Calming a High Prey Drive in Dogs

There’s a line of thinking – incorrect, I might add – that a dog’s prey drive is set in stone. Some say that once a dog has killed another animal that there is no going back. This is also false. Today I intend to prove that to you.

When I adopted my first greyhound, Dazzle, the above is exactly what I was taught. “He has a high prey drive,” they explained, “and you’ll always have to watch out for small fluffies.” Only the first part of that was true. Indeed, Dazzle’s prey drive was sky high; he wanted to chase down and kill anything under 40 lbs. His prey drive contributed to a successful racing career, and watching that dog focus on a lure was an amazing sight to behold. But his drive was at a level that was unnecessary and potentially dangerous for a pet.

That’s Dazzle on the far right,  mingling with the hens after some training!

Calming a dog’s prey drive is a topic I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing, observing, and testing.

Unless you and your pup will be competing in dog sports together, it is best not to reinforce a high prey drive. If you encourage calmness and discourage excitement around small critters, your activities together will be less restricted, and your dog’s focus will improve, which will facilitate training. Calming prey drive is also the foundation to a reliable recall.

Plus, killing the cat next door isn’t really the best way to make friends with the neighbors.

The Process

I’ve done this with several dogs over the years, and had complete success with all of them. Five of them have been Greyhounds, which are bred with the specific intent to chase. With the right training, any dog can be taught to behave around small fluffies.

Let’s say there’s a squirrel in your front yard. Your dog sees it through the window, stands perfectly still, ears perked, and starts whining.

What NOT to do:

“Oh, you see that squirrel? Is that a squirrel? Is it? Is it? Do you want it?” Dog’s tail starts wagging excitedly. She starts drooling, whining, probably barking, and won’t break her gaze.

Unfortunately, a lot of dog owners do exactly this and don’t realize the effect it has.

So, what’s the best course of action?

Just ignore it.

I know, it sounds so simple, but it works. Dogs get really excited about enthusiasm, particularly your enthusiasm. If you get excited when they see the squirrel, they’ll do the same, ten fold. If you offer no response, their original reaction is much less likely to worsen. Your mentality is one of the most important parts of this type of training. With my own dogs, if ignoring it isn’t solving the problem, I’ll verbally correct them. Usually all it takes is a matter-of-fact “Hey, no. Go lie back down.”

The main goal here is to keep other pets and livestock safe, whether yours or someone else’s. So let’s work on the method to get there.

Before you do any introductions, make sure your dog is thoroughly exhausted. Throw the ball, run, hike, swim, set up a doggie playdate, whatever it takes to wear your pup out. A tired dog is a happy dog, but a tired dog is also less likely to disembowel your cat. I’m a huge believer in setting dogs up for success, and especially with this kind of work. Don’t ever rush this type of training. Faster progress is great, but a reversal of progress could mean a dead Fluffy and a satisfied pooch.

The best tool you can use for this type of training is a plastic basket muzzle. Do yourself and your fluffy pets a favor and get one. Accidents can happen in a fraction of a second, and a muzzle will minimize damage and save lives. It’s worth it for the peace of mind if nothing else. Greyhound style muzzles can be found here. For bigger or smaller sizes, get an Italian basket muzzle off Amazon (here’s a size chart).

Phase 1: The Introduction

I stated above that any dog can be taught to be calm around smaller critters, but every dog is different. Some need just a small reminder, and others can be quite challenging. Most dogs lie somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

Do this first on a leash at a distance. Correct any over-excitement, and correct it before it escalates to the drooling, barking, whining stage. If your dog is already at this stage, stop and start over later today or tomorrow. Trying to bring a dog down from this stage while the small fluffies are still in view is going to frustrate both of you and create a bad experience. Go get your dog some exercise and try again later.

Ears up, panting, drooling. Lots of training left to do.

Bring treats for distractions, but only offer them when your dog is calm. You can also position yourself between your dog and the small fluffy so that the small fluffy is out of her line of sight. Reward when she is calm and makes eye contact. Food makes a great distraction when you need to redirect attention. Toys are not an ideal reward here because they encourage excitement.

Once your dog can be in view of the fluffy critter at a distance and ignore it, training can progress.

Phase 2: Leashed, Behind Barrier

With a barrier separating the two, move the dog and the fluffy critter closer together and let them meet. Don’t use a crate in this case. They are too confining, and ideally you want to have some control over both animals. Let them greet and sniff through the barrier. If one ignores the other, you’re on the right track.

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Meeting the chickens and using the coop as a barrier.

Same rules apply as above. Encourage calmness and use food distractions if you need to (when appropriate).

