Before I knew about prey drive in dogs

10 Sep 2021, 3:50 p.m. by Tracey McLennan

When I was new to living with dogs and had my first dog, Calgacus I didn’t know anything at all about prey drive in dogs. I still had loads to learn. If you are in the place I was then, don’t worry. I know that you can learn all that you need to know.

Here is an excerpt from my book Canine aggression : Rehabilitating an aggressive dog with kindness and compassion about what life was like when Calgacus was young.

I have friends who tell me about the beauty of seeing deer when they walk, their ethereal beauty seems to catch the imagination: slender faces that are all-eyes and curiosity, gone in a blur of reddish fur. They make for a magical sight, transforming a boring day into one filled with wonder. For people with dogs, deer can be tricky, however. They are incredibly exciting to lots of dogs, many of whom cannot resist the temptation to chase a running deer. But dogs chasing deer can result in trouble with the law, and cause enormous anxiety for their carers, should they pursue too far and become lost. For the dogs, there is the risk of injury, becoming lost, or developing heat exhaustion, and the deer suffer, too, from the fear and stress of being chased. Deer-chasing is a particular issue in Scotland where, it seems, there are few places without them. I’ve seen them in city parks, industrial estates, and in tiny green areas in the middle of housing estates.

In my experience avoiding them is impossible, but I hadn’t realised this until Calgacus was approaching his first birthday, when he developed a fascination with them, leaping fences and running across fields to chase the animals. Sometimes, he found it hard to get back to me, and often I was scared by how far he would run. I got into the habit of walking in places away from roads and livestock, to try and keep him as safe as possible if he did chase a deer.

One morning he and I were walking in some beautiful woodland close to my home. The narrow track we trod was bounded on one side by a steep drop to a river, and on the other by dark, tangled forest. The sun had just come up, revealing a blue sky filled with wispy, pink-tinged clouds. I breathed in the clean, pine-scented air and felt a moment of peace. Looking up, the moment was shattered by the sight of three large deer on the track ahead. For a moment, everything stopped and none of us breathed, then the deer turned and ran, their white tails bobbing through the forest, with Calgacus, a smaller, striped figure, running behind, his strides quickly outpaced by those of the deer, as they disappeared into the trees. I stood alone on the path and waited. I expected it to be a short wait. Calgacus ran much more slowly than any deer, and, although he found them exciting, his attention would falter once he could see them getting further away.

Behind me I heard thuds and rustles and branches breaking with short, sharp cracks, and turned to see two deer run out of the woods straight at me. Behind them by quite a way ran Calgacus, his head up and his eyes bright as he galloped along. The deer were immense. Seen at such close quarters they lost their otherworldly, slender appearance, and became large, powerful animals, their muscular shoulders bunched and tensed as they ran, their breath puffing out, clouding in the early morning air. I tensed and stared at them, then looked down at the long drop to the river, wondering if I would survive being knocked down the drop by a pair of panicked deer.

That nightmarish moment stretched out as fear distorted my perception of time. At the last moment the deer turned, plunging down the slope toward the river. I watched them run, sure-footed, never stumbling or tripping, down the slope I’d been sure would be the scene of a serious accident for me.

Calgacus stopped when he got to me, breathing hard, tongue out, looking for some food. I bent down to hug him, close to tears with relief.


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Hi - I'm Tracey

I am the author of Canine aggression: Rehabilitating an aggressive dog with kindess and compassion and founder of Best Dog Learning and Stuff Ltd. I specialise in helping people with dogs who have a high prey drive. I have an honours degree in Canine behaviour and training, am a Tellington TTouch practitioner, and an ACE Advanced Tutor. I am currently studying for an MSc in Applied Animal Behaviour and Training.

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