Breaking Bad Habits: Predatory Chase Drive (AKA Prey Drive)

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This is the fifth blog in our dog training series written by Adopt & Shop trainer and pet safety coordinator Jessica J.  In case you missed them, be sure to check out the first blog, Breaking Bad Habits in Dogs, the second blog on how to curb leash pulling, the third blog on how to stop your dog from jumping up, and the fourth blog, solving the problem of excessive barking.

I am the proud owner of an Alaskan Malamute mix named Cindy.  If you ask anyone who has ever owned a Malamute or read a book about the breed, they will tell you that Malamutes should not live with cats.  This certainly proved true with Cindy.  If one of our cats ran away from her, Cindy would chase after them with the intent to catch and kill them.  However, if the cats walked away from her calmly and slowly, she did not react.  Cindy’s issue was not that she did not like cats, she had a high Predatory Chase Drive.

What is a Predatory Chase Drive? It is an overwhelming desire to chase things, such as other dogs, small furry animals, cars, bikes, scooters, etc.  The movement of the “prey” triggers the dog to chase, similar to a reflex, and is a part of normal dog behavior.  Some breeds have higher chase drives than others, especially working, hunting and herding breeds.

2 dogs chasing a squirrel

Aside from being a natural behavior that is left over from their wolf ancestry, chasing is fun for a dog and triggers the pleasure centers of their brain.  This behavior can go from fun, like when your dog is chasing after a tennis ball, to a real nightmare for you if the drive becomes too high and your dog begins displaying inappropriate behaviors associated with prey drive.

Negative effects of prey drive can include:

  • Chasing/hunting/killing cats and small animals
  • Focusing on and stalking other animals
  • Chasing cars, bikes, skateboards, etc.
  • Inability to focus on anything but moving things.

Managing a High Chase Drive Dog

Owning a dog with a predatory chase drive can be quite a nuisance if the drive is mild.  If your dog’s chase drive is high though, it can be dangerous should they ever find an opportunity to chase and harm another animal.  But fear not, all is not lost!  Remember my dog Cindy?  Well, despite her high predatory chase drive, she lives quite happily with our cats now!  We didn’t get there overnight though.  It took several years and a lot of hard work, but now we are one big happy family!

malamute and cat laying on bed together

Cindy even got her own kitten for her 17th birthday, an A&S alum named Rose! The two are inseparable and Rose is now in training to be a therapy cat.

So how do we begin working with a dog with a high predatory chase drive?

Safe & Secure

Dogs with a high chase drive need a safe place to be contained when you are not at home to prevent them from escaping and harming another animal or person.  Dogs with a bite or kill history may be legally declared Potentially Dangerous, Dangerous or Vicious dogs and be humanely euthanized, so it is very important to keep your dog under control and safely secured at all times.  Crating your dog indoors, installing an outdoor dog run and installing proper fencing are all good ways of preventing problems from happening.  You may also need to put a lock on your gates to prohibit anyone from entering your yard without permission and accidentally or purposely letting your dog out.

Behavior Work

There are several training exercises you can do with your dog at home, with the most important being establishing control over your dog when they are off leash.  As with any command you teach your dog, keep the 3 D’s of dog training in mind- Distance, Duration and Distraction.  You want to start training a new command with as few distractions as possible, and have them hold the command for short durations while you stand close to your dog.  As your dog gets better over time, start to increase the distractions, duration and distance until your dog can perform their commands reliably no matter what is going on around them.  Without exercising the 3 D’s, your training will be fragile and will break down in the presence of a heavy distraction, such as a small dog running by or a bicyclist to chase.

Exercise 1:  Encouraging eye contact

There are a few things that need to happen in order for your dog to begin acting on a chase response.  First they will scan their environment for things that interest them, then they will lock eyes on their target, the target will move and the chase begins.  In order to prevent the chase from happening, we must break the cycle.  To break the first step (Scanning) and/or the second step (Focusing), we should first begin working on encouraging our dog to give us their full attention when we ask for it, and to check in with us frequently before acting.  If you can’t break your dog’s hyper-focused, intense staring, you will not be able to redirect them later.

