Dogs with a high prey drive, like Rottweilers, Germans Shepherds, Terriers, and hunting breeds, are known for causing mayhem when they give chase. Since these dogs often end up in pet homes, many pet parents need to know to deal with a high prey drive in dogs.
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This is understandable. After all, whether it’s a squirrel, a hamster, the neighbor’s chickens, or your cat, a high prey drive can cause chaos and sometimes ends in tragedy.
Many pet parents don’t know that prey drive is nearly impossible to eliminate. And it’s better if they don’t try to get rid of it. The truth is that dog prey drive is an extremely helpful positive motivational tool, and we can work with it rather than against it. Essentially, prey drive needs to be channeled.
So let’s look at what prey drive is, understand why it’s bad to try to reduce prey drive in dogs, and what to do if you have a dog with a strong prey drive to avoid problems.
What does prey drive in dogs really mean?
Prey drive in dogs is the impulse to pursue movement. It’s one of the primary motivations in most working and hunting breeds. A dog with high prey drive will enthusiastically run after a person running away or chase a moving toy.
In dog training, prey drive is only one part of what used to be the way wolves hunt. So, when wolves hunt, you can break the process into several parts:
- Search for prey with their eyes, nose, or ears.
- Stalk the prey,
- Grab, bite, and kill
- Rip apart
Most dogs do not have a complete set of behaviors. For centuries, breeders have bred working dogs amplify just one part of the hunting process, and forget the parts they don’t need. For example:
- Working Borders Collies are selected to stalk and chase sheep to be good herders. They should not search, bite, or rip or apart.
- Hunting hounds like Beagles must primarily use their hunt drive to search for prey with their nose. Meanwhile, sighthounds like Greyhounds are selected to chase what they see rather than search for it.
- Protection breeds like Rottweilers and German Shepherds must chase, grab, or bite if they are doing protection or police work. Many of these dogs are all-purpose dogs, meaning they can also search for scents like explosives or learn to track and trail.
- Bird-hunting dogs like retrievers and pointers must search and drive birds into the air or point to the prey. They must also not bite their prey, as they need to bring it back to the hunter without ripping the carcass apart.
So to be clear, in dog training terms, prey drive is only the urge to chase something moving, like a ball. Left unchecked, it can develop into biting or even killing something running away.
Can you get rid of a dog’s prey drive or reduce it?
You cannot get rid of a dog’s prey drive any more than you can make a dog who loves food stop eating. It is a deeply inbuilt instinct. We call stopping an unwanted behavior “suppression.” If you try to suppress prey drive, you will face a slew of new behavioral issues, such as:
- unwanted behaviors like digging or excessive barking,
- or avoidance.
Prey drive is not there just because dogs are predators. In most breeds, prey drive exists because breeders recognized that it is a great way to train a dog to do something. Many breeds don’t have prey drive because there was no need to breed for it.
Dogs with prey drive physically need to chase something. You can work with this by using their prey drive to help your training and channel their prey drive into something productive and fun. A dog with a high prey drive is not bad or naughty.
For example, prey drive is essential for training search and rescue dogs. These dogs need to love the thrill of the chase to do their jobs, and they need to love chasing a ball as a reward.
In Our Best Friends: The Rottweiler, Janice Biniok explains, “if you are interested in participating in a demanding canine sport, a high prey drive can be an exceptionally motivating factor.”
Have you read our post, How To Deal With Prey Drive in Rottweilers: A Complete Guide
The takeaway? Prey drive is essential for a working dog and is very valuable for positive training methods. See this video for how a professional trainer will use prey drive to train their dog.
What happens if you punish a dog for their prey drive?
Unfortunately, many dogs with high prey drive can end up in homes where it becomes a problem. If a puppy with high prey drive is left unchecked, they often end up chasing smaller animals, which may eventually escalate into terrorizing or even killing them.
This is where many owners become frustrated and start trying different methods to make a dog stop chasing the chickens. This includes punishing them with e-collars, shouting, or even hitting their dogs.
A dog’s ability to handle punishment or correction is what we call their “titration” level. Dogs like Rottweilers, Pit Bulls, and Jack Russells usually have a high titration level, which means the punishment will not stop them. It may even get them more excited or cause aggression issues.
Balanced trainers will use corrections for these dogs where needed, but proper correction requires experienced trainers. Forcing, hurting, or abusive punishments have no place in dog training. Something to remember about corrections or punishments is that for 99% of dog training, it is not needed. Only when training dogs at the highest levels of extreme activities (like advanced bite work), or where there is a dangerous behavioral problem (like hyper-aggression) might an experienced person use appropriate correction methods. This does not mean beating or abusing the animal.The rule about correcting or punishing a dog is that the more a dog trainer or handler needs to use corrections for any basic training in normal circumstances, the less skilled they are.
