My dog is obsessed with cats, squirrels, birds, lizards, anything alive that moves. Does that mean she’s unbalanced? Is this normal, natural instinct? This summer, she’s been spending more and more time in our backyard stocking her prey, and less and less time in the house with the human pack. What am I doing wrong?
Cesar Millan’s answer:
First, I’d like to remind you that the human tells the story and the dog tells the reality. Prey drive is a natural instinct because dogs are predators and hunters – this is something the human has in common with the dog. A dog and a man relate at a primal level better because of this ability. But, modern dogs need to have an understanding of where to practice playful hunting activities in domesticated settings, just as most humans go to their local butcher or grocery store for their sustenance. The danger in prey drive comes from two things. One, the prey itself can be harmful, such as snakes. And two, chasing a squirrel or cat into a street where they can be hit by a car is not safe.
“Play” and “hunt” are different states of mind, and what you need to do is find ways to challenge that instinctual desire so it becomes more “play” and less “hunt.” Try this – come to the backyard with the dog’s leash on and practice activities in the yard with food or toys before the dog sees a squirrel. The leash gives you access to redirection, or luring the dog to other fun activities. Two things you need to teach before this – sit and stay. When your dog knows those commands and responds to them, you can reward her with food or a toy. Do this for at least a month. Then – you’re going to use what she’s already familiar with as a way of rewarding. You can then ask her to chase the squirrel on command. Remember that you are in a situation where you have to work with Mother Nature. Since the dog has already developed prey drive, you have to work with it.
So, once she’s at the tree, don’t call her. You know she won’t come and you don’t want to show her that this is acceptable behavior – to ignore you. This is the perfect time to bring out a piece of chicken, hot dog, or leftover steak (and don’t show it to her). Hide it in your hand so you can wave the scent in front of her nose – that’s what’s driving her the most. Once the dog is attracted to your scent and her attention is away from the squirrel, put the leash on and give the treat. Then walk away from the tree, make sure you’re at least 10 feet away before you ask the dog to sit, and wait until she completely relaxes there before you bring her into the house. This is the process to teach her that she has an on and off switch to prey drive, created by you and controlled by you.
Don’t worry or feel bad when she goes towards the squirrel again or makes a mistake. It doesn’t mean she didn’t learn the lesson – she’s still learning – and this is one instinct from Mother Nature that is very difficult to overpower. However, for a dog to be controlled by instincts, the humans are not giving the dog what he needs. The dog is telling you, “You don’t challenge me at a primal level.” You have to be more than a dog lover to be a good pack leader – you have to be a knowledgeable dog lover because knowledge gives you access to instincts.
Prey drive is scent driven, and dogs experience the world through their noses first. Find activities where you can challenge this sense as often as you can, such as hiding treats and playing hide-and-seek, using a treat ball or toy that encourages the dog to use her mind, or try participating in a search-and-rescue group. Prey drive is almost always a rehabilitation case that will take some time. Be patient and remember to always maintain your calm-assertive energy through the process.
Stay calm and assertive!