Prey drive in pet dogs

One of the really common things I see happening in Facebook groups for working cocker spaniels is that people who have the breed for companionship are sometimes given a bit of a hard time by the people who have the breed as working gundogs. Particularly if the people are having a hard time with things like recall or paying attention to them outside of the house. I assume that a similar thing happens in groups for other working breeds of dogs that are commonly kept as companions.

Whenever I read those discussions, it strikes me that part of the problem is that each side is living a fundamentally different life and that the advice doesn’t always carry over.

The people who have working gundogs will often advise that the pet dog be trained in a similar way especially when young. Often, no walks and instead lots of training sessions in areas where the people can be reasonably sure of what wildlife is around and gradually building up the challenges as the dog gets better at listening. Then, after that, whenever the dog is out, they should be listening and have little freedom and lots of instruction. Sometimes as well people will be recommended to limit the dog to a specific area of the house and to spend less time with them to build up the value for the dog in being with people. Usually, people are told that if they don’t live with their dog like that that the dog will become ‘self-employed’ which means that they will just go off and do their own thing. The working dog people often have a lot of advice about how people can get their dogs to be more obedient.

When I speak to people who work their dogs they do express frustration sometimes at seeing people struggle to get their dog’s attention if birds are around. Or they feel frustrated when they speak to another person with a working cocker who resource guards. They firmly believe that these problems come from lack of training and poor management of the dogs. So, they give the advice I’ve described above to try and help. That’s important to note. Nobody is trying to be horrible – the advice is given with good intentions.

Here's the thing. People with companion dogs usually don’t want to live with their dogs like that. I’m firmly putting my hand up to be one of those people. I want to be able to walk with my working cocker and I don’t want to be constantly telling her what to do. That’s not a relaxing walk in my head.

Here’s the thing, though. When I read through the posts, it often strikes me that for many of the dogs, some of their most basic needs are not being met.

Working cockers are bred to be biddable – which means they mostly WANT somebody to have a connection with them and be communicating with them. They love it when they do something right. These are little dogs who want to know what the rules are, and they want to follow them. They are bred to have a strong desire to find wildlife usually using their nose, but some will use their eyes. Lastly, they are bred to love holding things in their mouth and carrying them around.

Each individual dog will differ in how strong each of those desires are but, broadly, those are the traits needed to make a good working cocker.

When they live as pet dogs, often one or all of those needs aren’t met. When people are busy, training the dog is something that falls by the wayside. Walks are done before or after work when time is short – or include other people – meaning that training the dog isn’t a high priority. For dogs who desperately WANT the connection of doing something with their person, regular walks like that are likely to be frustrating.

In pet dogs an intense interest in wildlife is usually unwanted. Dogs who have that interest are often kept on a lead and/or walked in places where there is less wildlife. Adding more frustration.

And – commonly people worry about being able to take things from their dog. For good reason. Nobody wants their dog to pick up and eat something dangerous. What that worry translates into often is the dogs having their precious things taken from them regularly. Sometimes they aren’t given things that they can pick up and carry around. Yet more frustration.

Working gundogs have none of these issues. They are having all of these needs fulfilled through the work they do.

I always think that rather than worrying about training when things have gone wrong and somebody has a little cocker who is causing them problems, the first thing to think about is what are the dog’s needs and are they being met?

The second thing to think about is what does the dog actually need to know. I know that my requirements are different from what they would be if my dog was a working gundog. I also know that some of the requirements I have mean that if I ever want to do working tests with little Ren – which I might do – it’ll take me longer to train her than it would if she was going to be a working dog and I didn’t treat her like a companion.

That’s all.

My beloved dog, Calgacus, was a completely self-employed dog as a young dog. He was chasing deer and killing rabbits. He wasn’t a biddable breed either. Far from it. Bullmastiffs are not famed for being easy to train. It didn’t matter. I still managed to train him to stop chasing deer and to recall away from rabbits. For sure the training took longer than it would have done if I’d been more diligent about not letting him chase wildlife in the first place, but I didn’t know I needed to do that. He was my very first dog AND I’d chosen his breed in large part because I wanted a dog with no prey drive. I did not expect him to go off after other animals and when he started to, I wasn’t ready to deal with it.

It didn’t matter – he still learned that he could ignore wildlife.

I believe that the same thing will happen with Ren. I might be proved wrong, but she feels to me like that sort of dog who is going to end up being just as steady as Calgacus was. It’s just that as with him, it’ll take a bit longer than it could do.

I’m fine with that. My priority is teaching her the skills she needs to be able to enjoy walks as safely as possible. Teaching her skills for tests or competitions is something that isn’t such a high priority for me. So, it’ll take longer.


If you've ever wondered about prey drive in dogs, you have found the right place. Every blog entry here will give you help, knowledge and support on the subject. I hope you enjoy it.

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Hi - I'm Tracey.

I am the founder of Best Dog Learning and Stuff Ltd and the author of Canine aggression: Rehabilitating an aggressive dog with kindess and compassion.

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