Food for Thought: I’m using the term “small fluffy” very loosely here. It doesn’t necessarily have to be small. Or even fluffy, for that matter. It could be a horse, or a lizard. The “small fluffy” in reality is any animal that you want your dog to get along with. It’s just that most of the time that animal tends to be both small and fluffy. Carry on!

You’re ready for the next phase when the dog is calm and ignores the fluffy one.

Phase 3: Leashed, No Barrier

Remember the muzzle I mentioned earlier? Now it’s time to use it!

Take away the barrier and let the two get closer. Keep the dog on a leash so you still have control. As with the first two phases, be matter-of-fact and reward at the right times.

Important: It’s often best at this stage to keep them close together. If they are a few feet away, the fluffy will be more likely to jump or make sudden movements (or worse, run away) which act as an “on” switch for prey drive to kick in. You’d do best to avoid this rather than letting it happen and trying and reverse it.

Tip: Borrow a mean cat. There’s nothing like a good whop on the nose from a mean cat to deter an overly interested dog. Just be careful of sharp kitty claws!

Phase 4: No Leash

Don’t attempt this phase until you’ve fully worked through the first three. You’ll have to be extremely vigilant for the first few weeks. Keep using a muzzle for a while, because all it takes is a fraction of a second to lead to tragedy. This is why I love muzzles and use them frequently. It’s the best insurance for slip-ups.

Making good use of the muzzle, just in case.

Tip: One thing that is hugely helpful is feeding them together. There is a lot to be said for sharing a meal. How do you feel when you eat with someone? I personally feel a strong sense of connectedness, companionship, and belonging. Dogs are not very different from us, as they naturally share meals with their own pack members. When you feed your small fluffy the same goodies that you’re feeding your dog, he’ll read this as “Owner is sharing food with me, and same food with Fluffy. Fluffy must be part of the pack.” This is a great way to encourage bonding.

Calm, relaxed, and ignoring the birds. Exactly what we want!

A Caveat: Just because your dog is okay with your small fluffies at home doesn’t mean she will be good with all small fluffies in general. An inside cat may look like a pack member, but an outside cat can still look like a target. My own dogs are amazing with my goats and my chickens, but they will still chase squirrels in the woods and mean business when they do it.

Trigger and Dewty mingling with the chickens and the goats!

Have you had success with calming your dog’s prey drive? What other pets do you have at home? Need help troublshooting your training problem? Share the article with your friends and join the discussion below!

  • Ellen Partridge

    Just out of curiousity, if a fox were to enter your yard, or some other animal after your small fluffies, your greyhounds would intervene, yes? Not that I’m thinking of using my greys as livestock guardian breeds–I have no livestock. Just curious.

    • Nicki Nelson

      That’s a great question. I have dogs and horses. I fence to protect my horses from the dogs (and vice versa). If I had chickens, I’d fence to protect them too, from above and below. I depend on the dogs to keep critters out of the yard (we also have a lot of feral cats in the neighborhood). I guess it’s a matter of what the intended result is: Do you want your dog to completely submit in all situations, or do you want your dog to be a partner in protection.

    • http://www.dogsdigdirt.com/ Rachel Marie

      A great question, indeed! I doubt my two would go after something to protect the chickens or the goats. Other dogs make amazing livestock guardians, but I don’t think mine would care. I think if they did intervene, it would be because they wanted to take the critter out for sport, not so much to protect the chickens or goats. Most of the time it’s a non-issue, though. Critters stay away when we’re outside and only come around at night when the dogs are inside.

  • Holly Ann Kendall Moullin

    thank you for this article. it was very informative. my dog was homeless and had to hunt for his supper for a few months before we rescued him. I had always heard there was nothing we could do after he tasted fresh blood. our new neighbors (2 different families) have chihuahuas and I’m sure they look yummy.

    • http://www.dogsdigdirt.com/ Rachel Marie

      Thank you! I’m thrilled you enjoyed! If you decide to work with him, I’d love to hear about your success. :)

  • Kerry Landon

    I adopted my greyhound a month ago and was told she was cat safe. She seemed fine with all of them at first but then discovered one morning that she had practically gutted one of the cat some time in the night. So, I’m not sure how to work with her. right now it’s the muzzle if cats are out otherwise we have the cats segregated to the back of the house.

  • theresaoconnell

    I’ve adopted a coonhound that I’m sure was used for hunting prior to being rescued. He’s a great dog, but goes bonkers over squirrels and cats. We share our home w/4 indoor cats that he’s getting used to but I haven’t left him alone w/them. I’m looking for anything that I can do to calm his prey drive. Thanks for this article!

