Tuesday, October 08, 2019

The Challenge of Prey Drive

Is your dog hell-bent on killing the Easter Bunny?

Would you like to be able to walk your dog off-leash through forest and farm, confident it will stay with you and not run off chasing deer and squirrels?

It's possible, but it takes work.

I hunt groundhog, raccoons, possums, and fox with working terriers, but I also walk my dogs off-leash through local parks without any concern that they will run off to chase wildlife.

What's the secret?

There are several, but let's start with a simple idea: not all breeds of dogs (or all dogs) are the same.

Some dogs are simply not interested in chasing squirrels, rabbits, cats, or deer.

A low-drive Labrador Retriever may walk by its owner's side as a matter of course. For this dog, there may be no greater reward.

But a Jack Russell or a Border Terrier? These are some of the most famously prey-driven dogs in the world.

How hard is it to curb the prey drive of a working terrier?

Consider that Karen Pryor, a famous dog trainer and popularizer of clicker training, never did manage to train her own Border Terrier so she could walk it off-leash through the woods.

Why was Ms. Pryor not able to walk her Border Terrier off-leash in the woods?

It was a combination of two things: a very high-prey drive dog that was deeply coded to hunt, and a training regime which was inadequate to curb powerful self-rewarding behaviors.

Let's talk about internal drives and self-rewarding behaviors for a minute.

Not all dogs are the same, and every breed and every individual dog comes with a different type and level of internal code.

Everyone knows that the typical setter or pointer is naturally "birdy".

When a good bird dog scents its first quail, pheasant, or pigeon, the "code explodes" deep inside the dog. Training a bird dog is about channeling and encouraging that code, not creating it whole cloth.

The same is true for the Border Collie that naturally herds ducks, sheep, or even small children. The code is there; directing it, channeling it, and turning it off when it is not wanted is the challenge.

Training a dog to do something is a matter of rewards. If the task to be trained is evolutionarily "uncoded" inside the dog, such as presenting a paw, running weave poles, or lying down on command, food treats and verbal praise alone may be all that is needed to achieve success.

But what if what if you want the dog to NOT do something?

And what if that thing is a deeply coded, and self-rewarding, behavior?

Ah, there's the rub!

This is where rewards-based clicker training alone typically fails.

The originators of clicker training knew the limits of their methods.

Though there was a lot of money to be made in dog training, both B.F. Skinner and his immediate disciples, Keller and Marian Breland, stayed away from training dogs outdoors because they could not get reliable performance from predators in an open-field situation.

Instead, these esteemed trainers focused almost entirely on non-predators such as chickens, pigeons, rats, goats, and pigs. Even here the animals were almost always confined to boxes and cages in order to remove outside stimulus and distractions.

So, to get back to it, how do you train a hard-wired dog with a lot of prey drive to not chase rabbits and squirrels?

Start by training your dog to lie down on command, and to stay down for lengthy periods of time. This is called the "place" command, and I strongly recommend teaching it on an elevated dog cot.

Dog cots are so ubiquitous to good training they are sold as an "Amazon Basic" online.

While you are ordering your dog cot, you may also want to order a few other basic dog training tools if you do not already own them: a nylon treat-bag that you can attach to your belt, a 10- or 12-foot flat leash, and a 25-foot retractable-tape leash.

To teach "place," attach your calm dog to a leash and use food and leash pressure to get the dog up and standing on the cot. This can be done either indoors, or out in the yard. Use a single-word command, such as "bench". You can use a clicker to train this behavior, but it is not necessary.

Once the dog is up on the cot, walk around the dog on the cot while holding the leash, rewarding the dog with a small bit of food for staying on the cot, but fading off the food to a simple "good" verbal cue as soon as possible.

When the dog is loading on and off the cot with ease, and staying on the cot as you walk around it, move the dog to "down" on the cot and on command. You may need to hand place the dog in a down position initially, or you can lure the dog in a down position with food and leash pressure. Tell the dog to "stay" with a flat hand signal, and walk around the leashed dog on the cot as before, rewarding with a small bit of food and praise, as seems appropriate, but fading off as quickly as possible to a simple "good" cue for correct behavior.

