Prey drive can be tough to manage. Living in busy city centres with dogs who are wired to track, capture, and kill prey is a challenging proposition but it absolutely can be done. It can even be done well. In this blog, I'm going to talk about some games you can play with your dog to help channel his or her prey drive.
1. Hide and Seek
Sounds easy enough, and really, it is! Put your dog in a sit/stay in the bedroom, bathroom, or some other area so that he can't see what you're up to in the living room or wherever it is you decide is best to play this game. Hide the object and then begin the game by releasing the dog from the secure place and saying something along the lines of, "Where's your toy?!" or "Find 'X'"! If your dog struggles to understand at first, and he might, feel free to coach him along. Be sure to hide whatever motivates your dog best, whether it be a squeaky toy, a ball, or a delicious treat.
When your dog finds the hidden object, celebrate with something appropriate. For example, if a squeaky toy was the object of the hide-and-seek game, play tug of war for 15 seconds. If it was a ball, play toss and retrieve. And if it was food, well, eating the treat in question is a great reward in and of itself.
Remember! Start with easy finds and big excitement when your dog successfully finds the hidden object to get him really hooked. Then, as soon as your dog will tolerate, stop helping him make the finds to increase difficulty and to help him gain confidence in his finding ability.
You'll hear again and again - don't play tug with your dog! Whether from trainers, veterinarians, or behavior experts, what this statement misses is context. Tug in and of itself is not a bad game leading to aggressive or as we often hear used (albeit almost always incorrectly) "dominant" behavior, but it is important that it's played appropriately with a specific set of rules in mind. Let's get into it.
The first condition is a pair of cues. One for relinquishing the item to be tugged, and one for taking it. I often use 'drop' for relinquishment as it comes to me with the most ease. Use whatever cue works for you but be sure to stick with it. Consistency is key! Before getting into the game of tug, practice some exchanges with your dog that are low-intensity. When your dog is holding something in his mouth, give the cue, wait for the release, give a treat, and then ask your dog to take the object again. For the taking cue, I like to use 'take'! Yes, I know it's not very creative, but for me it works and is easy to remember.
Even if your dog doesn't take the object in his mouth, you can put it down right in front of him and then take it back, being sure to give the treat with each repetition and then replacing the object.
As you and your dog get good at this, the second condition comes into play. Your dog may not take the object or re-take the object until cued to do so. This prevents grabbiness or improper initiation of the game. First present the take/retake cue like "Take the ball!" and then present the object. Be sure to do both - doing so prevents the dog from accidentally engaging in this game when it's not appropriate to do so. Therefore, you want to have one and only one toy used for this game.
The third condition is that the game not be initated by the dog unless he is invited to play. This is an extremely common event and so it's important to capitalize on the opportunity the first time it appears. If your dog reinitiates tug before being invited, have a brief time out before re-engaging. Should the dog initiate twice before being invited, end the game for that day.
In order to keep the intensity of a tug game in check, take frequent breaks to do obedience work. This is the fourth condition of the tug game. What's more, it will allow you to obtain lightning-fast obedience from your dog while he is excited - a critical lesson for any dog to learn! He will be extremely motivated to get back to the tug game and as such, is likely to offer you some astonishingly fast obedience work.
The final condition for tug comes down to a zero tolerance policy for any accidents wherein teeth make inappropriate (read: painful) contact with human skin. Immediately give a good yelp and end the game. The consequence for an error of this nature must be unequivocal. Your dog is more than capable of controlling his mouth with consummate precision - it's up to you to allow for nothing else.
3. Chew Training and Dissection
(Morgan and Kathryn, this one is for you (and Eden and Jenga!))
The inestimable Jean Donaldson, author of numerous books on dog training and behavior modification, likens chew training with the following conceptual model - an hydraulic pump (and for those of us who are mechanically minded, the comparison is likely to ring very true):
"Think of a dog's total behavioral output as being fuel in a tank. The tank has X amount of fuel in it every day. The fuel will be drained every day into several reservoirs (fuel burners), which represent the dog's various behavioral outlets. One outlet is likely labeled "Chewing" (others might include "chase and grab, bark like crazy, etc"). If you plug the hole (by interrupting) leading to one of the reservoirs, there will be a backlog of fuel that will still have to drain. Thus, you might get more barking or chasing but the likelihood is that you'll get the drainage into the chewing reservoir at times when the plug (you) are not there to block the behavior. Only if yuo have already opened up another reservoir ("chewing chew toys") does your interruption have a change of plugging "furniture chewing" more permanently. Dogs must have outlets for their natural behavior. If you can't or don't want to provide for the basic behavioral needs of a dog, do not own one. Subjugating natural dog behavior through punishment and morbid obesity is no longer acceptable." - Jean Donaldson, "The Culture Clash"
And so, how do we drain the chew and dissect reservoir? We have a few options. Kongs are a great start, but we can go further as they don't really address the dissecting behavior so many dogs enjoy engaging with. Collections of socks, rags, old towels all work. If you have a really dedicated dissector, tie knots throughout the material object you're giving your dog to dissect. I often use the rolls from toilet paper and paper towel, fold up one end, drop some treats inside, and then fold up the other end and give them to my dog Gus to sort out. Be sure to supervise your dog at the beginning of this game to ensure they don't ingest anything they shouldn't. If you have a dog that likes to ingest things that are not food, this is the wrong game for you!
For those of us with dogs who have strong predatory instincts, management can often feel hard-won and short-lived. I'm hoping this blog will inspire you with ways you can give your dog constructive outlets for these very natural behaviors without stress, frustration, or the need for punishing management protocols. Dogs are animals after all, and like any animal, they have behavioral needs that lie far outside what we consider normal social behavior. Respect those needs, meet your dog halfway, and enjoy a long, happy, productive, and most importantly, fun life together.
If you're looking for more games and tricks you and your dog can learn together, check out the Dunbar Academy's Reliability and Dog Games training class. Gus and I have done it and it was invaluable at strengthening our relationship. Enjoy, have fun, and keep training!
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, and Decoding the Dog Park.