  • Anne-Marie Reynolds

    Great article and it gives me hope! if recently adopted a 2-year-old GSD with a high play and prey drive. He was placed into a boarding kennels because his owners had to leave and were looking for a new home for him. Before he went into kennels he got on well with cats, even had one sleeping in his kennel in winter. 4 months in the kennels with an ex police-dog trainer and he goes into a real solid hunt mode when he sees my cats. Is it possible that the trainer has played to his prey drive and made it worse? I have the cats indoors right now but they are outdoor cats as a rule and are not happy. I have managed to get to the stage where I can take the dog into the room with them and he will just sit there. I taught him to look at me when is tell him to and, for the most part he does – until the cats move. Then his ears go up, the stare becomes rigid and he starts to drool, totally ignoring any command I give him. He has lunged at them before but got short shrift from me (no beating, I don’t agree with that, it just instills fear into them and I don’t want a dog that is terrified of me!). I was thinking of trying a muzzle on him and letting him get closer to the cats. I can’t let them loose because he will go for them and they will be too scared to come back again. He gets plenty of exercise but I was also thinking of setting up some kind of agility course in the back garden for him as well. if you have any other tips I would be grateful because if would like them all to co-exist, even if they just ignore each other!

    • http://www.dogsdigdirt.com/ Rachel Marie

      Hi Anne-Marie! It sounds like you’re on the right track with setting up an agility course at home for him, just for some extra mental and physical exercise. The muzzle is a great training tool – just make sure he is conditioned to it first! Ideally you want to redirect him before he gets to the ears-up and especially drooling stage. You’re doing the right things, though – keep it up and best of luck!

  • Karen Williams Meredith

    Thank you. Definite food for thought. I have an ACD/Dalmation mix that loves his ‘flock'( people and cats) Has yet to include the chickens in his flock. But whenever one of his people or cats is vulnerable his prey drive kicks in. Suggestions??

  • Susan Lewis

    Can the dog drink water with the muzzle on? Thank you.

    • http://www.dogsdigdirt.com/ Rachel Marie

      Yes!

  • Cecilia Crescent

    Thank you so much for this. I’m actually going to be getting two pets this year, a Borzoi which is closely related to the greyhound and so I can expect a sky high prey drive, and a large parrot. They’ll both be young and so I was hoping to get the accustomed to each other sooner rather than later and so I will definitely follow your tips. If your hounds can get friendly with chickens, there’s hope for me yet.

  • Liana Dawson

    Do you believe in predatory drift or rage. I have a rescue dog 85% pit by wisdom gene testing very fearful with significant behavioral problems. I used to let her roam on my 27 acre property but her frequency of kills was increasing and then in November she killed my basenji. The basenji was 14, had seizures. The basenji had some natural dominance ability except as he aged. I am the lead dogin my pack. The pit mix dog in question has been a member of my three dog pack for 4 years but I have seen this tendency in her and early on re homed my Min pin to my daughter. Small dogs are prey. But when she kills she becomes very excited and cannot be drawn off the kill. I use a compressed air sprayer for fights etc.

    I turned in many directions to attempt corrective training but most told me to put the dog down (Ian Dunbar’s academy, and others) or simply failed to respond. Locally I started to use a trainer with a militaristic approach. We started with what she calls a forced down which is supposed to be a method to get the dog to check out more readily but I have begun to doubt. I just cannot find enough science to believe what she is recommending will not backfire.

    The remaining dog in the group is a 32# mix who has a little pit in her. She is very dog social and knows how to defuse this dog and interact with her but I fear for her if she were to be in a compromised position. Additionally, people tell me this could crossover to humans. I don’t know if that is true but….

    What advice can you give me? I was encouraged by your article that there is a way. I also read about muzzle exposure and wonder how you teach a dog not to continually be trying to remove the muzzle? I have basket muzzles for both dogs that I have used and use at the vets. I have done the peanut butter on the muzzle approaches but they don’t seem to lend permanent behavior.

  • Kim Gin Run

    Hi just a quick question …..what if it’s not livestock or the neighbours cat….my 8 month old saluki X greyhound is fantastic with labradors and other breeds that arnt fast! But as soon as she is with another sighthound or small dog that can run fast and she is chasing them a red mist descends and she tries to bite there hinds or neck and growls …..if the other dog turns and stands up for them selves she’s fine but if not she goes mad and continues to bagger them. Her recall Is pretty good apart from when she is in this state …1 of her sighthound friends just stays still and with a treat I can get her back on lead ( she has never bitten another dog or hurt it, I honestly believe she isn’t aggressive as she would go for them even when they stood still it’s as if the other dog finishes the Chas and she goes back to bing her normal happy go lucky self)
    But with some dogs that don’t stop and just keep running she is impossible
    Any advice would be gratefully received xx