You are now going to do exactly what you have been doing with the short leash, but at a longer distance, and outside, using a 25-foot retractable leash.

While retractable leashes are not recommended for normal dog walking, they are a terrific replacement for the traditional "long line" used in training.

Train your dog to "bench," down-stay and "come" several times a day, for 10-15 minutes a day, using the cot and long-line retractable leash.

Train your dog before you feed it, as you want a highly food-motivated dog for training purposes. Try to make your dog work for every scrap of food it gets, fading off consistent food rewards and replacing them with a positive verbal signal ("good"), and with occasional food "jackpots" for particularly long down-stays or quick recalls.

Intermittent and "jackpot" rewards build interest and enthusiasm in a way that consistent rewards do not.

Now that your dog has learned "bench" and "down-stay" and "come" thanks to your work on a cot and a retractable lone-line, it's time to take this show outside, and to a not-too-busy local park.

Attach the dog to a 10- or 12-foot leash and practice asking the dog to "bench" up on park benches, low walls, fallen logs, boulders, or any other low surface that looks like it will work.

Your goal here is simply to get the dog to generalize what it has learned on the cot to other locations and situations. Dogs are not good generalizers, and so you can expect some regression. Practice, practice, practice, however, and your dog will soon understand that the same "bench" and "down-stay" command that resulted in a food reward on the cot in your backyard means the same thing -- and the same rewards -- when it's done on a park bench, log, or rock in an entirely different location.

Once the dog is "benching" and doing "down-stays" on command at the park on a 10- or 12-foot leash, attached the longer retractable leash and repeat, repeat, repeat.

Once your dog is nailing "bench," long down-stays, and long-leash recalls at your favorite park, change your practice area and get the dog doing long down-stays on grass, concrete, asphalt, and dirt at different parks and in odd locations.

Once again you are teaching your dog to generalize, and once again expect a little regression, as dogs are not great generalizers.

At the end of every long down-stay, call the dog to you for a small food reward, and then keep the dog at a pretty tight heel as you walk to a new location in which to practice.

I always encourage folks do do "crazy eight" drills when walking their dogs in order to get the dog to pay attention to every stride. Changing direction without notice gives the dog a natural leash correction while making it focus on your every foot movement.

What's been going on during this period of training?

Two things: you are learning to focus on your dog, and your dog is learning to focus on you. This is important, and is the essence of all dog training.

Humans and dogs have a great natural affinity for each other because we are so very much alike. We are social pack predators and scavengers, organized in loose hierarchies, and we both have epic levels of attention deficit disorder.

Attention deficit disorder is actually more of a feature of dogs and people than a disorder.

In order to eat, and not be eaten, dogs and humans evolved to take in tremendous amounts of sensory information: sound, touch, smell, and movement.

Most of this information is not very useful, and is dumped by our brains before we even notice it.

Every once in a while, however, something evolutionarily important comes into our field of vision, and then we focus on it, and obsess about it.

Dogs and humans are very much alike in this respect, with both our brains ping-ponging back and forth between bouts of attention deficit disorder and bouts of obsessive compulsive behavior.

What's this have to do with dog training?

Quite a lot.

You see, up to now we have been using leashes, cots, and rewards to get both you and the dog focused on the fact that you are both learning a new thing.

Getting the dog up on a cot is a new thing for both you and the dog. Using an elevated cot helps focus both of you on the fact that this is "training time" and that only a very few distinct things are being trained. This is not "business as usual" between the two of you, as the cot has never been seen before, and is only being used for this one thing.

As for the leash, it provides a boundary limit for both you and the dog, but it's also a communication tool that flows in both directions and gets both of you focusing on each other.

In short, the cot, the leash, and the treat bag are all about focus, focus, focus, and it's not just the dog that needs the help!

At this point in your training, you should have a dog that walks calmly on leash, that "benches" on objects on command, and which holds a "down stay" on command for at least 10-minutes based on a hand signal alone.

Not only is your dog doing this in your living room, it is also doing this in your backyard, at your favorite park, and in strange locations where it has never been before and where there are some mild distractions, such as leashed dogs and people walking by.


Now you are ready to move the dog to off-leash training.

