The Hunting Habit

How do you train a dog who has a taste for hunting …?

We love to watch our dogs enjoy their walks, running through the fields and burning off their energy. But this can soon turn to panic when your dog disappears longer than you expect or you watch them take off in hot pursuit of a wild animal. It often happens unexpectedly, it feels like one day your puppy trots along next to you, and the next he’s caught a scent, his confidence rockets and he’s gone. Now he’s had that taste of ‘hunting’, it can quickly become his new favourite activity and the thrill of the chase is too much to resist.

What do you do when your dog’s instincts take over? Must he stay on a lead forever, never to be trusted with any freedom? Or do you take the risk, let him enjoy his freedom and live with the worry that one day he might get himself lost and in trouble?

These don’t have to be the only options, often people resign themselves to the fact that their dog will never change, or that it’s far too much hard work to teach him differently. Admittedly, it’s not an easy behaviour to change and it does take considerable work, but that will pay off when you’re able to trust your dog again and allow him to have some freedom back without the fear of losing him forever.

Always Start with Management

As with any behaviour you want to change, you have to start by putting management strategies in place. Management is there to prevent your dog practicing the behaviour you’re trying to change. The behaviour will never change if your dog continues to practice it, so while you teach a new, alternative behaviour, you need to stop the old one being practiced.

For dogs who hunt, management strategies should prevent the dog having opportunities to practice this behaviour:

  1. Change where you walk – if your dog is hunting in woods, take a break from the woods and find some open spaces where you can start building the foundations of training. If hunting takes over in any location, hire a secure field so you can safely work on teaching new behaviours. New locations can be used to teach new behaviours so find some new places and only return to your previous walking locations when your training is at a more reliable level
  2. Use a longline – if your dog runs off and gets a thrill out of chasing or hunting, you need to stop him finding reinforcement in these behaviours. Using a longline will mean you can stop your dog practicing the unwanted behaviour while you teach a better recall and new behaviours
  3. No more off-lead time – until his recall is reliable, your dog should be on a short lead or longline
  4. No unsupervised access to hunting areas – this applies if your dog likes to hunt in your garden or secure land. Practicing the behaviour, even in a secure space, will still mean it’s reinforced, so while it may be safe to do it here, it won’t help your training out on walks

Let’s start with Impulse Control

Many dogs act before they think, they see a squirrel and they’re gone, no second thought … straight into the chase, any non-essential senses are shut down and they’re into chase mode. This means everything is concentrated on the activity, their ears are less essential for this so calling your dog’s name will quite literally be falling on deaf ears. In this moment, food and digestion are not important so waving a treat around is unlikely to influence your dog either, it’s too late for that and your dog only has one thing in mind: hunting.

Impulse control means teaching your dog to think more clearly in these situations, when he sees a squirrel or other wildlife, you want him to take a moment to check in with you and respond to your cue of whether or not he can participate in that activity. For some dogs this will be much harder than for others, depending on your dog’s level of reinforcement and motivation for hunting, you will need to put a lot more time into impulse control.

Mark and Reward training is a good place to start … this has many names … DMT (Distraction-Mark-Treat), LAT (Look-At-That) etc etc … essentially you mark the moment your dog looks at a distraction and then reward him. Your ‘mark’ could be a simple word like ‘yes’ or ‘good’, or it could be a clicker noise. The key is to be consistent and make sure every time you say that word or click, your dog ALWAYS receives a treat.

