All owners know that dogs generally like to chase things and the reasons for doing so are many and varied. You probably know the feeling of walking down a busy street and your dog wanting to bark, leap or run after scooters, running children, cars, joggers to name a few.
Some forms of chase may be genetic traits from their ancestral past as hunters and scavengers while others may be driven by fear, play, territorial or social issues.
So what is ‘Prey Drive’?
We could say that prey drive is simply ‘play’ and that is fair enough if we accept that the act of ‘playing’ is technically; a display of behaviour that doesn’t actually serve a function and is out of context. So, if prey drive has no intention of ending up in eating, then it really is just a form of play.
However, it can be extremely problematic and frustrating for owners.
Why do dogs love to chase?
Prey Drive (Predatory chase) will likely be directed at various targets such bikes, rollerblades, scooters, joggers, and squirrels. It’s likely that the dog is on the lookout for opportunities to chase as this behaviour is extremely self-rewarding for dogs – it’s essentially lots of fun.
Dogs will likely become visibly alert and excited while scanning for this type of chase. The smell, sights and sounds of the ‘prey’ may start to illicit excited pulling, lunging or yapping. Very often it is instigated by movement, so a dog may not start to chase a squirrel or rollerblades until the target starts moving.
How do you stop your dog from chasing?
Common advice is to call your dog off the chase and reward them with high value treats. This may work with some dogs and particularly those dogs with a low chase drive and it might even work briefly for dogs with stronger drives. However, for the dogs that find chasing extremely rewarding the prospect of a treat will likely lose its value after a while.
This is because chasing is a real, intrinsic need and emotional desire and if not given a suitable outlet then the idea of a treat is unlikely to compare. If the dog is in ‘the zone’ and fixated on the chase the owner will have nothing that the dog will prefer, at this point in time.
Some dogs may never be allowed off lead (just in case they start chasing) but we should remember that when a dog is denied an intrinsic desire and need, that we risk promoting other problematic behaviour caused by the frustration. An owner could end up with a dog that seeks other outlets such as barking, destroying furniture, humping, tail chasing, digging, fighting and many more.
So, we can’t stop a dog from wanting to chase, we can’t punish them for chasing, we can’t dissuade them with treats and we shouldn’t compromise their welfare with prevention – hmmmm…
Don’t stop your dog from chasing, teach what to chase!
However, although the behaviour of chase is inherited the thing the dog actually chases is very much learnt. Dogs may be born with a desire to chase but no dog is born wanting to chase rollerblades, scooters or joggers. In short, we can’t stop a dog from chasing but we can control what they chase.
A dog with a history of chasing will already have learnt what to chase from the options available in their environment and they will have already developed a preference, whether that is rollerblades, joggers or scooters. They will be in a neural cycle of being stimulated by the presence of the thing they like to chase and then the chase itself will serve as self-reinforcement by making them feel great. Each dog is an individual and likely to have its own preference of things they like to chase.
So the answer to this problem then, is that to control prey drive in dogs we need to train and control the target and also to provide an appropriate outlet for the dog to exercise this intrinsic and basic desire.
Of course this will be much easier in young dogs that have yet to develop a taste for a specific target. A pup can be taught to focus on and therefore be stimulated by the items that you want them to chase. Naturally, with older dogs that have already established targets, it will take longer and it will require more effort but it’s not impossible.
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