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Why your dog has a high prey drive (& what to do about it)

If your dog’s obsessed with birds, squirrels, rabbits or has an intense desire to track scents - this blog is for you. 

We spent some time with high prey drive expert Tracey McLennan to get all the answers to your prey drive challenges - so you can learn how to work with your dog’s prey drive rather than against it. 

Why do some dogs have a high prey drive?

In part, prey drive can be something your dog is born with. It’s in their genes - for example if you have a spaniel, they were bred to be interested in birds! Or if you have a beagle or dachshund, they were bred to use their nose to hunt.  

The other thing that influences prey drive in a dog, is learned life experience. 

Tracey says “People often feel very guilty about this. But it's not within the control of one person to determine what the dog is going to learn. If every time you step out the front door there are birds - and your dog has a predisposition to be interested in them - there’s not much you can do to prevent that interest growing.”

Trying to avoid the things that get a high prey drive dog excited and turn on their genetic predispositions can make life very difficult. So Tracey works with prey drive - not against it. 

Does prey drive decrease with age? 

It’s often during adolescence that you start to see signs of prey drive emerging. 

Tracey says that during adolescence it’s natural for a dog to become more exploratory and to become more confident being further away from their owner. During this period, it can seem as if by magic that prey drive problems have started. But in reality, it’s during this exploration that a dog starts to encounter highly exciting prey animals. 

Breed characteristics can give you an idea of what your dog might be interested in as they hit adolescence. If you pay attention when your puppy is young, with a keen eye for interest in prey - you can begin working on and rewarding engagement with you around exciting animals that catch your dog’s attention. 

Can you train prey drive out of a dog? 

Tracey says no, and trying to do so can lead to much worse behaviour problems and have a negative impact on your relationship with your dog. 

Early scientists who studied animal behaviour like Pavlov and Skinner, would deny access to natural animal behaviours to increase the likelihood and motivation in the animal to perform the behaviour during their studies.  

For example, they would confine rats in a small space where movement was restricted, before releasing them into a maze to run. Or with dogs, they’d restrict their access to food before a trial, so the dog was more motivated to work for the food during the experiment.

Denying an animal access to the thing they want will increase motivation in the animal to desire the thing more. And to this end, it stands to reason that denying a dog access to prey will only serve to increase their desire and motivation to get to it. 

As frustration builds, high prey drive dogs can become very difficult to manage and behaviour problems can develop. 

If everytime you step out the door, you’re a barrier to your dog accessing or doing the things they so deeply desire - your relationship with your dog can also break down. 

This is something Tracey sees frequently, and something that she wants to reaffirm is nobody’s fault. The human end of the lead is doing their best and following advice that they’ve received when trying to fix the problem. 

But there is another way… Tracey believes attempting to suppress natural behaviours is not the answer. 

Instead, Tracey advises to find ways to involve yourself in the fun your dog finds in their environment and around prey.  So let’s look at how you can do that! 

Prey drive substitution

Spend some time figuring out what your dog’s needs are in relation to prey - because they’re not all the same. Your dog’s breed can give you some ideas, but the best way to discover your dog’s motivation is to watch their behaviour and use play to investigate!

Hunt/Search - Orient - Eye - Stalk - Chase - Grab/Bite - Parade - Kill/Bite - Dissect - Consume

You need to figure out which part of the prey drive sequence your dog finds value in. 

You can test with toys to see which part of the prey drive sequence motivates your dog. For example, with a toy do they like the chasing part of the game? Do they immediately want to grab it and shake it? Or do they like to dissect or eat?

Toys for high prey drive dogs

For a dog who enjoys the chase part of the prey drive sequence, chaser toys are a brilliant way to give your dog an outlet for their natural prey drive. 

Similarly for a dog who enjoys the orienting or stalking part, you can use a chaser toy with a super long handle to mimic prey and give them a safe way to play with prey. 

For dogs who enjoy the hunting and searching, using a toy to play games like ‘find it’ is a brilliant way to allow them to hunt for something that won’t land them in trouble. The Clam is brilliant for this as you can pop smelly treats inside for your dog to sniff out and find. 

