Prey drive refers to a dog's natural instinct to hunt, chase after, catch, and kill prey. It is an innate behavior that has evolved in dogs over thousands of years and served an important purpose in their survival. However, in our modern domestic environment, a dog's strong prey drive can become problematic if not properly managed. Some dog breeds have been selectively bred to have an especially strong prey drive, such as terriers and sighthounds. But all dogs retain some degree of this impulse passed down from their wild ancestors.
When prey drive kicks in, dogs enter a state of laser-focused arousal, adrenaline pumping as they zero in on a potential target. Their senses become heightened, movements precise, and they may seem oblivious to external cues. This drive can be triggered by the sight, sound, or movement of something the dog perceives as prey – common targets include cats, squirrels, rabbits, birds, mice, or even joggers and cyclists. If allowed to pursue these targets, the dog will give chase, grab with their mouth, shake or bite, and even kill the animal.
While this behavior served dogs well in the wild, chasing and attacking family pets or people is unacceptable. So responsible pet owners must take steps to manage their dog's natural prey drive tendencies. The good news is that with proper training and vigilance, these instincts can be controlled even in breeds prone to high prey drive.
Start Training and Socialization Early
Managing prey drive is much easier if you start training and socializing your dog at an early age. The most impressionable learning period is during puppyhood when their brains are still rapidly developing.
Expose puppies in a controlled, positive way to things that may trigger their prey drive later on. Let them interact with different people, environments, and potential prey animals like cats. Reward calm, polite behavior in the presence of these stimuli with treats and praise. This teaches them self-control. Avoid scolding or restraining them as it can actually increase frustration and prey drive.
Enroll in formal obedience classes where they’ll learn important commands like “Leave it”, “Drop it”, and “Come”. Practice these frequently. Obedience training establishes you as the pack leader and gives you control. Use high-value rewards to motivate your puppy during these sessions.
If your dog is older and lacks early socialization, don’t worry. Consistent training can still make a big difference in managing their instincts. It just may take more time and effort.
Provide Proper Physical and Mental Exercise
Dogs are less likely to get over-aroused and reactive toward prey if they receive sufficient physical and mental exercise. A tired, well-exercised dog is a calmer, more obedient dog.
Make sure your dog gets adequate activity every day. The exact amount will depend on age, health, and breed characteristics. High-energy dogs like terriers or herding breeds may need over an hour of vigorous running per day.even simple games like fetch in the yard can help release pent-up energy.
In addition to physical exercise, your dog needs mental stimulation. Bored dogs are more prone to following their instincts. Provide interactive puzzle toys, hide treats around the house for them to sniff out, take them on new walks, and teach them new commands and tricks. A dog that’s learning and problem-solving will be less driven by prey drive.
Use Proper Equipment
Taking some basic safety precautions can help prevent your dog's prey instincts from kicking in unexpectedly on walks.
Use a properly fitted collar and high-quality leash suited to your dog's size. Choke chains can harm your dog and may increase excitement levels rather than control them. Head halter collars provide excellent control for strong pullers.
Consider using a basket-style muzzle if your dog has a high prey drive and a history of chasing joggers, cars, etc. Introduce it gradually with rewards. A muzzle allows your dog to pant, drink, and take treats while preventing biting incidents. Never leave it on unsupervised.
High prey drive dogs should only be walked on a leash unless in a secured area. Even well-trained dogs can take off after a sudden prey stimulus, putting themselves and others at risk. Resist using retractable leashes which allow too much freedom.
Watch for Triggers
Learn your individual dog's prey drive triggers so you can be alert on walks and prepare accordingly. Common ones include:
Small animals: squirrels, rabbits, mice, birds, cats, etc. Keeping your dog leashed, avoiding known hotspots, and using a muzzle can prevent disastrous chasing incidents.
Joggers and cyclists: The quick movement can activate a dog's prey chase reflex. Cross the street when you see them coming. Have your dog sit and reward calm behavior.
Cars: Some dogs love to chase vehicles. Keep your dog focused on you with treats when cars pass by. Practice "Watch" commands at home using toy cars.
Children: Small kids running and screaming can resemble prey to some dogs. Carefully supervise all interactions.
Flapping objects: Flags, kites, balloons, and any fluttering item might trigger your dog's prey drive. Move away and create more distance from these items.
Stay alert for subtle body language signs your dog is getting overly aroused by a prey stimulus like staring, freezing, whining, stiffening, and excess salivating. Intervene immediately to redirect their attention positively before they lose control.
Use Verbal Corrections
Verbal corrections can help disrupt your dog's intense focus and prevent them from chasing after prey.
