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Training and Taming your Dog’s Natural “Prey Drive”

What do a chipmunk, a tree, and ball have in common?

On Monday, my kids learned a little bit about the predatory instincts of cats. Gus, our newly adopted cat, captured a baby chipmunk. Gus did what cats do, leisurely tormenting the terrified rodent until Lindsay intervened. Stunned and missing some fur but otherwise unharmed, Chippy the chipmunk was installed in a cardboard box for a period of rodent rehab. A few days of bananas, grapes and unsalted cashews, Chippy was good to go. We returned him to his little woodpile home.

And then – kitty karma. Several days after the chipmunk incident, Gus was chased up a tree by a neighbor’s dog. For 8 hours, our confident hunter clung to a tree branch, crying piteously, until Roman came home and performed a daring and heroic rescue.

Combine all this excitement with the start of my fall dog training classes, when newbie puppy owners file in with complaints that often include chasing and biting—and I knew I had my piece.  This week and next, I’ll focus on what is known in the training circles as “prey drive,” the undeniable urge not only to chase…but to chase with the hopes of catching!

As puppies, this drive takes shape between 10-14 weeks of age.  The impulse to chase and grab moving objects is a natural hunting impulse that traces back to pre-domestication, when wild canines had to hunt to survive.  With domestication—during which time we used dogs’ talents to advance our agricultural agendas—we tinkered with the impulse. We created breeds that use their nose to track and hold prey rather than eat it. We capitalized on the herding instinct but extinguished the capture-and-kill reaction.

Chasing a leaf or a ball, wrestling with a furry slipper, or tackling another pet’s tail are some of the precious first signs of emerging prey drive in young puppies.  Left unchecked however, a dog will graduate to more challenging targets, including -- but by no means limited to -- fast moving vehicles, bicyclists and children.  The most troublesome cases of unchecked prey drive end in an aggressive assault, when a dog actually grabs onto/bites his target.  Many otherwise calm and responsive dogs are actually stirred to distraction by the sight of wildlife or other triggers that excite this instinct. 

So what to do?  First, arm yourself with the knowledge that the chasing response takes hold of a dog like an obsession.  Do not put yourself or your children in harms way: if you notice a dog lowering his head or staring at you or your kids when you’re running, cycling or playing, stop moving.  Dogs don’t chase rocks or trees, so do your best to act like one.

If your dog has an unchecked prey-response it will only get worse if you don’t address it.  A tight leash will aggravate your problem, not solve it—your dog will feel trapped and more frantic to break free. The nicest dog in the world can be driven to bite if they’ve not had the drive trained out of them or refocused.

Next week we will look at some specific cases and solutions for this problem: please send me your questions or share your stories on this topic.

wendi October 01, 2011 at 03:25 PM
hey sarah-great opening story. sounds like Lindsay has a future as a vet or some other venue with animals! no? hope all is well. bosco sends kisses and wags.
chrystene October 02, 2011 at 02:15 PM
My dog Lucy has serious issues with this and I'm really not sure how to fix them. I got her as a rescue when she was a little over a year. Bicycles, cars, strollers, and chairs on wheels she gets so distraught and crazy it looks like she might hyperventilate and if you get in between her and the stroller she may not hesitate to bite. She completely forgets any training she does have and is solely concentrated on the stroller etc. She gets along with other dogs and inside the house she's usually good and listens. But outside; crazy.
Sarah Hodgson October 04, 2011 at 10:20 PM
Wow- what a bummer. When its displaced it can pose a real danger. There are ways to manage it, snuff it and refocus it, but I would need to meet with you personally. Aggression is a tricky deal and you don't want to try anything willy-nilly, as you said--she may bite. Sorry to hear of it. Reach out to me if you'd like some help. S
Sarah Hodgson October 04, 2011 at 10:20 PM
Love to the Bosco boy!!!

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