Working With High Prey Drive
Over the weekend, I met with a new client whose recently adopted Terrier mix is terrior-izing (haha new word) her two cats. His high prey drive makes him want to chase anything that wriggles, squiggles, runs or jumps. This can create a lot of stress in a household with more than one animal. Fortunately, there are many ways to work with this drive so that you can bring more peace and harmony into your life and your dog's too. Here are some tips for all you humans with high drive doggies.
Workin' Like a Dog
The first place I start with pretty much all my clients is exercise and employment. Are you providing your dog with enough physical and mental stimulation? A dog that is bored, under-challenged or under-exercised is much more likely to chase after all kinds of creatures big and small - and can you blame them? Dogs are not meant to lie around all day, they need an outlet for their natural drives and instincts, and if we don't provide that outlet for them, don't worry, life will! Small animals, large noises, mailmen, visitors - these all become opportunities for your dog to release pent up energy. And while we can't train the prey drive out of a dog, we can provide her with healthy and constructive ways to channel this energy.
Ample exercise is a great place to start. For dogs with lots of energy and a high prey drive, I recommend a minimum of 1 hour every day. This means supervised and structured exercise in the form of walks, running, biking or playing high energy games. Letting your dog run around in the backyard without supervision doesn't count here, and can actually be counter-intuitive when working with high prey drive dogs. For more on why unsupervised yard time can be detrimental to your dog's behavior, see my article on the problems with electric fences. If you don't have enough time to properly exercise your dog, it may be time to hire a dog walker!
Now that you've given your pooch some exercise, it's time to get her to work! Many breeds have been bred to perform specific tasks like hunting, herding, trailing or guarding, and the need to perform these tasks is ingrained in their genetics. Giving your dog employment gives her a sense of purpose, and provides a great deal of mental stimulation. The good news is, you don't need a flock of sheep to do this, there are many ways to work your dog that don't require a farm or a forest. One way to do this is to simply buy a backpack for your dog that she can wear on walks. You can weight the pack with water bottles, adding more as your dog gets stronger. Now when she is out walking with you, she has a purpose - to carry something. The additional weight on her back will also help her to focus, which provides mental stimulation. This is a really easy way to incoroporate a mental workout with her physical one.
Playing games with your dog is also a great way to fulfill her need for employment and get those wheels turning in her head. Games like Fetch, Keep Away, Red Light/Green Light and Hide and Go Seek are all fantastic for providing mental stimulation, improving focus and self-control and channeling the prey drive in a healthy way that is on YOUR terms. For more ideas on games and exercise, check out www.exercisemydog.com.
And let's not forget about training! Training your dog - whether it be working through the levels of basic obedience cues or teaching him fancy new tricks - is an ideal way to cover many bases at once. A good training session will provide mental stimulation and employment, enhance your dog's ability to focus on you, instill positive behavioral habits, drain excess energy, strengthen the bond between the two of you and be a lot of fun.
State of Mind
The second part of this equation involves heavy desensitization work, in which the focus is on changing the dog's state of mind when in the presence of triggering stimuli - in this case, cats and small animals. It helps to think of the dog's excitement level on a scale of 1-10, 1 being practically catatonic and 10 being completely crazed and past the point of no return. We never want to see a dog at a level 10. If you have a dog that goes to that extreme, please seek the help of a professional.
Essentially what we want to do is create opportunities for the dog to experience calmer and calmer states of mind around the particular trigger. In this situation, I brought the two cats and the dog into the same room and closed the door so that everyone was contained. The pup was on leash so that I could control him. What I wanted to do was expose him to the sight of the cats just enough to peak his interest and get his excitement level in the 3-5 zone. As soon as I saw his eyes fixate and his body tense of with excitement, I removed his access to the cats by simply blocking his line of sight with my body. Upon blocking the cats from his vision, his body and face immediately relaxed a little, and I was able to get him focused on me again by luring with treats. We went through a couple rounds of watch and reward to distract him from presence of the cats. Once he was back down to a level 2/3, I let him see the cats again, and repeated the whole process.
Positive reinforcement is an important part of this process, but the most crucial component is changing the state of mind in the presence of the stimuli. If you attempt to do any kind of desenstization, it is important to remember that the ultimate goal is to consistently get the dog in a calm state of mind in the presence of the trigger - that is what results in a permanent and positive change in his mental and behavioral habits. If you have never done desensitization work on your own, I would strongly advise seeking the help of a professional, at least to get you started. At K9 Holistics, we offer customized desenstization programs to help dogs work through all kinds of behavioral issues and achieve a healthy and balanced state of mind.
Christine Fasan is the head trainer and canine behaviorist for K9 Holistics. She specializes in German Shepherd Dogs and healing reactivity in dogs of all breeds. K9 Holistics offers dog training and behavior modification in St. Petersburg and throughout Pinellas County. We also offer pet care services including dog walking and pet sitting. Please contact Christine at firstname.lastname@example.org