Walking Dogs with a High Prey Drive: Primary Points
- A dog’s prey drive is born of his instinctual desire to capture and consume prey.
- You can use several training techniques to help reduce your dog’s compulsion to chase down small creatures.
- While training your dog, implement management techniques to prevent him from harming any small animals.
It’s a classic comedy scenario — a dog and its owner are out on a walk when a squirrel appears and the dog chases after it, dragging its owner behind like tin cans tied to the back of a newlywed couple’s car.
Though it’s entertaining to watch, anyone with a high prey drive dog knows how unfortunately real and scary that kind of situation can be.
Walking a dog with a high prey drive means being on alert constantly, having to keep an eye out for birds and small mammals like squirrels, mice, rabbits, and cats to prevent your dog from seeing them too.
And if your dog does see the animal, it can result in lunging, charging, broken leashes, injured hands, and the injury (or even death) of another animal.
We hope this guide to walking and training a high prey drive dog will help anyone at the end of their rope (pun intended)!
How Can I Walk a Dog With a High Prey Drive?
Walking a dog with a high prey drive can be very difficult when the dog is constantly lunging after squirrels, birds, or anything that moves! There are a few steps you can take so walks are more walk and less tug-of-war with the leash.
Reward Good Leash Manners
Every time you go on a walk, stuff your treat pouch with high-value rewards.
Throughout the walk, reward good leash manners whenever you see them.
Good leash manners include:
- walking on a loose leash
- making eye contact with you
- returning after getting too far away
- and similar desired behaviors
Reinforcing good leash behavior while your dog is calm is a great way to create a foundation of skills for him to fall back on when he’s too excited by prey to think straight.
Have a Pre-Walk Play Session
Letting your dog get some energy out prior to his walk can help decrease his prey drive, especially if you let him play in a way that mimics hunting.
Some fun ideas for pre-walk play include:
- Paying tug
- Flirt poles
Pre-walk exercise may sound redundant, but it will often help your dog control his impulses better.
If you’ve never played with a flirt pole before, check out the video below to see how it’s done!
Work on Counter-Conditioning
Your dog has an instinctual response to prey that you can’t control, but you can influence the behavior he displays when he sees prey by using a technique called “Open Bar / Closed Bar.”
Implementing the Open Bar / Closed Bar technique is fairly simple:
- First thing’s first: Practice this technique in a secure area, like a backyard or fenced park, with your dog on leash — preferably with a well-fitted harness, since a lot of dog lunging with a flat collar can cause tracheal collapse.
- Walk around for a little while, until you encounter a bird, rabbit, or some other type of irresistible prey. Whenever your dog notices prey and does not lunge or go after the animal, start shoving his face full of high value treats. (If he refuses to take treats, try encouraging him to follow you a few steps backward to put more space between him and the prey).
- Continue feeding treats as long as your dog is not lunging and he can see the prey. Once the prey is out of eye shot again, stop feeding. (If the prey does not leave on its own, walk your dog to another area after five to ten seconds of rewarding so he can decompress.)
That’s it! Repeating this process on a daily basis during training walks will increase your dog’s self-restraint when he notices prey.
Also, keep in mind the following tips when using this technique:
- Practice this exercise on short training walks to begin changing your dog’s response to prey on leash.
- 10 feet away is usually a good starting distance for working on ignoring prey. If your dog struggles with 10 ft away, extend the distance until he can focus on you and ignore the critter.
- Always work with an extremely high-value treat that your dog doesn’t get at any other time. Chicken breast, hot dogs, lunch meats and squeeze cheese are popular choices.
- Understand that it’s harder for dogs to pay attention when there’s an arousal trigger nearby, so training sessions should be kept short and end on a positive note with a few tricks your dog knows reliably.
Additionally, it is important to understand your dog’s threshold for how close you can be to prey without him lunging.
Pay attention to how close you are to prey animals when your dog starts reacting on walks, as well as when he notices prey but does not react (no lunging, barking, snarling, etc. Soft whining and huffing and puffing are okay at this stage).
Noticing prey may make his body language more stiff and alert; look for:
- ears pointed up and forward
- tail out or up
- chest puffed up
- minimal movement
Prey Drive Dog Training: Strategies for Reducing Prey Drive
Training your dog to control his instinctual urge to hunt prey isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible. There are a few things you can work on to give your dog the skills he needs to behave more calmly around prey animals.
- Give your dog extra exercise. Tired dogs are well-behaved dogs!
- Play impulse control games. Dogs love to play, and learning while playing is a great way to keep your dog engaged and make the experience super positive.
- Consider mat training with Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol, a technique used to train your dog to be more relaxed.
- Consider seeking out professional training. Trainers who focus on positive reinforcement behavior modification are your best bet for helping your dog control his impulses.
- Teach your dog Sophia Yin’s “leave it” — a technique specifically created to help your dog ignore distractions on leash (see video below).
It’s important to note that in some cases dogs with extremely high prey drives may never be completely trustworthy around small mammals, cats, or even kids.
If your dog has a history of catching and killing animals, it may be especially crucial for you to seek out professional assistance.
