Prey Drive in Obedience Training

Prey Drive in Obedience Training

Prey drive is part of a dog’s food gathering behaviour which includes hunting and killing. Prey is always on the move, running away in an evasive fashion and often is panic-stricken. This behaviour in turn triggers pursuit, pouncing, biting, pulling etc. in the dog. Prey drive is inborn and is a trainable instinct that can be strengthened or reduced.

Many dog owners acquire high energy dogs as pets. These dogs can be difficult to live with because of a long list of behaviour problems they sometimes have to put up with. Destructive chewing is their most common way of dealing with their pent-up energy. Barking, digging, jumping, escaping and fighting can make matters worse.  The physical ability required to handle these dogs properly can be very demanding as well as the fact that aggression in a dog greatly reduces its learning ability in obedience training.

 Owners want to have voice control over their dog and also want him to enjoy training and display a willingness to work. Success in this regard depends largely on the owner and not the dog. Daily exercise, long walks, games and obedience classes can help to expend the pent-up energy and can be enjoyable for both dog and owner.

Prey drive can also be a problem when walking a large dog on leash. Dogs are predators and scavengers and it is normal behaviour for them to want to investigate, hunt and kill when they become aware of prey in their environment. The problem is that dogs have the approximate strength of a person three times their weight and size. So, a 40 kg Rottweiler will need a 120 kg handler to take control of him or an 80 pound dog will need a 240+ person’s strength alone for control. If the dog decides to take off after a prey, a lighter woman handler, for example, can seriously injure a shoulder or fall flat down and be dragged on the ground. This I have seen a number of times. 

Voice control

Voice control means that the dog will obey you instantly even if he is some distance away from you. You can get him to drop like a brick on the opposite side of the road when a speeding car approaches. He will not even think of chasing a cat when he hears, “Leave” –and will not look at it or go near to it. To have such control over a dog you need to be very aware of your dog’s body language. Before a dog reacts to anything there is a brief 2 second stare in the direction of his interest or prey. It is during this time that your voice must take control of the situation. He must stay where he is, until told otherwise.

From experience I can report that it is not as difficult to achieve as one might think. What is needed is a serious commitment of regular, short daily training sessions of no more than up to 10 minutes at a time. Plan what you are going to do before setting out to train and always end on a winning note. Some of my training sessions have ended after only 3 minutes of, for example, emergency downs and vigorous tuggy training.

Most beginner trainers use food or a toy as motivation. During training sessions we often see that when the dog sees another dog or a person and wants to greet them or chase something, the promise of food or a toy is not enough to hold that dog’s attention. A voice command and a correction (Stop doing what you are doing) must be given that is strong enough to compete with the distraction. The dog must be taught limits to his decision making. He must know that he cannot break a stay to chase a car or another dog. If you are going to compete in the obedience ring then you must demand compliance from your dog.

When properly taught and the dog understands an exercise, we must also teach him that it is obligatory to perform exactly as taught and that he may not decide to disobey any part of it.  If my dog breaks a stay, I force him to walk backwards all the way to the original spot. Handlers must use common sense and not be afraid to enforce commands. You must let your dog know that the more disciplined his behaviour is the more you love and appreciate him. Voice control is your aim!

Depending on the individual needs of owners with regard to their training level expectations for their dog, their dog’s size and energy level, there are some products and interventions that may be helpful. They are not to take the place of the regular training sessions but may help to make them easier.

Prong collar or Pinch Collar consists of a band of interlocking sections that have short blunt ends. These prongs are not spikes and do not dig into the dog’s skin. It is criticized more for its looks, yet if fitted correctly; it is possibly a better training collar because it requires less force on the lead to effect a correction. The prongs are designed to produce a pinch more like the way the mommy dog corrects her pups by giving them a quick, startling nip in the neck. Due to the fact that it exerts pressure all-round the neck, it is sometimes referred to as, “Power steering.” 

