Dogs are creatures of instincts. One of their most basic instincts is called prey drive. All dogs have prey drive to some extent. In some breeds, you won’t even notice it. In other breeds, the instinct is strong. In fact, it can be so strong that it starts to become dangerous.
If you feel like this behavior is starting to get dangerous, you’re probably wondering how to tame prey drive in your dog. The first thing you need to remember is that this behavior is entirely natural. The biggest mistake people make when it comes to prey drive is trying to get rid of it. Unfortunately, you’ll never get rid of this instinct, but you can tame it. You’ll do this by working with mother nature, not against her.
The best thing you can do to tame prey drive in a dog is to teach them two things.
- To always keep their focus on you
- To teach them the command “leave it.”
When you sense your dog is about to chase, the goal is to redirect their attention back to you and for you to give them the command to leave it (in other words, don’t chase). We will go into more detail on those two steps below, but first, let’s define exactly what prey drive is and why dogs have this instinct—knowing “why” is essential if you want to tame it.
What is Prey Drive?
Prey drive is when a dog has an uncontrollable urge to chase something. This usually happens when they see their “prey” move. Out in the wild, prey would be any animal they’re about to have for lunch. For domesticated dogs, prey can be anything from the household cat to a tennis ball.
One of the best ways to tell if your dog has a high prey drive is to throw a tennis ball. If they immediately chase after it, they probably have a high prey drive. If they don’t seem interested in the tennis ball, their prey drive is probably low.
Why Do Dogs Have Prey Drive?
This instinct exists for two reasons.
Prey drive is essential for survival. Dogs out in the wild hunt for food. If this instinct weren’t in their DNA, they wouldn’t survive.
The second reason is because of pleasure. Dogs that have a high prey drive have SO MUCH fun chasing things. In fact, studies have shown that when most domesticated dogs chase something, the pleasure center of their brain is triggered. For most dogs, there’s no aggression. It’s all for pure enjoyment.
Why is it a Problem?
Prey drive isn’t always a problem. As mentioned, chasing a tennis ball is part of prey drive and is completely harmless/fun. It becomes a problem when they start killing/inuring small animals (unless you want them to kill those rats), chasing after cars or bicyclists, and can’t focus on anything else other than what they’re chasing. On top of all that, it’s also dangerous for your dog. When they are on a chase and run out in the street, there’s always the risk of getting hit by a car.
How to Tame Prey Drive in a Dog – Keeping it Simple
Now time for the part most of you have been waiting for. We need to first start by setting the expectations… you’ll never completely get rid of prey drive. The goal of this training isn’t to get rid of it. The goal is to tame it.
Taming prey drive as soon as possible is important because the more a dog does something, the more they’ll think it’s ok. So if they continue chasing, they’ll assume chasing is ok.
It’s All About Impulse Control
There are a lot of exercises and drills that will tame the drive, but we like to keep things simple here. By teaching your dog the following two things, you should be able to control their prey drive next time they’re about to chase. Both of these techniques are all about impulse control. It teaches them to slow down and remember their training instead of acting on impulse.
1) Teach Them to Focus on You
When dogs start chasing, they forget about everything else. If you teach your dog to focus on you even in a distracted location, you can cue them to watch you when you sense they’re about to chase. The goal is to get them to focus on you instead of the prey (whatever object they’re about to chase) because once focused on the prey, they certainly won’t focus on you.
Below are the steps to teach your dog to focus on you. You’ll need treats and a quiet room that is free from distraction.
Step 1: Figure Out Your Command
We like to use “watch me” as our command, but you can use any command you want. Other popular commands are “look” and “focus.”
Step 2: Give The Command
Once you and your dog are in a quiet room and you have treats ready (and a clicker if you’re clicker training), say the dog’s name and then immediately say the command. If the dog looks at your face, give them the treat.
Step 3: If They Didn’t Look at Your Face…
If your dog didn’t look at your face during step two, simply wave the treat in front of them and then bring the treat up to your face. This will force their eyes to move to your face. Once they’re looking at your face, give them the treat.
Training your dog to give you full attention after giving the command shouldn’t take long. Most dogs will learn within 1-3 days.