Encouraging Eye Contact – “Watch Me”

First, take a treat in your hand and hold it between your fingers.  Then bring the treat up and hold it between your eyes.  Wait for your dog to glance at you.  When your dog finally glances at you (the treat), click with your Clicker to mark the moment they looked at you and give them the treat.  Do this several times, then add the verbal cue “Watch Me” as you bring the treat to your eyes.  As your dog starts offering the behavior faster and faster, start having them hold your gaze for longer and longer periods of time.  As your dog improves, begin practicing in areas that are slightly more and more distracting until your dog reliably holds your gaze no matter what is going on around them.  With enough training, you will be able to cue your dog to watch you should they begin hyper-scanning their environment and focusing on an animal, person or object too much.

Teaching Your Dog to Check In

First, take your dog to an empty field or park and attach a long leash (15’- 25’).  Completely ignore your dog and wait for them to give you their attention; this could take a while.  As soon as they look at you, praise them with play time!  Let them chase you around the field (a positive-chase), give them extra special treats, and lots of love and affection as if looking at you is the best thing they have ever done in their entire life.  Practice this often and soon your dog will learn that looking at you is better than wandering off on their own and smelling boring ol’ grass.  After your dog is learning to focus on you more, you can begin practicing basic obedience during your park sessions.

Exercise 2: Drop Down

If your dog is already in the stalk process of the prey chase cycle, and they are focusing intently on what they want to chase, you will need to break the stalking behavior. To do this, your dog will already need to reliably know how to Lay Down. When your dog is beginning to stalk, cue them into a Down and drop treats between their feet to break the stare. Then drop the treats to the side so your dog looks away. Then clip your dog’s leash and walk them out. When your dog is at a safe distance, reward your dog excitedly by praising enthusiastically and throwing a ball (a “good chase”) or playing with a tug toy.

Exercise 3: Come Away

For this exercise, we want to encourage our dog to come from a chase back to us.  Before you begin, your dog should have already learned the Come/Recall command.  To start training this, put your dog on a long leash (25’) and use a low-value toy that your dog will chase if thrown, but will not be overly interested in, such as a towel.  Throw the item, then call your dog back to you while they are in pursuit of the item.  If they ignore your request, gently tug the leash (you do not want to “snap” them backwards, you are merely using it to redirect their attention).  When your dog leaves the item and returns to you, reward them with a “good chase,” this time allowing them to chase after you as you run and play with them.  If your dog ignores or continues the chase, the game ends and it’s time to go home.

Handling Emergencies

Having the right equipment will help you on your journey to rehabilitating your dog, especially when accidents happen.  If your dog should have a chase outburst while you are out with your dog, the trigger may simply be too much for your training to break through.  In the event your training fails, it would be wise to use a few training aids to help you break the intense focus and get your dog redirected back and focusing on you.  Training tools such as “Stop That,” which is an air canister that emits a loud hissing noise while releasing calming pheromones may help break your dog’s focus.  The use of training collars may be helpful as well, but should only be used under the guidance of a professional, experienced trainer.

Managing the Drive at Home

If your dog is chasing other animals in your home, such as cats, it is important to supervise all interactions between your dog and your other pets.  Any time you cannot physically be there to supervise them, such as while you are at work or asleep, then your dog should be contained in some way.  Crate training is an excellent way to ensure the safety of all of your pets while you are gone.

When your dog and your other pets are allowed to interact, it is important to provide an escape route for any prey pets.  Cats will benefit from a tall cat tree, shelves, or other tall furniture items to climb on top of to get away from your dog.  Some other creative ideas are putting up baby gates in doorways that are high enough to allow a cat to run underneath it.  This is especially beneficial if your dog is medium to large in size because they will not be able to fit under the gate.  If your dog likes to jump, you may need to add a second baby gate above the first one to discourage your dog from jumping over the gate.

Exercise 4: Leave It

The most helpful exercise I did with Cindy when we were in training, was to teach her a rock-solid Leave It.  This means that if I tell her to Leave It, she can never, ever, ever have it.  She cannot look at it, smell it, touch it, or put it in her mouth.