The Clam is also brilliant for dogs who enjoy dissecting and consuming part of the sequence, as your dog has to use their paws and nose to ‘dissect’ the toy to get to the hidden treats inside. Then they get to eat their ‘prey’ - which is the ultimate reward!

Tap into 7 ways your dog’s prey drive can power up your play here. 

Activities for dogs with high prey drive

Gundog training for high prey drive dogs - yay or nay?

People often recommend gundog training for high prey drive dogs. Tracey says this is great - because during gundog training, the dog is rewarded with the thing they love most! 

Gundog trainers are not trying to stop the dog from having an interest in the pheasants. They want the dog to have an interest in the birds so that they have a drive to find the pheasants. They do a lot of obedience and self control training but in the end, the dog gets the reward they want the most - to go and find the birds! 

Look for a gundog trainer who uses positive reinforcement training and who works with pet gundogs so that both you and your dog enjoy it. 

Mantrailing for high prey drive dogs - yay or nay? 

Mantrailing is a great enrichment activity to do for dogs who enjoy hunting and tracking scents. A dog follows the scent of a human to follow their trail and locate them. 

Tracey says this can be a brilliant activity to do with a high prey drive dog who already enjoys using their nose and following scents. However, she says to exercise caution with young puppies who may not have yet had much reinforcement for using their nose in this way!

With her own dog Ren, Tracey did mantrailing when she was a young puppy and she suspects the activity gave Ren the opportunity to learn the skill of being able to track a scent to its source - which may have increased how good she became at that skill in other environments! Ren absolutely loved mantrailing. 

For dog’s who’ve already developed their hunting skills using scent, both mantrailing and scentwork can be an excellent outlet though! 

Canicross training for high prey drive dogs - yay or nay? 

Canicross is a hands-free running sport you can do with your dog. Using specialist equipment, you can run with your dog in off-road environments which many high prey drive dogs really love. 

It gives your dog the opportunity to be in enriching environments whilst having a focus on doing an activity with you whilst being around scents and smells that tap into their prey instincts. 

Recall training for high prey drive dogs - yay or nay?

Tracey says people often turn to working on recall with a high prey drive dog, but surprisingly it’s not her go to solution for high prey drive dogs. 

She recommends using recall cautiously - Tracey says ‘use your recall cue when your dog is already coming back to you and then engage with them when they come to you.” 

The fun game that your dog has with you when they’re with you is the reinforcement that’ll encourage your dog to WANT to be with you (even when there’s prey around). 

The relationship building piece is the priority here - so that when you need your recall cue, your dog sees immense value in coming to you. 

Tracey says “People use recall like an invisible lead. When the dog goes too far away, they’re typically called back - and often they’re being called away from something more fun and exciting - which can end up having a slight negative feeling attached to it.” 

Be careful not to poison your recall

Get the best from your recall by protecting it. Avoid being in the situation where you are repeatedly calling your dog back from exciting smells or wildlife. It’s almost certain that no matter what food or toys you are using to reward your dog that they don’t match up with whatever was attractive to your dog.

So protect your recall!

If you have called your dog back two or three times in a short time, accept that where you are is too exciting for your dog – and pop them back on the lead until you have moved out of the exciting spot.

Walking equipment for dogs with high prey drive 

Having a long lead is incredibly useful for walking a happy high prey drive dog. If your dog is on a short lead, they can develop more frustration which only serves to increase their prey drive. 

If your dog wants to be able to get to prey - be it a bird, squirrel, rabbit or deer - you need to be able to keep them safe. 

But if your dog’s desire to get to the thing isn’t satisfied, their frustration levels are going to rise. If they’re confined on a very short lead, this may only exacerbates the problem. 

A longer lead will give your dog the ability to move - which gives you the ability to work on engagement games with you with prey in the vicinity. 

If you have a strong dog who’s at risk of pulling you over or hurting you on a long lead, then Tracey recommends looking at Canicross walking equipment. You can get a walking belt with a bungee lead and harness - having your dog attached to your core rather than your arms will give you a better grounding with gravity on your side! 

It’s worth seeing a canicross specialist to teach you how to use the equipment safely.

More help with your high prey drive dog

For more help with your high prey drive dog, explore Tracey’s website or follow her on Facebook here. She also has a free online course that you can sign up for to get immediate high prey drive targeted training advice for your dog.

Read Next:

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