How to harness your dog’s predatory instinct

Do you have a dog who loves to chase the cat across the street, or a rabbit when out on a walk? Perhaps your dog is desperate to chase the horse being ridden down the road, and you struggle to control him.

Hunting behaviour is, for many dogs, a very natural behaviour. For many breeds, it is genetically anchored into their nature and will therefore not just go away. Dogs don’t grow out of it, and you cannot get rid of the behaviour by spaying or neutering the dog.

Predators

For our dogs’ ancestors, predation was the only way of survival. And, over thousands of years, parts of the predatory motor sequence (shown below) have been selectively bred into dogs for them to help humans with different types of work.

This is the predatory motor sequence of a wolf:

  1. ORIENT
  2. STALK
  3. CREEP
  4. CHASE
  5. GRAB-BITE
  6. KILL-BITE
  7. POSSESS
  8. DISSECT
  9. CONSUME

Dogs share 98% of a wolf’s DNA. With domestic dogs, some parts of this sequence have been bred out, as we don’t want our pets to have negative or violent traits that are unsuitable for living with humans. However, some parts of this sequence have been reinforced and selectively bred for in the working dog breeds.

For instance, the stalking, creeping and chasing parts of the sequence have been bred into Border Collies, so they can be of greater use to humans when herding sheep. It wouldn’t be useful for a Border Collie to then go to the grab-bite and kill-bite part of the sequence, so the rest of the sequence has been trained and bred out.

With Spaniels, however – who have been bred to flush out game – orienting, chasing and grab-biting have been reinforced. For Terriers, who have been bred to hunt vermin, the kill-bite was needed.

Hunting

For dogs who love to hunt, there is nothing more pleasurable. This pleasure is mostly due to a release of dopamine and adrenaline. These behaviours can become addictive, and if dogs aren’t given an outlet to display them, they will redirect this strong drive to other things that we could consider inappropriate, for example stalking the cat, chasing cars or destroying the sofa. Dogs tend to seemingly ignore their owners’ recalls when ‘hunting’ – this is because the ‘thinking’ part of their brains has been rerouted and the dog’s focus is fully on the hunt. So, they are not ignoring you… they just can’t ‘hear’ you!

Punishment is not an option

Owners may try to get rid of the chasing behaviour by punishing the dog when he is in the act of hunting. Methods could include shock collars, spray collars or training discs; however, there is a huge risk of this going wrong. What if your timing isn’t spot-on, and you capture the moment your dog looks at a child instead of the cat in the road? Your dog will learn through just one pairing of this that children inflict pain and fear, and there is the risk that your dog will become very afraid around children, or start to dislike them.

Instead of trying to punish an intrinsic behaviour in dogs, how about we harness it instead, and get our dogs hunting with us, as opposed to them going solo.

Playing games

First, before I explain how to play some of these games, I must emphasise the importance of having your dog on leash if you are somewhere where there is any chance of your dog being able to chase something and potentially get hurt, or injure another animal.

All animals experience emotions such as panic and fear – these are not objects that we should use to train our dogs. Our dogs also have a need for safety.

The equipment that an owner needs for this protocol is a 3-5m leash and a harness. A leash less than 2m is not recommended. You can also use a 10m-long line to give your dog more freedom.

Focus, focus, focus

You can start to improve your dog’s focus on you by marking and rewarding him for certain behaviours when you are out on a walk. Reward your dog for the following:

  • Whenever he looks at you.
  • Chooses to stay near you.
  • Waiting instead of running off.
  • Staying on the path.
  • Keeping a loose lead.
  • Showing various calming signals, such as sniffing the ground, shaking off stress, yawning, blinking, or lip-licking.

 

You can reward your dog by feeding him treats directly from your hand, or by tossing them on the ground for him to chase or catch. Doing all this will make your dog more ‘tuned in’ with you, and will help to build up his focus around distractions.

 Let your dog determine how long the game lasts. Don’t continue if he is tired. Look out for any body language signs that show that he has had enough.

 

1. Hide-and-seek

In this game, you will send your dog to search an area using his nose, to find a hidden toy. The idea is not to ask your dog to bring the toy back, but to let him interact with the toy as he chooses. You can use your dog’s favourite toy or, if your dog is more into food, how about a fluffy pencil case stuffed with his favourite treats? You can also buy toys that are made for stuffing with treats.