To teach Leave It, first put a treat on the floor.  Tell your dog to “Leave It,” and cover the treat with your foot if your dog tries to get the treat.  As soon as your dog looks away or otherwise leaves the treat alone, use a clicker and click to mark the moment they left the treat alone and give them praise, affection, or a different treat.

After working very hard on Leave It, I designated my cats as “Leave It” items, and now when the cats enter a room, Cindy will look away.  Oddly enough this training has backfired on me since I first taught it because the cats have learned that Cindy is not allowed to interact with them when I say Leave It, so they tease her!  The cats will enter the room and Cindy will look away, so they approach closer and closer then begin to wave their tails in her face!  And poor Cindy, she tries so hard to turn away but they just continue to tease her.  Poor Cindy, being the good girl that she is now, will then whimper until I come and shoo away the cats and rescue her.  It really is a humorous sight to behold, and much better than her chasing after them.

Since chasing is a natural canine behavior, it will be helpful to have appropriate outlets for your dog to express it, such as by playing with toys, playing Fetch, playing Tug o’ War, or by enrolling in fun sports like Fly Ball or urban herding, called Treibbal.

Do you have anything to add about prey drive?

12 Responses

  1. Deirdre Keily says:

    Hi very interested in your articles.We have 9 mth old golden Retreiver which has just started chasing his shadow.This sounds like I will have to do the same training exercises as mentioned by you!He goes to obedience training twice a week.It sounds like I will have to get better eye contact ?
    Anymore advice?

  2. Sandra Phillips says:

    Hi, we have a 9 month-old Boxer with a high prey drive. My husband has encouraged this behavior with the laser dot. A couple of days ago we rescued an 11 week-old Cairn mix. My Boxer is exhibiting his very strong prey drive. He plays with the puppy when I’m supervising, but it quickly gets out of hand and he starts behaving as if the puppy is prey. Now I do not allow him to play with him as I’m really afraid he’s going to try and kill the puppy. Is it hopeless? I’ll gladly give up the puppy if it means I can’t keep him safe.

  3. Deanna says:

    hey. I have a question. Is it illegal or a rule for dogs to chase squirrels on a Chicago district park with a leash on??

  4. Jenny says:

    Thanks very much for your article. I’m going to bookmark it. We have 2 cats and have just adopted a 10 mo old very sweet mixed breed dog with high prey drive. Very helpful to read this. We are doing a bunch of things right and have a lot of work ahead of us, but now I feel like we can get there. Thank you!

  5. Beril says:

    I’m so relieved there might be hope. We just adopted a husky whose previous owner only used “mellow” and “calm” to describe her. She does not chase balls or toys. I thought I Would introduce my mellow cat to her and let them sniff each other while restrained as several articles and videos suggested. WRONG. She went straight for his neck. Hard. I was so worried all the articles about them not being able to get used to cats were right and we’d have to take her back. I hope we can get this worked out.

  6. dog breeds says:

    What a wonderful post!! I simply loved the way it is written. Good and worthy information to share among all pets lover to know how to deal with your pet bad habits. Keep going.!!

  7. Julie Smith says:

    Very interesting post, really helpful information, I have a dog a and a cat living in the same house, was a little crazy at first but finally they love each other, my dog turns a little cat and my cat turns a little dog. But I know that I have to keep working on them, so your tips are pretty helpful for this situation. Great post!

  8. Nicole Meagan says:

    Thank you for the good tips. I was wondering what you suggest when walking and the prey drive kicks in. My dog goes nuts when bikes, skateboards, rollerblades, strollers, etc. pass us.

    • Annie M says:

      Hi Nicole, this is where all the training Jessica talks about in the blog comes in. If you are out walking and you see something tempting about to roll by – you can give the leave it command – and just hold steady until the tempting thing is gone. It is all about effective training before. Thanks for stopping by!

  9. Hi,
    I like your blog. Mind if I share as a guest blog on my site & FB page?
    Sincerest Wags,

  10. Debbie Geletka says:

    I really appreciate your article. I have one more toy to suggest for chase games: a horse “lunge whip”, with a sock-like toy tied to the end. It is great for play, as long as you can “win” by commanding a drop it. This is a great toy for when the human is not up to exercising.