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┬ásay 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, ┬ámingling 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!