As before however, you are going to take one step backwards before you take two steps forward, and so you are going back to your fenced yard in order to learn proofing.

What is proofing?

Proofing is the difference between giving your dog a suggestion and giving your dog a commandment.

Up to now, because your dog has been on a leash, no serious harm has been done on those occasions when your dog has blown you off or ignored your initial command.

That's not true, however, if the dog is off leash. Very bad things can happen very quickly when a dog is off-leash.

People will often say their dog has excellent recall and always stays with them. Right. But will they walk that dog off-leash on a highway median strip with cars whizzing by on both sides?

Ask the question, and suddenly you get a caveat; their dog "mostly" obeys.

Right. But when working a dog off-leash, "mostly" may not be good enough. Too many bad things can happen too fast.

So how do you turn what you have been teaching your dog from mere "suggestion" to hard commandment?

Simple: punishment.

Punishment is one of those "hot" words that tends to get folks animated even before they even know what it means.

Would you punish your mother or child the same as your dog, they will ask?

Actually, yes.

Both my 85-year old mother and my kids have been "punished" with the same tools I use on my dogs, and neither one of them could even feel the correction!

Here's what folks are missing: once you have trained a dog to understand what you are asking of it, all the "punishment" that is needed, in most cases, is a gentle "tap on the shoulder" to break through the dog's natural tendency to slide between attention deficit disorder and obsessive compulsive behavior.

The good news is that at this stage of the game your dogs knows what to do.

Your dog knows how to walk on heel when on leash, and to pay pay attention to your stride.

Your dog knows to "bench" up on things when instructed, and how to hold a long-down stay on command.

And, of course, your dog knows what "come" means, because you have taught that at the end of every long "down-stay" using your retractable leash.

But will any of that matter when your dog is taken off-leash?

Maybe for a short while.

But dogs are quick forgetters, same as humans. We both suffer from epic levels of attention deficit disorder, and epic levels of obsessive compulsive behavior. Our minds are all over the place right up to that moment when we fixate and become tunnel-visioned.

How does this manifest itself in the real world? Simple: you will be walking along with your head in the clouds, and your off-leash dog will be walking a little too far ahead of you with his head in the clouds.  Because you are both off-leash, there is no longer a fixed distance limit between the two of you, and there is also no two-way communication up and down the leash.

In such a scenario, if a rabbit happens to dart out of high grass, your dog's prey drive may kick in, and it's "off to the races" through thicket and field.

This exact scenario has been the bugaboo of dog trainers for a very long time. Rudd Weatherwax , the trainer of Lassie, could never get Pal, the high prey-drive Collie and star of the TV show, to stop chasing motorcycles.

The good news is that Rudd Weathwax was training dogs more than 60 years ago, and a new tool has come along that makes a world of difference: the modern e-collar.

To be clear, the modern e-collar is not the same as the cheap, hot, and quite unreliable e-collars being sold on Ebay or Amazon for $30-$50.

These things are 30-year old off-patent technology that is too often incompetently constructed.  Stay away from this cheap out-of-date technology like the plague.

What you want is a modern e-collar made by E-Collar Technologies or Dogtra. These collars have up to 100 levels of stimulation, send signals for a half mile or more, and cost about $200 each. In my opinion these collars are worth every dime, and I would accept no substitute

If you will not fork out $200 for a modern and reliable e-collar, my advice is to keep your dog on-leash and be done with it.

That said, if you are serious about training a high prey-drive dog to walk off-leash in field and forest without it chasing rabbits, deer, squirrels, cats, and other dogs, you will find a modern e-collar as revolutionary as a cell phone or an airplane.

My own two working terriers weigh just 9 and 12 pounds, and they were trained off-lead on an E-Collar Technologies Mini-Educator whose dial setting has never moved higher than 8.

The same e-collar, albeit perhaps set at a different level, will train a 130-pound Rottweiler or Irish Wolf Hound.

For reference, I have never met a human that can feel my collars at level 8. Most folks only begin to feel a very light tingle ("Is that all there is," they ask?) between levels 10 and 12.

What does a modern e-collar do? How's it work?

Simple: It's a radio transmitter that sends a low-level electrical tap, not a zap, to the dog's collar.