How to play

  1. Have your dog in sight and ask a helper to hold him, have him stationed on a mat or in a crate or, if he is okay with it, tied up. Put the toy somewhere where your dog can see it. Send him to go and search for it. As soon as he gets to it, have a party!

When your dog finds his prize, do not ask him to retrieve it. Let him do what he wants with it – praise any behaviours. He is performing parts of the predatory sequence, and not having a controlled game of fetch with you.

  1. Next, hide the toy out of sight in tall grass or behind a rock, or hang it on bushes or branches. You can even loosely cover it with leaves for a greater challenge. Send your dog to search for the toy and, again, give lots of praise when he finds it.
  2. Then, put the toy in a more challenging place, and pretend to hide the toy in a few places. This will make your dog search in those places too, thus extending the excitement and the rewarding feeling.

 

2. Stalking game

With this game, your dog learns to stay with all four feet on the ground, and to ‘chase’ a moving treat or toy with his eyes only. This is a great one for the Collie breeds, who love to eye and stalk moving things.

How to play

  1. Start with the cue ‘stalk’, and then move a treat slowly in front of your dog’s eyes just for a short moment. Mark and then throw the treat in the direction of your last move, allowing your dog to jump after the treat.

The goal is that your dog learns to stop and patiently follow the treat with his eyes. Once he gets good at this, you can get him to stalk for longer, or vary your hand movements and speed. Try to imitate the movements of a mouse or rabbit.

  1. You can also play this game with a toy. My Border Collie loves playing this with a big tennis ball that I just move around between my legs. I will let him stalk it for a bit, then I kick the ball to him, and he is the goalkeeper who always gets the toy.

 

3. Backtrack game

Here, you will send your dog to chase along a path, following your track to a lost toy.

How to play

  1. Have your dog next to you out on a walk on a path or in the veld, and let him watch as you drop the toy behind you. Prompt him to look behind you, and send him to get it with a cue, such as ‘lost’ or ‘behind’. As soon as he reaches the toy, have a party! Never ask for a retrieve; always praise any behaviour your dog offers.
  2. Next, drop the toy without your dog noticing. Walk a few steps forward and call your dog. Send him to go to the toy using your ‘lost’ cue. Use lots of verbal praise when he reaches the toy.
  3. Gradually increase the distance between where you drop the toy and where you give your ‘lost’ cue. Add in curves, turns and different surfaces to keep your dog engaged, and reduce your prompts to encourage him to problem-solve the hunt.
  4. Always drop the toy on the track – don’t hide it; this is about chasing prey, not searching for it.

 

4. Chase game

To play this game, you will need some larger treats or little meatballs. This game is about chasing a visual trigger, so your dog needs to be able to see the treats.

How to play

  1. Toss your dog a treat – your movement should look like you are bowling. Wait for him to find and eat the treat. The moment he turns around to ask for more, mark, and throw another treat energetically in the opposite direction. Repeat these actions several times, until your dog has chased enough.
  2. Don’t forget to calm arousal after this game. You can do this by tossing treats more gently and closer to you, until you finally hand your dog some treats, and scatter some more on the ground for him to graze on.

 

 5. Killing the paper bag

In this game, your dog will be ‘killing’ a paper bag by grabbing and dissecting it.

How to play

  1. Take a paper bag, wrapping paper, toilet roll or a small carton box and stuff it with yummy treats. Rather than hiding or losing a toy, use the stuffed paper bag to play the hide-and-seek and backtracking games. Once your dog has found the ‘prey’, he can then shred it and eat the real treats inside, just as he would with real prey.
  2. Dogs love the sound and sensation of ripping paper – it is a satisfying part of the predatory sequence. If your dog is baffled by the paper bag, help him by ripping it up with him.

 

6. Cheese tree

For dogs who like to search, scavenge and consume, the cheese tree game is ideal. Feral dogs will spend hours every day scavenging – it gives their day structure and purpose, and also provides the nourishment they need to survive.

How to play

  1. To mimic this behaviour, throw a handful of treats into the grass, into fallen leaves, or stick pieces of cheese or sausage onto the lowest twigs and branches of a tree or bush that your dog can reach. Send your dog off to go and find them.

You can use this game to end every training session on predation, to help lower the dog’s arousal levels.

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