Managing Dogs with High Prey Drives
The techniques described above will help to address your dog’s prey-drive associated behaviors, but they’ll often take time to produce the desired results.
So, in order to prevent worsening the problem and any harm to other animals — or even kids — while you’re working through his issues, try to make sure you’re not putting your dog in any sketchy situations before he’s ready to handle them.
This means implementing a few helpful management options:
- Walk your dog with a properly fitted harness. Using a harness rather than just a flat collar will prevent damage to your dog’s throat. A harness is also less likely to break and is difficult for your dog to slip out of and escape.
- Don’t leave your dog unsecured around small pets. This includes rats, hamsters, birds, cats, and — depending on how severe the issue is — small dogs.
- Don’t leave your dog unattended around young children. Some dogs may even see small children as prey, so you’ll want to exercise extreme care around kids. This especially goes for herders, who may chase and nip (and potentially bite) children who are running around and playing.
Note that you’ll want to take every necessary step to prevent your pooch from actually catching a prey animal. Actually catching an animal will not only be bad for the small critter, but it can also expose your dog to pathogens and parasites.
Additionally, successfully catching an animal will serve as positive reinforcement, which may cause the behavior to become worse. In fact, continual close calls can also exacerbate the behavior.
Accordingly, if you’re having difficulty preventing your dog from catching prey animals, you may want to consider muzzle training to prevent your dog from causing any harm to other animals.
What Is Prey Drive, Anyway?
Somewhere between 40,000 and 15,000 years ago, the domestic dog (Canis familiaris) became a distinctly different species than its ancestor, a now-extinct wolf species closely related to the grey wolf (Canis lupus).
Since then, dogs have been chosen and crossbred by humans to create hundreds of unique breeds for specific types of work.
We’ve made ball-fetching labs, lamb-herding collies, and lap-sitting Lhasas, for example. And it is easy to see that these breeds are all very different from their wolf ancestors.
Even though dogs today are extremely distant from their wolf ancestors, they’ve retained a number of instinctual wolf behaviors. Prey drive, the instinctive drive of predators to pursue and catch prey, is one of the behaviors many modern dogs still retain.
Most predators, including domestic dogs, exhibit something called the “predatory sequence” — a series of steps that occur when a predator tries to acquire food.
The basic steps of the process include:
- Orienting — The dog moves his body and head to face his prey.
- Eye-Locking — The dog locks eyes on his prey.
- Stalking — The dog attempts to get closer to the prey without being noticed.
- Chasing — The dog begins his attack by chasing down his prey.
- Grab Bite — The dog bites to catch his prey, usually making contact with the prey’s rear end or legs.
- Kill Bite — The dog bites to kill his prey, usually on the throat or neck.
- Dissect & Consume bites — The dog rips open his dead prey and consumes it.
For most, these behaviors are displayed during play and are often redirected on toys or playmates in a safe fashion (and they typically stop well before any of the bite-oriented steps).
Some dogs, however, need intense training to prevent them from completing the sequence and going after other animals with the intent to harm.
What Triggers Prey Drive in Dogs?
The most common prey that dogs go after are rabbits, squirrels, mice, and birds. What do those animals all have in common? They move quickly and erratically.
In general, fast and unpredictable movements can trigger a prey drive response in dogs, which means that things other than prey animals can cause that same response.
Breeds With High Prey Drives
Prey drive has been selectively enhanced in some dogs for hunting, sporting, or protection purposes. Here are just a few breeds with notably high prey drives.
Hound breeds arose from the human need for assistance tracking and hunting wild animals. The Rhodesian ridgeback, for example, was originally used to hunt lions. Lions.
It makes perfect sense that these dogs tend to have the highest prey drives; with a powerful sense of smell — and in the case of sighthounds like the luxurious Afghan hound, a superior sense of sight — they’re well-equipped hunters.
Foxhounds, coonhounds, bloodhounds and sighthounds are still used to hunt for sport in modern days and many partake in prey-focused sports like lure coursing, disc dog, nose work and field scent trials.
Not dissimilar to the hounds, terriers were bred to dig up and hunt burrowing mammals like moles, foxes, and badgers.
Their vocal behavior was bred into them, too — the incessant bark of the terrier drives prey out of their hiding spots and into the danger zone. Jack Russell terriers and rat terriers are prime examples of terriers with high prey drives.
Additionally, terrier breeds were crossed with bulldogs to create breeds like the American Staffordshire terrier and the American pit bull terrier. They were bred for “blood sports” like bull-baiting or bear-baiting — which are exactly what they sound like.
These dogs are incredibly strong, loyal, and have high prey drives, which makes them popular picks for illegal dog-fighters.
The major shepherds of the herding dog group — including German shepherds, Australian cattle dogs, Australian shepherds and border collies — were bred with quick reflexes and an astounding chase instinct, which help them protect their flock from predators.
Where hounds and terriers were bred to kill varmints, herders were bred to protect their flock from external threats.
Their prey instincts, in this case, drive them to chase and nip at animals straying from the flock but, when properly trained, don’t usually drive them to kill.