Continue working on getting their focus until they look at your face each time you give the command. Once you’ve trained them to give their attention, you can then move onto teaching them the “leave it” command.
2) Teach Them to Leave it
Your dog needs to learn that it can only run after things when you permit it. Teaching them the “leave it” command is simple, although it will take a lot of patience. Place treats on the ground about 10 feet away from your dog. Once they go to grab it, say “leave it,” and don’t let them eat it. Eventually, they’ll learn that “leave it” means stop running after it.
This accomplishes two things. It teaches your dog that they can’t chase after anything they want, and they first need your permission. Second, when you notice your dog about to chase after something, you can simply say “leave it,” and they’ll back off.
If you want to take this training to the next level, you can do the same thing but this time throw the treat across the room. Right when you toss the treat, say “leave it.” The goal is to prevent your dog from chasing after the food until you give them permission.
Why These Two Commands Tame Prey Drive
These two commands are all you need to tame prey drive in your dog IF you use them correctly. Just teaching the commands to your dog won’t tame the drive. You need to use the commands in the moment.
Next time you see your dog about to chase, give them the focus command and then immediately say “leave it.” It may take some real-world practice, but eventually, they’ll learn not to chase unless they have permission.
The reason this calms the drive is because you’re breaking the habit. Instincts are like habits; the more a dog acts on an instinct, the stronger that instinct will become. The more your dog chases, the stronger that chase instinct will be. When you get them to stop using that instinct, the instinct will be tamed.
Use those two commands to get your dog to stop chasing, and eventually, the drive for your dog to chase will go down.
What to Do In The Meantime
In some dogs, you can tame the prey drive quickly. With other dogs, it may take a few months. Until the prey drive is tamed, it’s your responsibility to decrease the chances of your dog chasing. This is for their safety and the safety of everyone else.
Here are a few things you can do to decrease the chances of your furry friend chasing after something they aren’t supposed to.
Keep Them Secure When Alone
One thing we know about dogs with a high prey drive is that they’re little escape artists. When they feel the need to chase, they’ll find a way to chase. If they get out while you’re gone, this puts your dog and others in danger. Plus, if your dog causes any harm, they’ll likely get put down. That’s why it’s important to make sure your dog is secure in the house or yard before you leave.
Don’t Stop on Walks
Until the prey drive has calmed down, you should never stop on walks. Stopping makes your dog think you’re scanning the area for prey. Once they sense that’s what you’re doing, they’ll do the same.
Lead The Way on Walks
A dog that’s in the Alpha role (leading the way) is much more likely to chase than a dog who is following behind. You should never let your dog in front of you on a walk. Make sure they are beside you or behind you at all times.
Take Different Routes on Walks
One of the reasons dogs chase is because it’s fun. If a dog is used to a particular route, they’ll get bored. A bored dog is more likely to chase than a distracted/entertained dog. If you take a different path, they’ll be distracted by the new smells and sights.
Use a Shock Collar if Needed
We usually don’t recommend long term use of shock collars, but there are certain situations where they are needed. When a dog with a strong prey drive begins chasing, there’s no stopping them with your voice. Sometimes a shock collar is required to slow them down. Until the drive is tamed, it may be a good idea to use a shock collar. Again, don’t become dependent on it. You still want to focus on fixing the behavior.
Use a Harness
For well-behaved dogs, we usually recommend a collar over a harness, but for dogs who love to chase, it’s a good idea to switch over to the harness because collars are much easier to escape from.
Let Them Chase in a Secure Environment
Remember, your dog has fun chasing! You don’t want to take that fun away from them, but you do want to control it. Dogs that have a high prey drive love fetching a tennis ball and chasing down a frisbee. Be sure you play with your dog in a way that allows them to chase something.
Prey Drive Can Be Controlled
We understand how scary it can be when your dog wants to constantly chase. You’re always worried about them escaping the yard, running into the street, hurting another animal or human. The good news is prey drive in dogs can be tamed. Follow the steps mentioned in this article. Teach them to focus on you, teach them the “leave it,” and then apply those two commands to real-life situations. Don’t give up, you’ll notice slowly but surely your dog will stop acting on impulse and instead look to you to see if it’s ok to chase.
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