The gun dog and prey drive: Friend or foe?
If you have a dog who likes to chase squirrels, they need to be kept on a lead until you seek professional training. They could run out into the road whilst chasing and cause an accident. Also, the action of the chase is very rewarding.
How do I stop my dog from chasing things?
The gun dog and prey drive go together like petrol and the engine. It is the motivator we can harness and control to get a dog to use its natural abilities.
Nearly all breeds of dogs have a prey drive and for many breeds, this is stronger than others. As dog trainers, we need to understand how this works to make it work for us when training.
What is prey drive?
The term ‘prey drive’ can mean different things to different people. In one arena it can be a behaviour which is desired and bred for. A great example is a gundog and prey drive go together, and dogs will be selected on their prey drive. In another situation, people will pay dog behaviourists to attempt to try and eradicate or re-focus this behaviour.
Many dogs are wired genetically more than others to chase moving things. All dogs can exhibit this innate drive given the right environment, opportunity, and genetic makeup. Prey drive comprises a sequence of events as follows.
- BITE HOLD
- BITE KILL
This completed sequence would be the worst scenario but could easily be replicated if a dog self-rewards this behaviour. Many dogs will show prey drive but, through training, will only complete part of the sequence. My own dog has a very high prey drive as he is trained as a demo gun dog. He will search, stalk, and chase but will always pull off the chase on a recall command. At other times he will get to the bite hold part and return to me with the throw.
Completing the sequence and consuming
My dog Henry is used as a demo dog and works with throws/dummies. Recently I tried him with a dead pheasant to see if he would retrieve it. I have considered working with him. When he got the pheasant he immediately tried to eat it which was very strange.
The issue is as part of the raw diet I feed him, I give him whole prey. Therefore, Henry assumes that a pheasant is part of dinner. Because of this issue, it is not safe to train to send for pheasants on a shoot as his prey drive will be off the scale.
Not completing the prey drive sequence
Examples of dogs not completing the sequence are herding dogs. They will search out, stalk and perform a controlled chase. When the owner can control the sequence then the prey drive can be a useful tool and there are many examples in the working dog arena. However, given that all dogs have a prey drive to some extent, many dogs have the potential to complete the sequence without being under the control of their owner.
The term ‘prey can be misleading because people may assume it is a living wild animal. However, dogs can exhibit prey drive to anything which moves. The most obvious example would be a dog chasing a ball/toy, which appears harmless fun for many owners, yet the dog completes some of the sequences. Given that a ball may be used by a gun-dog trainer to increase a dog’s prey drive, then caution needs to be exercised in this harmless game of throw and chase.
This prey drive can range from chasing pets, wildlife, farm stock, cars, people on bikes and people running. Once a dog has self-rewarded this behaviour, it can escalate both in what it considers prey and how far down the sequence it will go if left unchecked.
Prey drive as a description is used liberally to explain all sorts of chase behaviours, from completing part of the sequence to a dog who is actively killing and eating prey. The words ‘prey’ and ‘drive’ have different meanings and to put the words together does not give an accurate description of many of the behaviours exhibited due to this primal survival drive. Therefore, caution has to be heeded when referring to ‘prey drive’ in a behavioural issue context.
As a pet gun dog trainer, how do I use prey drive to my advantage?
Much of my training is working with pet gun dog breeds at my training centre. These are one of the groups of dogs that have a strong prey drive. It is important to harness this drive and channel it correctly. We want the dog to work in an environment where there will be live birds and have such control they will ignore them.
Prey drive to focus on training
Whilst training dogs, regardless of the breed, we are looking to use the dog’s prey drive to focus training and make it fun. We need certain skills in places such as a sit, a stop, a solid, trusted recall, a leave command and a release command. It is only when we have these commands in place can we be somewhat confident we can control the dog’s prey drive and channel it in the direction we want.
If we cannot safely control the dog at a distance with a recall, then we need to use a long line to ensure the dog cannot reward itself by chasing prey. This will allow us to control the sequence and ensure the dog cannot get to the consuming part.
Chasing, working and seeking prey is a key reason why the dog will ignore us and fail to interact with us. we have to try and find what makes that particular dog tick to get them focused. We can then channel this drive to work on the dog.
It is important we spend time showing the dog when it has got the ball or training dummy that we are not trying to ‘steal’ it. We need to teach a dog to give us the item freely so that resource guarding does not develop or a ‘chase me’ game starts as you try to get the item.
I always advise that we do a swap for the item and let the dog know that is the behaviour we want. They soon learn you are not trying to steal their ‘prey’ and will release for a reward or for the game to continue. Think of it from the dog’s point of view. He chased the item and caught it, and now you want to steal it!! Approach this the wrong way, and it takes a lot of undoing. It is a key skill we focus on at the Pet Gun Dog Breed training we do.
Those owners who have a gun dog breed and don’t wish to work it need to understand what are the implications of prey drive and how this affects training and having fun with their dog.