This tap works to break through the attention-deficit and obsessive-compulsive behavior that so often plagues the minds of dogs.

Using an e-collar is not mean-spirited stuff.

In fact, a tap from an e-collar is analogous to reaching out to touch someone on the tip of their nose when they are not paying attention or are dead-focused on watching a movie. The touch does not hurt, but it certainly breaks into their train of thought, and gets them focused on what you are saying!

And so it is with the modern e-collar.

The e-collar is not designed to train, but to proof. Proofing is mostly about getting a dog to focus and not brain-wander or brain-obsess.

Do modern e-collars also have a "boost" function to send a more powerful NO signal if that is needed?

They do.

My own working terriers have their "boost" set at 12 (out of 100), which is an electronic tap so low that a human can barely feel it. It feels lighter than a fly landing on your hand, but it's enough to stop my dogs dead because they have been trained.

Bigger and thicker-headed dogs might need a higher setting, but modern e-collars are about signaling and training dogs, not about hot shocks to "bust" an entirely untrained and out-of-control dog off a deer, fox, rabbit, or cat.

This is modern dog training technology, not the older "buster" technology of the 1970s and 80s.

Modern e-collars have several options to send different kinds of signals to a dog: a tapping stimulation, a vibration mode, and a tone.

People new to e-collars imagine that the vibration mode, which is similar in sensation to what a cell phone does, must be the "gentlest" way to signal a dog, but in fact most dogs actually prefer a low-level electrical "tap". In fact, with my own dogs, the only evidence that a signal has been sent at all is a change in what they are actually doing. If my dogs are too far out, and I tap once, and they know to come back immediately. If they get up and come off a one-hour down stay while I binge watch TV, a single tap will remind them that they have not yet been released, and they will circle back to lie down on their cot.

Because e-collars offer the prospect of perfect timing at a distance, simple voice commands and corrective taps quickly become paired. In short order, you will find you have gone weeks without tapping the collar even once.

This is what e-collars bring to the table: reliable proofing at a distance.

E-collar training and proofing is not hard or complicated. The main point is to start training your dog the old fashioned way first, with leash, flat collar, and treats. Once your dog knows the basic commands, you can begin "proofing" the commands using a low-level "tapping" stimulation.

Dog trainer Larry Krohn has a good, short instruction manual on the basics of e-collar settings and techniques which is available off of Amazon, and I would order that low-cost practical guide when you order your modern e-collar.

As with all dog training, e-collar proofing is a process not an event. Just as every dog comes with a different level of drive, intelligence and bidability, so too will every dog come with a different "working level" for e-collar training.

Start low, and on leash, and slowly move up. The goal is a tap, not a zap. The primary function of the modern e-collar is to send a well-timed and mild signal at a distance in order to break through the natural ADD and OCD of the dog. Only under very rare circumstances should you ever need to send a stronger "zap" to stop a behavior, and even then the zap should be quite mild -- no more than what you would readily give yourself.

A final note: there are many kinds of dog trainers, but far too many have no idea how to stop an unwanted and strongly coded self-reinforcing behavior.

If you come across a dog trainer who has no idea how to get a small terrier to quickly stop barking, my advice is to find another, more competent, trainer. Money is too expensive to waste on a dollar-per-hour charlatan.

By the same token, if someone presents themselves as a dog trainer, but does not own the full panoply of tools needed to train a wide range of dogs with a wide variety of problems, I would hold on to your wallet. Whether a dog trainer trains with a prong collar or not, every competent dog trainer should own several, if for no other reason than to have actually learned how they work and why they might be the right tool to use for the 105-pound women with a shoulder injury who needs to walk her Rottweiler.

The same can be said for head halters, and modern e-collars.

Every tool has its place, and even if a dog trainer does not typically use a modern e-collar in their training regime, if they do not own one and know how to use it, they should not be charging for their dog training services.

The bottom line is that you can train your dog to walk off-leash in field and forest without any harm coming to rabbit, fox, deer, squirrels, or feral cats that you may come across.

Is this is a quick thing to teach a game-bred dog that is brimming over with prey drive?