Head Halters work similarly to reins on a horse. They fit around the dog’s face to give you more control on walks. These are an excellent option for those who are uncomfortable using prong or snap-around collars. Use what works for your dog. Although many humans believe this option to be the kindest, many dogs disagree. Just as some dogs cannot tolerate the prong, some dogs cannot tolerate wearing something on their face. Try them all on and let your dog decide.

However, there is a better way to get an out of control predatory animal to obey your voice – by making use of the dog’s inherent instinct to pursue prey, his Prey Drive.

All animals chase prey and have a certain amount of prey drive. Cats and mice will also chase prey but do not always do it for food. To them, and our dogs, the chase is part of the fun and very enjoyable. Prey drive is not the same as aggression. Dogs with high prey drive will show predatory behaviour even if there is no prey about. They will chase bicycles, motorbikes, shake a tug to kill it, bark in a high pitch at birds and bees or pounce on toys and they also love to carry things. Predatory behaviour is fun and can be used to our advantage in getting control over our dogs.

Prey Drive is the magic we use to get control of a dog’s behaviour. It is the drive you want to be able to “switch on and off.” To get the dog to focus on you instead of something out there and to satisfy the dog’s desire to be with you. The success of using the dog’s prey drive depends on how much the dog adores his handler and gives him his full attention to become a “real team.” The prey drive must be stimulated and re-directed and controlled by you with the aid of toys such as a ball on a string. Prey Drive cannot be eradicated, it can only be managed.  

Ideally training can start with a hungry puppy as soon as he comes home – 8 to 10 weeks old. I start mine playing with a rubber ball, without a rope, in the kitchen first thing in the morning. Puppy chases and pounces on his “prey” that is rolled and bounced and can be carried by him around the room.

This is followed later outside with an exciting game of chasing a prey object. Using an old garden glove or rolled up rag that is attached to a string hanging from a short stick, I tease my puppy into vigorous play for three or four minutes chasing and capturing the “prey.”  There is no control over the pup because dogs need to learn to play before we teach them to work. As the dog gets older the rag is replaced with a rubber ball. This is a great way of enhancing prey drive in dogs we intend to spend time with in the obedience ring.

The more challenging and rich the learning experience for a puppy, the more willing it is to learn complex work later!

The Carry

Attach a long line (5 m) to your dog. Start playing by first showing the ball and then tease him into chasing the ball as you move it close to the ground around your body. As your movements stay ahead of the chasing dog you quickly get him into high drive, straining to get the ball (prey). As you swing around you suddenly stop, raise the ball above your shoulder and command “Sit.” The moment he sits and fixes his gaze on the ball you throw or bounce it for the dog to chase it.  As soon as he gets the ball, you pull on the long line to get the dog to begin to carry the ball whilst running in a circle around you. Do not take the ball from the dog. Stop him, stroke him, pretend to want to steal the ball and let him run again. You want him to become possessive of the ball and to “attack” you to get hold of it. He will also learn to sit quickly on command in order to get the handler to throw the ball.

Instead of throwing the ball for him to fetch, you tease and when the dog moves into drive you take the ball in the right hand and holding it against the left shoulder, give the command, “Heel” as you move off in a straight line. You now can teach him to heel in full-drive and you give him the ball when he is following correctly without being distracted.

Working on retrieval exercises several times each day with the dog fetching something for you, will help to build prey drive and to strengthen the bonding process. Through regular repetition exercises the aim is for the dog’s actions to become both fluent and automatic so that he reacts almost without thinking.

Make training interesting for the dog. Use short sessions and get your dog into “drive.” Don’t worry too much about accuracy in the beginning. Jerking on the leash causes stress and should be avoided. If top sport competitors can achieve their good results with repetitive training then dog trainers should do the same. Only dogs will need a far greater number of repetitions.

After a period the net effect of prey drive training is that the dog will have been taught an arousal of love and obedience for his handler. The dog will be more obedient, less distracted and easier to be controlled.