A simple, firm "No" or "Leave it!" reminds them to obey your command rather than give in to instinct.
Make sure to praise and reward them once they disengage from the stimuli and calm down. This teaches them the proper behavior instead of just punishing them.
Practice these verbal cues at home using toys or throw a treat on the floor, say "Leave it!" and praise your dog when they resist grabbing it. This will
strengthen the association so they respond better in real-world situations.
Verbal corrections work best alongside proper training. They are not substitutions for teaching solid obedience.
Try Other Distractions
Another way to manage prey drive is redirecting your dog's attention and energy towards another activity.
Carry an interesting toy on walks that you can throw or squeak to break their fixation. Treat puzzles and snuffle mats filled with treats can also help diffuse high arousal.
Simple commands like "Sit", "Watch me", or doing a quick training session can re-focus their brain away from the stimulus at hand.
Food motivation works well for high prey drive dogs. Cooked chicken, hot dogs, cheese, beef liver are enticing. Wave it in front of their nose or toss a piece away from the trigger.
Remain calm – tense, anxious energy from you can further excite your dog. Speak in a happy, upbeat tone and they'll take their mood cues from you.
Avoid Punishment-Based Methods
It's best not to use punishment, force, or aggression when dealing with a dog's prey drive. Methods like shock collars, choke collars, alpha rolls, and physical discipline can actually intensify the situation.
Punishment may temporarily suppress the behavior by inducing fear. But it does nothing to truly address and modify the underlying prey drive. Dogs will still become aroused and frustrated internally even if not exhibiting external reactions.
Harsh methods also erode the human-canine bond, diminish a dog's trust, and could elicit defensive aggression. A positive approach is safer and more effective long-term.
Seek Professional Help If Needed
For some dogs with an intense prey drive, individual training sessions from an experienced force-free trainer or behaviorist may be warranted. They can identify the root causes of your dog's reactivity and design a customized behavior modification plan.
Medication may also help in extreme cases under veterinary supervision. Drugs like fluoxetine and clomipramine can reduce anxiety and make dogs less responsive to stimuli that trigger prey drive. Combined with training, they boost progress.
As a last resort, you may need to admit you're unable to meet your dog's needs in your current situation. Re-homing to an experienced owner or sanctuary could be the most responsible choice.
Take Proper Precautions
If your dog has a high prey drive, take precautions to prevent escapes, accidents, and costly vet bills.
Make sure your yard is very well fenced and secured. Check regularly for potential escape points or holes dug under the fence line. Padlock any gates.
When entering or exiting your home, keep your dog on leash and move them quickly to avoid darting escapes. Use secure crates and doors with locks when you're away.
Supervise all outdoor off-leash playtime. Dog parks are risky for dogs prone to chasing. Avoid letting them outside unsupervised even in fenced yards. Accidents only take seconds.
Use extreme caution introducing high prey drive dogs to cats or other small pets at home. Monitor all interactions. Crate and rotate separate spaces if needed to keep everyone safe.
Carry your vet's phone number and pet insurance details with you in case of emergencies. Know where the nearest animal ER clinic is located if fast intervention is ever required.
Be Patient and Consistent
Effectively managing prey drive takes a lot of time, consistency, and patience. There will inevitably be setbacks such as your dog breaking their "stay" command if a squirrel runs by during training. Don't give up or lose your cool. Simply re-focus them and try again. Celebrate small successes along the way to keep up motivation and progress.
Work on gradually increasing the difficulty of training by adding more distractions and temptations. Advance at your dog's own pace based on their threshold. End each session on a positive note to build their obedience and impulse control muscle.
Make managing prey drive a household commitment. Get every family member on board. Ensure children know what to do if your dog gets overly aroused. Consistency will produce the best results.
With an informed, dedicated owner armed with force-free training techniques, even strong-willed, high prey drive dogs can learn to control their instincts and become model canine citizens. Put in the work, and you'll reap the rewards of a bonded, well-mannered companion.
Prey Drive Training Tips Summary
Here's a quick recap of tips for training prey drive in dogs:
Start socializing and training early in puppyhood when they're most impressionable. Use praise, not punishment.
Give them adequate daily physical and mental exercise to prevent boredom and arousal build up.
Use proper leashes, collars, and muzzles to maintain control on walks. Watch for triggers.
Employ verbal corrections to disrupt fixation but always reward disengaging.
Utilize redirection and distraction techniques – toys, commands, food motivation.
Avoid using force, pain, or aggression which will worsen behavior long-term.
Seek professional guidance if your dog's prey drive is dangerously high.
Take safety precautions at home and supervise all interactions with potential prey.
Remain patient and consistent. With time and effort, progress is very possible!