I thought I knew everything about prey drive

1 Oct 2021, 5:11 a.m. by Tracey McLennan

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about Calgacus and his prey drive when he was young. Here is a link if you missed it. Before I knew about prey drive in dogs. It wasn’t just deer that interested Calgacus. He would also chase rabbits with similar enthusiasm and if he could catch them, he would kill them and eat them.

People told me repeatedly that a dog with a prey drive like his could never learn to ignore prey. I read the same thoughts often on the old-style internet forums that predated social media like Facebook.

I found that with training, I could get a good response from Calgacus around prey animals. Here is another section from my book about where we got to.

“I’d become pretty confident about Calgacus’ ability to ignore other animals, and to come back to me if he was chasing them. It started with deer, and I spent hours standing or walking slowly with him on his lead, rewarding him for not pulling towards them. I needed him to understand that even if they were exciting, he could not chase them when he was on the lead. I went through many, many bags of treats with Calgacus practising looking at deer or rabbits or squirrels, and then turning and looking at me, or walking only a step or two toward them. This was possible for him, as, without the thrill of chasing something that was running away, Calgacus found that he could manage to maintain control while he was on a lead, and he was able to stop himself from taking off. For a long time I despaired of this self-control ever existing in a situation when he was chasing something. Once engaged in a chase, his focus was entirely on that, and he couldn’t look at me or listen to me.

I wasn’t hopeful of this changing for various reasons: Calgacus’ breed is known to be independent; I was inexperienced with dogs, and Calgacus had chased, caught and eaten a couple of rabbits in his life, which, I was told, would make it impossible for him to learn to stop chasing prey animals. The breakthrough for me came when I watched a DVD entitled Really Reliable Recall from a dog expert called Leslie Nelson. Up until then I’d rewarded Calgacus with small pieces of food for good behaviour – pea-sized pieces of sausage, liver or cheese – but the DVD suggested using many more rewards: lots of interaction of the type the dogs like; several pieces of food; celebration and admiration for something well done. Turning away from chasing a prey animal would be a big deal for a dog like Calgacus, so he would need more from me than a single piece of liver and a pat.

Having made this change, I noticed a difference in Calgacus. He liked the things I gave him – the food, pats and joy – but, gradually, the act of galloping to me became, in itself, thrilling. As time passed, he and I would go to places with wildlife and practice, until eventually, when he saw a running deer or rabbit, it became an opportunity to run to me and get lots of good stuff. As he got older, he and I would walk on the moors together, with Calgacus off-lead, and admire the deer, to whom we could stand quite close. I would feed Calgacus and tell him he was amazing.”

He got pretty good, didn’t he?

I felt like a true expert in retraining dogs with high prey drives. According to lots of the information I had, I had achieved the impossible.

Without Cuillin coming into my life, I might have been stuck there. But Cuillin came along and showed me that my knowledge was limited. That the wisdom that had been imparted to me by many experts in person and online was limited too. In my experience, this is the case with prey drive in dogs. It’s an aspect of dog behaviour that needs more work and research to be better understood.

Cuillin’s predatory desires were entirely different and just as strong. What I’d learned with Calgacus didn’t help me at all. I had no grounding in understanding prey drive in general and that’s why I struggled. Cuillin’s predatory desires were all at the start of the predatory motor sequence that I wrote about last week . Whereas Calgacus’s were all at the end of it. They needed entirely different handling from each other.

Cuillin prompted me to learn more and get better.

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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.

I love to hear from people who read my blog so if you want to let me know what you thought, email me on tracey@bestdoglearningandstuff.co.uk