There No Bad Dogs Part 4: Prey Drive
Enter Riley again into our discussion. As can easily been seen from any photo of Riley he is a hound dog and he is quite a hound dog. He is a common practitioner of what we have dubbed squirrel rage. As an American Foxhound/Beagle cross Riley was breed to hunt and this dog will hunt. He doesn't always head in the right direction or look up the correct try to find the squirrel and most often think Riley is chasing the idea of a squirrel more than the squirrel itself, but when Riley is on the trail of something it is near impossible to get his attention.
As a professional pet sitter and dog walker we've dealt with all types of dogs with high prey drive. Most often they are single household pets or have a couple of close pack mates but when on a walk they can go nuts when they sense a squirrel, cat, or a smaller dog. Terriers, hound dogs, and most working breeds have high prey drive because that is what they were breed to do. One bit of advice often given is when you see a squirrel or critter out on a dog walk distract the dog before they see it. Small problem with that is your dog will sense any critter long before you do and while we often ask a dog, "What do you see?" The more proper question would be, "What do you smell?"
It is important to remember with dogs that they do not experience the world the way we do. It is hard for our brains to even comprehend the way in which dogs experience the world. We have no sense that even comes close to a dog's sense of smell and while you can sometimes distract them before they see a squirrel trust me when I tell you they will know it is there before you do. The best thing to do is to distract them with good old stinky treats. Liver treats stink like nobody's business but your dog will love them because the liver and other animal organs are what your dog likes to eat best. Keep the liver treats around for when you really want or need your dog's attention and only give them on special occasions and your dog will do almost anything you want for one.
It is also important to build a foundation of basic commands. "Watch me" or "Look at me" are good commands to start with and then proceed to "touch" and "sit." Now your dog senses a squirrel and you pick up on their signals. Pull out the liver treat, let them get a whiff, then ask them to watch you, sit, and then touch your hand with their nose to get the treat. Follow the reward up with praise and a rub on the rump and move along on your walk and hope the squirrel isn't just sitting in one place.
Being a professional dog walker and pet sitter doesn't prepare you for all situations and when we brought Bagheera home to our high prey drive hound dog one of my first worries was had I made a terrible mistake. We took Bagheera out of a home where he was rejected by the existing cat and brought him to a house where a hound dog thought he was a new toy. I read up on introducing dogs to cats and every article warned high prey drive dogs aren't the best for dog and cat homes and this was already Riley's home, but remember instead of opening a pet sitting business in Northern Virginia where we already had a circle of friends and knew the area well we moved to Virginia Beach where we knew nobody and nothing to open our pet sitting and dog waking business. Challenges are nothing new for us.
And as you can see Riley and Bagheera are now good buds.
Prey drive like most other behavioral issues in dogs aren't behavioral issues at all. They are an intersection of human and dog cultures that do not often mesh. Dogs want to chase and hunt and catch and kill things because they are dogs. Dachsunds are bred to burrow underground and capture badgers, Rat Terriers are bred to hunt and kill rats, and American Foxhounds are bred to chase foxes to the point of exhaustion. But think about all these behaviors and how they can be managed and redirected. One of the oldest games a human can play with a dog is fetch. Guess what? Fetch has its roots in prey drive. Your dog is chasing down and object, "making a kill," and bringing its prize back to you. Next time your dog brings a tennis ball back to you tell them, "Good hunting, lad," because to them that is what they are doing and it is proper management and redirection of prey drive.
There are also breed specific games that can be played like hide and seek. Your Dachsund wants to burrow and catch a badger? Get some PVC pipe large enough for them to fit in and put a puzzle box with a treat inside of it in the middle of the pipe. They will get to do what they love and won't be digging holes to hunt badgers in your backyard. For scent hounds and terriers hid a puzzle box under a bush or any other place a small rodent might hide and them let them find it, solve the puzzle, and devour the treat. These are all fun games that can be played with your dogs and ones we'd be happy to provide while doing your pet sitting or dog walking visit. Prey drive is one of the most natural behaviors a dog can have. It is one that they should have but it is also one that can be managed with fun interactive games. So the next time your dog wants to chase a squirrel or dig a hole to get to a mole or badger remember there are no bad dogs just natural dog behaviors that need to be redirected to conform with our human sensibilities.