Prey drive is one of the most widely misunderstood aspects of the canine personality. Prey drive is NOT the same as aggression. This has been demonstrated scientifically using Electrical Stimulation of the Brain (ESB) studies. The part of the brain that controls predatory behavior is completely separate from the part of the brain that controls aggressive behavior. Predatory behaviors are fun for animals. Aggressive behaviors are not. This was also demonstrated with ESB studies. When given the choice, animals will push the button to stimulate the predatory part of their brain. When given the choice, animals will NOT push the button to stimulate the aggressive part of their brain. That tells us that predatory behaviors are enjoyable while aggressive behaviors are not.
ESB studies also show that all animals have a predatory part of their brain. In non-predatory animals, like rats, this part of their brain is never triggered (until they did it in a lab with ESB). Dogs are predators as well as scavengers, so that part of their brain does get triggered. A dog who chases and kills prey is doing what normal dogs do. Dogs and cats alike do not always kill for food. Chasing and killing prey are vestigial wolf behaviors. It's not necessary for the domestic dog's survival but lingers from their genetic roots, rather like our appendix! However, as anyone who has had a ruptured appendix knows, this vestigial behavior can cause serious problems.
When we make the decision to bring a predatory animal into our lives, we must accept that prey drive is part of who they are. When prey drive crosses the line from normal dog behavior to serious problem is when the dog is out of control. Dogs who escape their own fences and roam free in the neighborhood killing cats and sometimes even other dogs are a menace to society. Society holds dogs to a different standard than every other predatory animal. It is our responsibility as dog owners to be aware of that and protect our dogs. They could be labeled a dangerous or vicious animal for killing a cat, and it does not matter how irrational that is. For your dog's safety and for your personal liability (you could be sued, fined, or even jailed), make sure your dog is under control.
Many people believe that dogs who kill cats will also kill children. This is a false assumption. Normal healthy pet dogs do not kill children and know the difference between a cat and a child. However, several dogs together who have not been fully raised in a domestic home environment can kill large prey such as sheep, goats, and cattle, and even children. Wolves are able to kill prey much larger than themselves because they hunt in packs. When a group of dogs get together, they can emulate this wolf behavior.
Prey drive can also be a problem when you take your dog for a walk on leash, especially if you have a large dog. Dogs have approximately as much strength as a person 3 times their size. So, if you have an 80 pound dog and you are not a 240+ pound person, you will not be able to control the dog with strength alone. When a high prey drive dog spots a prey animal, something switches in their brain and all they are focused on is that prey. If they decide to take off for the chase, you could have your shoulder wrenched, fall on your face, lose your dog completely as he jerks the leash out of your hand, or all of the above! It is especially important with the high prey drive dog to have voice control of him.
Does my dog have a high prey drive?
If your dog has a high prey drive, he will show predatory behaviors even if there is no actual prey around. This includes pouncing on and/or shaking toys and intense focus on things that move erratically, such as a leaf falling from a tree or a plastic bag being blown by the wind. Of course, picking birds off the birdbath is also a pretty good clue! The canine personality profile will tell you your dog's prey drive score. The score will give you a good idea of how diligent you need to be with your dogs around small animals.
Managing the high prey drive dog
It's important to keep all pet dogs contained when you are not around to supervise them. It's the law. It keeps your dog safe. It protects you from liability. But, it's even more crucial with the high prey drive dog. If your dog gets loose and kills a neighbor's cat or small dog, you could face fines or jail time, lose your homeowner's insurance, and your dog could be euthanized. The risk becomes greater the more dogs you have. Wolves are able to hunt prey much larger than themselves because they work together in packs. Dogs retain that ability to band together to take down large prey. Children running on a playground can become a target for a pack of dogs. Nodody wants to get that phone call. So, be proactive and take extra steps to keep your dog confined to your own home or yard.
Physical fencing is the best option. A skirt of chicken wire around the bottom of the fence will help with digging. Sheet metal buried just beneath the soil around the fence is another good option for discouraging diggers. For climbers, try wire fencing in front of your regular fencing. It's not sturdy enough to handle the weight of an animal trying to climb over. Electric and invisible fences work for some dogs, but others will run straight through it hollering all the way. Even dogs who are normally contained by the invisible fence may get such an adrenaline rush from the thrill of the chase that they will run through it after a squirrel or a cat. If you are having difficulty keeping your dog contained by a fence, consider building a kennel or crating him inside when you're away from home.
Voice control means that your dog obeys your commands even at a distance from you. If you have voice control of your dog, you can stop a chase simply by telling him to leave it. It's not as easy as it sounds. Your dog may be the picture of obedience in your backyard with nothing around to distract him. The real test is if your dog will obey your voice commands with a squirrel skittering nearby. Getting that level of obedience takes some commitment. However, it's not as much as one might think. Just 15 minutes per day of working with your dog will do wonders. In fact, short training sessions are better than very long ones because attentions can wander after a while. That's why Geometry class is only an hour long! Who could focus on rectangles any longer than that?
The typical voice command to tell a dog to not even think about going after what he's thinking of going after is "leave it". Leave It means don't look at it, don't touch it, don't go anywhere near it. Work on teaching leave it at home first. When you're out walking with your dog, be aware of your surroundings and your dog's reaction to what is happening. The best time to deliver the leave it command is the instant his eyes lock on to a target. If you wait any longer, his brain can switch to hyper-focused mode, and he won't even hear you. With practice, you will get to know your dog's body language well enough to see the difference in when he is looking at the squirrel but still "with you" and when he is no longer "with you". It's ok if he wants to watch the squirrel, as long as he remains "with you".