You may hear stories of people pinning their dogs on the ground “to submit” or worse, only to have the dog jump up and go after the nearest chicken the minute they let go.
Sidenote: just one example of what an effective punishment or correction for prey drive looks like is what good sheepherders will do with a Border Collie that is overexcited and becoming too aggressive while herding the sheep. In these scenarios, the herders will recall the dog and tell them to lie down. When they are calmer, the dog will be allowed to go back to chasing sheep (which is what they want most in the world). Thus, the overactive prey drive was corrected without touching the dog. Of course, the fact Border Collies usually have a low titration level helps this.Dogs with a low titration level usually can’t handle a harsh word. It will immediately cause them to shut down or show a severe stress response.
Ask yourself, is this the relationship you want with your dog?
But regardless of where a dog’s threshold for punishment is, trying to get rid of the behavior with punishment is asking a dog to make an impossible calculation. Are they so afraid of you that they can override their deepest instincts?
If the answer is yes, there can be no real bond with your dog because it means they are utterly terrified of you. And we know this is not what anybody who loves their dog wants. Luckily, there is an effective and healthy way to deal with prey drive that we will discuss below.
Why does my dog have a high prey drive?
Studies show that prey drive is genetic. Dogs have a high prey drive because the job they were bred to do needed them to love chasing something. Whether they need to chase and apprehend bad guys like police dogs, hunt, get rid of vermin, or herd livestock, prey drive results from many generations of breeding for the instinct to chase something.
This means some breeds naturally have a higher prey drive than others.
What dog breeds have the highest prey drive?
Any dog may have a high prey drive. Still, you are far more likely to see it in the following types and breeds of dogs:
- Terriers such as Jack Russells, Fox Terriers, or Pit Bulls usually have exceptionally high prey drives and often kill smaller animals like chickens or rats .
- Working dogs, including herding and protection breeds, such as the Belgian Malinois, Australian Shepherd, German Shepherd, Rottweiler, or Heeler, are usually passionate about chasing.
- Sighthounds, like Greyhounds, are driven to chase small animals.
- Scenthounds like Beagles or Bassets have an overlapping “hunt” drive, which means they like to use their nose to find something to chase.
- Hunting dogs and retrievers like the Vizsla, Weimaraner, Flat-coated Retriever, or any kind of pointer (or hound dog) usually have a strong prey drive.
Are there dog breeds with low prey drive?
Many breeds typically have a low prey drive. A good example is mastiff breeds like the Neopolitan Mastiff or Bullmastiff. Since these dogs are natural guardians, mastiff owners occasionally want to take enroll their dogs in an activity like protection training and bite work. Since these dogs usually don’t care about chasing a toy, this training is not recommended.
To get a dog with low prey drive to do the kind of protection work you see German Shepherds and other police dogs do, you need to activate their defence drive. This means you need to make them feel under threat so that they need to defend themselves and their owner. This is very stressful for the dogs. It is not a fun or positive experience.
So if you want to teach a dog to protect you, it’s far more fun and positive for the dog if they are motivated by their prey drive to chase something and grab it.
What triggers prey drive in dogs?
Prey drive is a natural instinct that’s common in dogs. It’s often triggered by the sight or sound of small prey animals, such as squirrels, birds, and cats.
Movement triggers prey drive. Dogs are naturally attracted to movement, so they often chase cars or bikes.
Prey drive is different from aggression. While aggression is usually a stress response when a dog feels threatened, challenged, or fearful.
How to deal with prey drive in dogs
A good handler deals with prey drive in dogs by managing their environment so that they don’t have access to animals or other things they may want to chase. After that, dogs need solid obedience training, strong engagement with their owner, impulse control, and a healthy outlet for their instinct.
Remember, if a high-prey dog never gets a chance to chase something, they will likely resort to destructive behavior or struggle with anxiety and aggression problems.
Manage a high-prey drive dog’s environment
Never leave a dog with a high-prey drive alone in a yard with chickens or other small animals and hope for the best. Likewise, if your dog shows too much interest in herding your cat, don’t ignore the problem.
The best way to stop a problem with prey drive is to prevent it from ever happening. This means
- Keep your dog on a leash when you go for walks in a park where they may see smaller dogs or other animals.
- Close off areas of the yard or house where there are animals your dog may want to chase.
- Don’t leave a powerful, high-prey drive dog alone with children who may start running and trigger the dog’s instinct to chase.
Whether a dog with a high prey drive will ever be safe around small animals depends on how strong the prey drive is and how the dog is raised. There are dogs that may never be safe around the family guinea pig or the hen house.
The solution is simple: never give these dogs access to small animals or passing bike riders, and supervise them with children.
If your dog has already chased squirrels, chickens, or other animals, especially if they have killed before, never assume this dog can be made safe in the future.
