If your dog has a strong one, you know this can be a tough cookie to manage.
Some may ask "what can I do to reduce my dog's prey drive?"
Unfortunately, prey drive is not something you can you can truly reduce or get rid of. You can't tell an extremely outgoing person to just stop being social. It's simply a part of who they are. That's how prey drive is. It's a primal instinct that goes right down to the very being of your dog.
Luckily, this doesn't mean that all hope is lost! While prey drive is not something you can really reduce or get rid of completely, you can help your dog to learn how to control himself better in the face of stimuli. The primary way to do this is to build your dog's impulse control.
Impulse Control Work
- Waits- this is a temporary command typically used for things like: Wait for food, Wait at the door, Wait to cross the street, Wait before going after a toy, etc.
- Leave Its- This is a permanent command for when you don't want your dog to touch something at all ever. Things like if you just dropped a bottle of pills all over the floor- Leave it! Or there is a dead thing on the side of the road- Leave it! Or the neighbor cat is walking along the fence- Leave it!
- Stays- This is a permanent command basically meaning stay there until I come back and release you. This can be used for things like Stay on your bed while I cook or eat dinner, Stay there while I have guests in the house, etc.
- Distance- How far away from you and/or how close to the stimuli your dog can be while still controlling himself
- Duration- How long your dog can remain in control of himself
- Distractions- What's going on around your dog while he remains in control of himself.
- If your dog is really struggling, it is usually because you are trying to push him too hard and/or too fast on one or more of the 3 D's.
- If your dog fails more than twice in a row, make what you are doing a little easier. If your dog keeps failing over and over he will get frustrated and stop working with you.
- You must remember that dogs are horrible generalizers. Dog's brains think very situationally and locationally. So your dog may try to chase after a cat in the yard, you correct him, now he knows not to chase cats in the yard. But he may try it again if there is a bird or a squirrel, if you are at the park or someone else's house, if you are on a walk, if you are not home, or if someone else is watching him. Most dogs, on average take about 12 different location/scenario shifts before they will finally generalize that when you ask them to do something it means always. So you have to make sure that when you are working with your dog you are practicing in a variety of different situations, with a variety of different things, in a variety of different places, and with a variety of different people.
One of my favorite places to start when working on building impulse control is Dr. Karen Overall's Protocol for Relaxation. What I love about this is that it gives you 15 days worth of training protocols to help build your dog's impulse control, and it is super easy to build on! You can go through all 15 days at home, then do it again in the backyard, then in the front yard, then at the park. Go though it all again with your dog in a Sit, then alternating between a Sit and a Down, then doubling the time that is required, then doubling the distance. Try adding some random loud noises to some of what you're doing, try squeaking a toy or bouncing a ball during it, etc. Suddenly this 15 days worth of training protocols can turn into months of building your dog up and helping him learn how to relax and control himself in the face of all sorts of stimuli!
Don't Rely on Punishments
Typically, if you are trying to rely on punishments to control behaviors like this, one of two things is likely to happen:
- If you have a very sensitive dog, your dog may end up developing learned helplessness and shutting down, or worse, become fearful in the face of the stimulus- which can then create a whole slew of it's own problems you will have to deal with.
- If you have a more confident dog, he may ignore the stimulus for a while, but once he has gone a while without getting punished for it, he will likely just try the behavior again and you will be right back to having to punish him.
Impulsive Behavior; A People Story
Several months have gone by. You haven't tried to have any ice cream, and no one has gotten after you about not eating it. You decide that maybe you will give it a try again. You are able to get down several bites, maybe even a whole bowl before anyone comes and yells at you for having ice cream! It took them a while to realize you were having any since it's been so long since you've tried to get it, so they were slow to react. You have now been rewarded, and even though you got in trouble for eating the ice cream, you will likely try to do it again the next time you see an opening. This is because eating the ice cream was a self rewarding behavior.
Now let me give you another example:
You still have that insatiable sweet tooth and a love of ice cream, but you have decided you want to lose weight and get healthier. Suddenly you have a goal and a reason to stop eating ice cream!
First, you come up with a reward system for yourself. For some people, simply losing weight and getting healthy is enough of a reward in and of itself, but for those of us who don't have much impulse control, giving ourselves rewards here and there is what will help us reach our goal. This might be that if you are able to not have any ice cream for "x" amount of time you will reward yourself with a shopping day, a movie night, a date night, dinner at a nice restaurant, etc. It's typically best to have a variety of rewards as well. If you are rewarding yourself with the same thing, every time, you may eventually become bored of it and decide that the ice cream is more worth it. If you have a variety of rewards you can switch between, sticking to your goal becomes much easier.
Coming up with some healthier alternatives can also help you stick to your goal. This could be substituting a homemade fruit smoothie or some sugar free frozen yogurt whenever those ice cream cravings hit.
Creating Your Dog's Reward System
One thing I've recently started recommending all of my clients do is to come up with a rewards list for their dog. The more rewards you have in your arsenal, the more you will be able to reward your dog for positive behavior in any given situation. This will also help your dog to want to offer those positive behaviors more on his own, without having to be asked for them.
The goal is to come up with at least 3 of your dog's most favorite things in each of the following categories:
- Food Rewards- this can be things like chicken, cheese, hotdogs, chewy treats, crunchy treats, kibble, cheerios, popcorn, etc.
- Play Rewards- this would be things like fetch, tug, running around, soft fuzzy toys, squeaky toys, toys he can chew, chasing after bubbles, etc.
- Social Rewards- this is any kind of interaction with you or other dogs. Petting, praise, belly rubs, doggy massage, getting to go greet another person or dog or go play with tem, etc. Maybe your dog likes to have his ears scratched in a certain way, etc. I know Basil's favorite thing is when I give him permission to jump up and put his paws on my shoulders.
- Environmental Rewards- this would be things like going for walks, going for rides in the car, getting to go play outside, being given permission to jump up on the bed or couch with you, being given permission to jump up and down or bark and make lots of noise, getting to go on a sniffing adventure, etc.
Finding Better Outlets for Your Dog
Frisbee sports, Treibball, and Fly Ball can all be super fun activities to help better control and manage prey drive.
Letting your dog enjoy a fun, controlled session playing with a flirt pole to help get some of that excess energy/prey drive out can be a great option (just make sure to be incorporating a "Drop It" command and "Settle" command into the game).
Teaching your dog the "Look at That" game can be a very useful technique in this situation.
Teaching your dog the Jazz Up and Settle Down game can be a great way to help your dog learn to have an "On/Off" switch to go from high drive/energy to relaxed. This is basically done by getting your dog super excited and amped up, get them jumping up and down and being super crazy, get them pulling really hard on a tug, etc, then switch gears in an instant and put your dog in a Down/Settle. Speak softly and move slowly. Use doggy massage to help calm your dog down. The goal is for your dog to eventually be able to settle down on cue.
Playing a good game of tug, encouraging your dog to do strong pulls backwards to help release pent up energy, stress, anxiety, etc.