No, but it is certainly within the capabilities of any dog and dog owner, and it's a real game changer if you like to hike and hunt through field and forest.


Karen Carroll said...

My friend who professionally trains dogs switched from commercial dog treats to cut up hot dogs for her rewards. The reason was when she left the commercial dog treats were left outside. NOTHING ate them, no flies, bugs, fire ants, etc. She thought: "What am I feeding my dogs?". So she now microwaves cut up hot dogs to the consistency of jerky and uses them instead. My dog also LOVES bacon bits for humans (Hormel in a bottle) so I use those instead of questionable dog treats. Cheaper and I know they are safer for my dog.

Federico said...

You are forgetting one thing about your own dogs -- you hunt them. That is, they do not have to suppress their hunting drive forever, they have to channel it in specific ways that are (1) legal and (2) allow them to fulfil their hunting needs in a way that is not disruptive to you.

I am not saying dogs need to hunt, but a high prey drive dog would most likely be better off with someone who can either hunt with the dog or find a equally fulfilling substitute for said prey drive, which the dog can engage in regularly and often. If people want a pet (a perfectly valid thing to want) and have no desire to hunt nor to engage with dog in a substitute activity regularly and often, getting a low prey drive dog is a perfectly valid approach -- prey drive can only be controlled, not trained away.

Also, nothing in what you write suggests you punish your dogs -- the e-collar use you describe is far more consistent with a remote-yet-direct way of breaking their focus. I would add that the sooner this technique is used the lower the intensity is needed: a dog that just saw a rabbit and is about to bolt after it is more sensitive to correction than a dog that is off after the rabbit, and the longer the chase, the higher the excitement and the lower the sensitivity.

Anonymous said...

When talking of ADD... ban those smartphones from dog-time! How many dog owners have I met who startle out of a phone call or a whatsapp text chat when they see me coming up with three horses on tow and their dog is .... where exactly? Doing what exactly? Humans are slow anyways, we don't need an extra distractor to slow us down even more and voluntarily allow weakening of our position as perceived by yhe dog. I mean, who'd want to blame the dog for "doing things" if the human ever only sees it once the situation is already right in his or her face?

On e-collars and general training intensity I have made the interesting observation of just how dependent on the situation my dog's sensitivity to the cue is. With the e-collar this is measurable almost as an absolute, which is great. It also emphasizes how attentive we humans must be when interacting with our pets and especially when out in the public/woods. My dog (a JRT) can feel a level 3, usually responds on a 4. Which is my "working level". Distractions of mild importance shift it up to a 7 on which he may follow the cue or may not but obviously does notice it. There are moments he just decides to ignore it. The intensity of distraction can raise the point of "notice" all the way up to a 16 - you may or may not get a response but you can see the dog turn his head. A single tap at a 16 in thise moments is fully ignored. Maybe you can see a kink in the line of movement. Extreme distraction takes around a level 30 (single tap) to buzz him off his track. It is so obvious how hard wired the dog is. Once he hits that wall he will return to normal function right away and we are back at a level 4 and thinking again. That said, there have been moments he hit the wall and simply tried again right after the startle.

I have to add that "in general" the dog is absolutely reliable and these high distraction situations are isolated to very distinctive circumstances and the main fault that allows the situation to gain momentum is allways me not being perceptive enough to notice where the threshold lies. I am learning, but I'm still not as good as my dog.

PBurns said...

I mean to write a piece about the benefits of ball play and tug play.

A simple thing, but important for a lot of dogs and dog owners.

For most pet owners, this is perhaps a more useful topic than a piece about teaching off-leash walking with a prey-drive dog.

Unknown said...

A very excellent synopsis of complete dog training! Follow this advise to get the dog you want. Don't forget to make friends with your dog and have fun. Having a companion who learns the rules makes your dog safer too.

Edze said...

Excellent article.
I had the great opportunity last spring to take part in a stockdog clinic with Derek Scrimgeour. One thing that really resonated with was what he said about bordercollie intelligence (this breed is marketed by the AKC as "the smartest in the world"). He said "Bordercollies aren't that intelligent, but they are bred to be exceptionally obsessive compulsive".
Probably the reason why they often don't work out as pets.