Once the dog has experienced the thrill of the chase and the kill, it is usually nearly impossible to undo the behavior. Even with intensive training, it is better never to risk it again. So managing these dog’s access and environment is absolutely crucial.
Start young with obedience
Starting a dog young on obedience is critical to getting a dog to ignore a squirrel on a walk. Many pet owners don’t bother training their dogs. Sometimes, this is fine if they have an easy-going dog who never causes any problems. But if you have a high-energy dog with a strong prey drive, then obedience training is essential.
But here’s the catch. It’s not enough that these dogs sit for their food or recall when there are no distractions. It’s not enough that dogs attend puppy school once a week on Saturdays.
Dogs that love to chase tend to forget all their training when they see a running squirrel. So, commands like “leave it” or a recall often fail because the dog’s instincts will override anything you may be shouting.
What does this mean? When you have a high-prey dog, obedience has to be part of your lifestyle. Throughout the day and in every situation, you must constantly condition your dog to respond to commands 100% of the time. Not just when they feel like it.
The best way to do this is to keep your dog’s daily food rations and treats in a treat bag around your waist. Feed your throughout the day for good behavior. This is called the hand-feeding technique and is a foundational method for positive reinforcement training.
This video gives a good idea of how to start hand-feeding your dog for the best obedience results:
Teach your dog engagement
To really get your dog to choose to listen to you rather than take after a passing bicycle, your dog needs to want to engage with you. This means you have to be the most interesting thing in the world to your dog.
This means understanding your dog’s drives. A high-prey dog usually loves to play fetch, so keeping a ball on you means you always have their favorite thing. This way, you always have their attention on you and not on anything moving in their environment.
Handfeeding is part of teaching a dog to always focus on your and look to you for instructions on how to behave. But in many dogs, the prey drive is stronger than the food drive. So when offered the choice between a treat and chasing the nearest squirrel, they will choose the chase. This means you have the difficult task of becoming more important than the squirrel.
In this video, Kat the dog Trainer, shows exactly how to deal with prey drive.
The key points that Kat demonstrates are:
- The dog is on the leash, so there is no risk of her taking after the squirrel and learning that chasing squirrels is fun.
- The dog is already tired, so she doesn’t have pent-up energy that could compel her to try to chase.
- Kat allows the dog to look at the squirrel, so there is no anxiety or confusion connected to seeing a squirrel.
- Kat rewards the dog every time she “disengages” or looks away from the squirrel and looks at Kat instead. This builds the idea that engaging with Kat is more rewarding than paying attention to the squirrel. A dog that has learned to give their owner their full attention, no matter what distractions there are, is a dog that is engaged. When a dog is engaged, they can be obedient.
- Kat she sees this as a process that takes thousands of repetitions before the dog can be trusted not to chase.
Give your dog a proper outlet for their prey drive
As we said, one can’t get rid of prey drive, but it is a fantastic training tool and a great way to exercise your dog. Teaching your simple dog games like fetch or using a lure daily allows them to use their instinct appropriately. It means they do what they love most, chasing, without causing problems.
A dog who can exercise their instinct to chase is far less prone to behavior problems like digging, barking, aggression, or anxiety.
Teach your dog impulse control
The final step to dealing with prey drive is to teach your dog impulse control constantly. The good news is that you can use their prey drive to do this. Teaching your dog to wait before they chase a ball or follow a lure curbs your dog’s habit of acting purely on their instincts.
This way, your dog learns to wait for your command before giving in to their impulse to chase. This is critical to managing a dog’s prey drive.
This video shows how a trainer uses a lure to teach their dog impulse control:
How to tell if your dog has a high prey drive?
The best indication of high prey drive is just to watch their behavior around moving objects. From as young as 6 weeks, a high prey drive dog will chase a moving toy. The more intensity they show when doing this, the higher their prey drive is. Look at this video of young puppies showing incredible prey drive:
What can I do if I have a cat and a dog with a high prey drive?
If you have a cat and a high-prey drive dog, the best thing to do is to keep them separated. This means having separate areas for your cat and dog where they can’t see or reach each other.
It is definitely possible to successfully socialize your dog to your cat. We’ve written this guide to help introduce your dog to your cat.
Dogs with a high prey drive need plenty of exercise and stimulation. Without it, they may become frustrated and start to exhibit problem behaviors, such as chewing or digging.
If you have a high-prey drive dog, the best thing you can do is to give them plenty of training, exercise, and attention. This will help them to focus their energy in a positive way and prevent problem behaviors from developing.
Teaching your dog good recall and to “leave it” are essential commands for dogs with a strong prey drive. If you can train your dog to respond to these commands, you’ll be able to better manage their hunting instinct and keep them safe. If all else fails, then look for professional dog training to help.