Ask the Behaviorist: Dealing With Prey Drive

Check out the Michigan Humane Society blog on Wednesdays to see common pet behavior questions answered by our Senior Director of Operations and pet behavior expert, CJ Bentley. If you have an immediate behavior concern with your pet, please call a qualified trainer or behaviorist! If you have a non-urgent question you would like answered on the blog, you can comment here or email us at mail(at)michiganhumane.org.

Senior Director of Operations CJ Bentley and her adopted dog, Rogue

Senior Director of Operations CJ Bentley and her adopted dog, Rogue

“How do I get my dog to stop killing all the animals that come in our yard? She’s fine with our other dog and gentle and lovely to children. But any squirrels, bunnies, frogs, or birds she kills and *tries* to eat with such precision I usually can’t stop her before it’s too late. Our other dog doesn’t do this unless she does it. It’s excessive.”

The good news is you have a loving dog who is great with kids and other dogs. Certainly a winner in my book. I do understand the predation concern though. Between you and I… one of my dogs is the same way. Unfortunately, dogs who possess a high prey drive are not easily deterred. And like you said, predation is so fast, we’d be foolish to think we could actually stop it once the sequence starts. Afterall, if predatory animals took their time lumbering over to their prey…they’d starve!

For this type of instinctual behavior, I’ve found that it’s easier to accept it for what it is and work around it, as opposed to trying to change it. I have very little confidence that it can actually be changed. So here’s what I did. My dogs wear bells. Yep. Bells. I have a lovely cow bell that I ring before I let them outside. Then each of them gets a special “outside collar” that I attached those jingle bell-things to. My theory here is that if I provide the warning…it’s up to the prey to learn to scram. At least this way I’m providing them with a warning system. So far so good at my house. Sometimes at dusk when I’m most worried (and they only go out after dark on a leash) I walk the yard before I let them out, ringing my bell (yes, I am very popular with my neighbors…) but eventually I’m hoping I can stop my yard marching because the prey will associate the bell with the oncoming dog invasion. Yep, squirrels, etc. can learn too!

Of course I don’t have a frog problem and I doubt frogs would react to the bell…maybe? So if this doesn’t work – and this is my plan B – I am going to get a NICE BASKET muzzle. There are some really nice ones with good padding around the nose and I’d only get the basket kind so my dog can pant and bark with it on. You will need to take your time getting her used to it, but there are easy ways to do that. We don’t want it to be a punishment. Just a prevention. Again, I’m hoping for both our sakes that plan A works. But if it doesn’t, I’m willing to go to plan B. Here’s wishing us both good luck!

“How do I get my border collie to stop chasing my cats?”

Really? I lived 12 wonderful years with a border collie mix who spent every second of her awesome life making sure my entire family was in the same room – ALL THE TIME. It’s what they do. Border collies herd. They chase things into neat groups and then chase those groups to…someplace else. Of course your border collie chases cats. Ok, well, I’m only partly serious here. Just partly…

I’m going to assume that all your dog does is chase them. She/he doesn’t bite them or pin them to the ground or get nasty with the kitties. He/she just chases them, which I’m sure scares them and drives you a bit crazy. Irritating, yes, but life-threatening, no. If your dog is chasing your cats and seriously wanting to do them harm, separate them immediately and contact a professional behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist. Otherwise, we can work on some behavior modification.

Always keeping in mind that herding is what they do, and to stop that…well, we won’t. We can, though, work to redirect the “urge”. But you will need to be patient and more persistent than your dog. First, let’s give him/her an outlet for the need to herd. Some folks use large balls – get like 4 or 5 or 6, etc. of ‘em – and put them in a room, the yard, anyplace where you can bump them around a bit. Get the balls moving. Play with your dog…encourage him/her to chase the balls with you. Get balls that are light enough so that he/she can bump them with his/her nose and roll them around. The more they move, the more she’ll/he’ll enjoy chasing them and pushing them and…well…herding them. Before we can deter him/her from chasing your cats, we need to provide another fun outlet for all that herding energy. Actually if you feel your dog has an aptitude for the sport, you may even want to learn more about herding training, trials, etc. You can start by trying http://www.herdingontheweb.com/starting.htm for more information. Who knows? You may even have a champion on your hands.

But…back to your kitties. Now that we have provided your dog with the opportunity to herd, it’s time to teach him/her NOT to herd the cats. This is where the patience comes in. First, we need a redirect word. Not a word you currently use and preferable not an angry sounding word. For now, let’s say chase. When you dog is hanging out, there are no distractions or cats, etc. say chase and run just a few steps away from your dog. Your border collie will – of course – chase you and you can then give a super treat AND walk him/her right over to the appropriate ball herding area. Play with him/her just a bit moving the balls around. Repeat this exercise multiple times. Multiple times. Practice with you in another room, practice with him/her outside…practice until you can say chase from just about anywhere and your dog either comes right to you for a treat and a game or runs right to his/her ball herding area for a nice game. Keep up the rewards! Play with him/her when he/she goes to the ball area to play. You have to make herding those balls MORE fun than herding the cats…which isn’t easy. The key is all the positive attention you’ll be giving for herding the right things. Until the response to the command chase is rock solid, you’ll need to keep your dog on a leash or long line (always supervised) when the cats are around. Once he/she responds perfectly to the chase word, you can try it when the cats are around – but BEFORE your dog goes into herd the cats mode. Try to head your dog off at the pass (so to speak – ha!) by giving the chase word and making ball herding AWESOME fun so he/she forgets about the cats. You may need a leash for this practice too, because if he doesn’t respond to chase, you need to prevent him (kindly, no jerking) from chasing the cats.

Do not ever leave the dogs and cats unsupervised. If you can’t watch ‘em, separate them. Because any time your dog chases the cats, he/she is just reminded how fun it is…and like any rewarded behavior…your dog will herd the cats again…and again. Seriously, I’d think about looking into the sport of herding. Providing exercise (mental and physical) for your dog will help curb the need to pester your cats. At the very least some nice long walks, a run or two and some ball herding with you can help take the edge off. Welcome to life with a border collie!

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3 thoughts on “Ask the Behaviorist: Dealing With Prey Drive

  1. What about prey drive while on a walk? My dog goes crazy if she sees a squirrel even way down the block. Instantly tenses up then starts to charge it or tries to climb a tree after it! I’ve been trying to just ignore her behavior and continue walking or turn around and walk in another direction This makes walking anywhere difficult because the squirrels are everywhere! She also shies away from small children when on a walk…Thanks

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  2. I would like to know how to get my terror mix, I mean terrier mix, to stop trying to chase everyone and everything away from me. She chases the cats away and she sometimes even tries to chase my kids away when the come for hugs. She has not hurt anyone or cat but it’s really bothersome that I have to hold her down to hug my kids!

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