If you don't want to forego your daily walks while you're working on voice control, and who would blame you, there are products available that will help you to physically control your dog while you are working on training him. These tools are not a substitute for training but are helpful for that period while you are training. After all, tools can fail, break, or malfunction. A good relationship is always stronger than a tool.
Prong Collar Known as "power steering" for dogs, prong collars look like a medieval torture device, but used correctly they are rather benign. Try it on yourself first if you have any doubts. There are dogs who are very touch sensitive who cannot tolerate a prong collar. If you try it on your dog, and he completely shuts down, use one of the other options instead. more on the prong collar... proper fit of the prong collar...
Snap-around Collar A snap-around collar works much the same as a choke collar with one important distinction. It does not have to slip over the dog's head. It "snaps around" their neck instead. This allows for proper fitting of the collar which is the same as described for the prong collar in the link above. It is difficult to achieve this fit with a regular choke collar because it has to be large enough to slide over the dog's head. This is a good option for those dogs who cannot tolerate the prong collar. more on the snap-around collar...
Head Halter Head halters work similarly to reins on a horse. They fit around the dog's face to give you more control on walks. These are an excellent option for those who are uncomfortable using prong or snap-around collars. Use what works for your dog. Although many humans believe this option to be the kindest, many dogs disagree. Just as some dogs cannot tolerate the prong, some dogs cannot tolerate wearing something on their face. Try them all on and let your dog decide. more on the head halter... cons of the head halter...
Harnesses Harnesses can actually encourage pulling. What do you put on a dog when you want him to pull a sled? A harness! However, there are some harnesses on the market designed to discourage pulling, such as the no-pull harness. more on the no-pull harness...
Prey Drive cannot be erradicated in a dog. It can only be managed. One way to do that is to redirect it to appropriate outlets. The energy has to go somewhere, so you might as well control where it goes. You cannot turn your dog into a predator by playing these games. He already is one.
Fetch! Chocolate Labs are an example of a dog who has been intentionally bred to maintain a high prey drive. What good is a retriever who will not go after the prey? A retriever needs something to retrieve. If you are a hunter and can use your dog to retrieve game, then GREAT! You have the ultimate appropriate outlet - what he was bred to do. If not, then give him something else to retrieve, like the toy duck Gauge is holding in the picture. Tennis balls, frisbees, and Kongs are also fun to retrieve. Combine that with something else Labs love - WATER - and you have an outlet your dog will love! You can even enter your dog in competitive retrieving events such as flyball or water retrieving.
Tug of War is another great way to direct your dog's prey drive. It's unfortunate that this game has gotten such a bad rap from a lot of training myths out there because it is a lot of fun for you and your dog! Playing tug of war will not make your dog aggressive. They learn to play it on their own whether you "teach" them or not, and puppies will play the game together. You don't have to "win" every time to show you're dog you are the boss. Dogs understand that tug of war is a game. In play, dominant and submissive mean nothing. A more dominant dog will sometimes let the submissive one win to keep things interesting, whether this is wrestling or tug of war. The only purpose always winning will serve is to make your dog completely lose interest in the game. Would you want to play a game you never win? You still control when the game begins and ends because your dog will usually try to give the toy back to you to keep the game going, unless he's tired of playing. If you're done playing, just don't grab it!
Toys, like the duck Gauge is holding, are another good release. Dogs can pounce on them and shake them like they would do with actual prey. Some dogs will rip a stuffed toy to shreds. You can buy a toy from a yard sale for a quarter and let them have a blast shredding it. Just be sure to supervise them and throw the pieces away immediately so they don't swallow any stuffing or even a squeaker! Pull off plastic parts like eyes and noses before giving it to them. Plastic bottles are fun to play with, too. Remove the cap and ring first, and supervise. Your dog can cut his gums on the lip once he's chewed it down to a point, so be sure to throw it away before it gets too rough. Kong toys and the like are safe to give most dogs unsupervised, but most everything else should be for supervised play time.
When the Dog Lives with Prey
Can a high prey drive dog live with prey animals, such as cats, rabbits, and ferrets? If you are dilligent, they can. They should never be left alone together, but there are some ways to make it safe for your other pets. Keep in mind that while it is possible to teach your dog to leave other household pets alone, they will not translate that to include other animals of the same species outside of the household. A dog can live with a colony of cats and never bother them but still go after strange cats.
Make sure your other pets always have an escape route and some place to hide where your dog cannot reach them. Never let them both out in the yard at the same time. The prey drive is usually triggered by movement. A cat who remains still has a better chance of survival than a cat who runs. Out in the open of the yard, the cat is likely to run and have far too much space to cover to escape.
In addition to separation and escape routes, work on conditioning your dog to behave appropriately with the other pets. Reward your dog every time he is with the other pets and behaving appropriately. This means he is not stalking, staring, or trying to chase them. Ignoring is good. Give him treats, pets, and praise for peaceful coexistence. Also, work on the leave it command in case you need to tell him to back off the other pets. Always use caution when allowing your dog to interact with your other pets.
Information on prey drive is based on ESB Studies conducted by Jaak Panskepp as cited in Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin. See the book or more information.
Dogs living with Cats
When Dogs Kill
Hunting Breeds and Behaviors