enjoying nature”. If he alerts at dogs or other animals now, as soon as I say ‘that’s not going to happen, we’re just enjoying nature”, he relaxes completely.

    Yesterday we walked off-leash through the local golf course, passing within a few yards of a jackrabbit. The jackrabbit startled and hopped away – Charlie watched it, enjoying nature, but made no attempt to chase it. Nearby golfers stood with jaws dropped, and then showered him with pats and praise. He accepted the accolades, but really couldn’t see what the big deal was.

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