A few breeds in the working group have higher prey drives as well, like Siberian huskies and Alaskan malamutes.
Huskies and malamutes developed high prey drives due to the scarcity of food available in their freezing originating environments.
Any dog may have a high prey drive due to crossbreeding, high energy, and arousal levels, and other genetic and environmental factors. Just like people, all dogs are different and should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Prey Drive vs Aggression: How to Tell the Difference
In some cases, owners mistake aggression for prey drive. There is a distinct difference between the two behaviors that makes them easier to understand: Aggression is driven by an emotion, whereas prey drive is instinctual.
Aggression is the typically the result of strong fear, whether the fear is of other dogs or of the repercussions of not acting on their aggression (as in the case of blood sport dogs).
Fearful-aggressive dogs also frequently make an attempt to get away from their trigger so that they don’t have to be aggressive. For example, dog-aggressive dogs often give plenty of warnings before snapping and biting, like growling, snarling, and lip-lifting.
Dogs with high prey drives, however, seek to get closer so that they can satisfy their needs to chase, catch, and shake (kill). Autopilot takes over and your dog acts on instinct.
On the bright side, this means you don’t have to change your dog’s emotional response to prey, you just have to teach him to control himself.
What Should I Do If I Have A Cat and a High-Prey Drive Dog?
Dogs with high prey drives who live with cats — and have shown prey-driven behaviors around them — should be managed strictly to avoid harm coming to the cats (or your dog — many cats will fight back).
Keep dogs and cats completely separate when you cannot fully supervise them.
For some dogs, this means they will have to be separated unless you’re actively training. For others, it could just mean being kept apart while you’re out of the house for any period of time.
Additionally, you should be sure there are adequate hiding spots for your cat to use.
Living with a predator that has displayed aggressive tendencies can increase a cat’s stress level and cause health and behavior concerns. Having hiding spots that are unreachable to the dog will allow your cat to decompress.
Provide safe ways for your cat to reach elevated hiding spots; you can even rearrange furniture to create a pathway to the tops of shelves, dressers, and cabinets.
Thinking About Adopting a Cat?
If you’re considering bringing home a cat and your dog has a high prey drive, there are a number of things to take into consideration.
- Has your dog ever caught an animal — especially a cat? If yes, did he pull out fur, puncture, or kill the animal? Has this happened more than once?
- Do you have the time and resources to invest in training your dog to have stronger impulse control?
- Do you have the space in your home to ensure your dog and cat remain completely separate when you aren’t actively training?
Keep in mind that if the answer to number one is yes and the answers to two and three are no, you’re setting your dog up for failure and potentially risking the life of another animal.
Prey drive training is not a fast process, and the repercussions of failed training can be severe.
Should I Rehome My Dog or Cat?
If you don’t have the space to prevent your dog and cat from interacting or you simply don’t have access to the professional assistance you need, it may be time to consider re-homing one of the animals.
No one wants to think about this possibility, but the reality is that if you cannot control your dog’s access to the cat — especially if he has a history of killing cats — your cat’s life is at risk.
Impulse control training doesn’t take effect overnight. It’s an arduous process that can take months to years, and some dogs simply cannot reach the level of impulse control needed to live with a cat.
Rehoming a cat with few to no behavioral concerns is going to be easier than attempting to place a high prey drive dog in another home.
If, however, you decide to rehome your dog instead of your cat, be sure to look for owners who have experience working with high prey drive dogs who have the time and resources to do so now. Always be completely honest about your dog’s behavior history.
You can also consider looking into breed-specific rescues and shelters that have a history of working with high prey-drive dogs.
It’s important to keep in mind, however, that dogs with a record of biting or killing other animals may not be adoptable in the long run, and that shelters or rescues may choose humane euthanasia in severe cases.
Dog Prey Drive Test: Is There a Test I Can Use to Evaluate Prey Drive?
If you’re in search of a sporting dog, hunting dog, looking to adopt a dog with a low prey drive, or need simply want to give your dog a prey drive test, there are a few things you can try.
- Throw a ball and see if the dog chases and retrieves it. Observe if he doesn’t chase; chases; chases and picks up but walks away; or chases, picks up, and returns to you with the ball. This tests the dog for any natural retrieval instincts. Dogs who bring the ball back have strong retrieval instincts; dogs who chase but don’t retrieve may have stronger herding abilities (and therefore be more likely to exhibit a high prey drive).
- Run around and see if the dog chases you — note whether or not he nips at your pants or shoes. This tests the dog’s chasing instinct, and indicates whether he has any natural herding abilities. Dogs who attempt to guide you with nips to the ankles and feet have strong herding instincts.
- Try filling out a canine personality profile, or ask shelter or rescue staff to do it for a dog you’re interested in adopting. By doing so you’ll get a better idea of what prey drive looks like in your dog and you can start modifying behaviors that don’t work for you.
Dealing with prey drive is just another facet of being a dog owner. It can feel scary and insurmountable, but following the steps in this guide should give you a framework idea of what it takes to overcome.
Have you owned a high prey drive dog? Do you have any tips and tricks for newbies to the experience? Let us know in the comments below!