  1. Load the marker – in a quiet room in your house, use your marker (we’ll use ‘YES’ for this), say ‘YES’ and drop a treat under your dog’s nose. Repeat 10 times
  2. Add distraction – you could have a person walk into the room or take your dog to a window where he can see some distractions. Each time he looks at the person or sees a distraction, say ‘YES’ and drop a treat near him. Repeat this until he turns to look at you when he hears ‘YES’ … this might take 5 repetitions or it might take 25!
    • Your distraction shouldn’t be too high at this stage, if your dog is finding it impossible to look away or take the treat then you need to find an easier distraction to work with. The key is to be building your skills with timing of the marker and rewards, as well as pairing an association for your dog
  3. Once you feel confident with this step, use the same set-up but wait a couple of seconds when your dog sees the distraction, if he turns to look at you then mark ‘YES’ and reward. If after a couple of seconds he hasn’t yet looked back at you, go back to Step 2 for a few more repetitions
    • At this step we want the dog to see the distraction and choose to look at you as if to say ‘where’s my treat!?’
  4. Now take this training out and about, don’t go straight to a squirrel-filled park though, start with lower-level distractions. If your dog isn’t too bothered by people then use ‘YES’ when he sees people, before progressing onto things which he finds more distracting. In every new situation you can return to Step 2 and YES-reward as soon as he looks at a distraction, but move on quickly to Step 3
    • If he struggles to respond or take treats, you are pushing him too much so find somewhere less distracting and work through the steps again.
    • For some dogs, just being outside will be challenging so you may need to work for longer in your garden or on your front door step.

Your ultimate goal with this training is for your dog to spot an exciting distraction, whether that’s a squirrel, deer or rabbit, and choose to turn back to you. When your dog has this automatic reflex response, you are in a winning position to help your dog make a different choice. When he looks at you, you have the choice to release him to practice that behaviour or call him back to you and engage him in an alternative behaviour.

Mark and Reward training will be a key foundation to impulse control work, but it’s not the only thing that will help your dog think more carefully and make better choices…

  • Arousal in toy play – use toys to work on your dog’s ability to switch from high excitement to calmer behaviours, for example, 10 seconds of tugging, followed by 20 seconds of calm in a down-stay
  • Control with play – use ‘stay’ exercises to work on your dog’s ability to respond to cues when excited. Teach him to wait while you throw a toy or while you tease him with it, and teach a release cue (e.g. OK) when he’s free to engage in the game
  • Response in play – work on simple cues during games … can your dog respond to ‘sit’ while he’s excited in the middle of a game? If not, work on this and teach him to listen to commands even in moments of excitement around toys

Apply the Premack Principle

The Premack Principle is a theory of reinforcement which suggests that an opportunity to engage in more probable behaviours will reinforce less probable behaviours. In dog terms, you can use a behaviour your dog LOVES to reward a behaviour you want him to do, but he naturally wouldn’t choose. For example, you could reward him coming back to you (low probability behaviour) by allowing him to go off sniffing (high probability behaviour).

This is a key concept when teaching a reliable recall, and in the context of a dog who likes to hunt, it may not be appropriate to reward his recall with the opportunity to practice hunting, but you can redirect this instinct and reinforcement onto something more appropriate.

Many dogs find hunting intrinsically rewarding, they’re genetically predisposed to find reinforcement in the behaviour and they need suitable outlets to fulfil this. Premack means you can teach your dog to respond to behaviours you want, while also allowing your dog to fulfil their own needs.

Before you just let your dog loose and hope Premack takes effect, you need to spend time teaching the foundations. Put your management strategies in place while you teach your dog to respond to you, work on his impulse control, his focus, and his general ability to think and listen … then you can apply the Premack Principle and use his hunting drive to reinforce the new behaviours you’re teaching him.

Come When I Call

Teaching your dog to come when called sounds like a relatively simple thing, but it can be one of the hardest skills to teach. Dog’s find so much reinforcement in their environment and these reinforcers often outweigh anything we can offer to our dogs in exchange. A treat might work in an empty field, but it’s unlikely to outweigh a squirrel or another dog.

It’s also not enough to rely solely on teaching a reliable recall because if your dog fails his recall and his instincts take over, his senses will be tuned into the chase and hunt, meaning you can call and whistle all you like but he simply will not hear you. When your dog fails a recall while also experiencing great reinforcement from chasing or hunting, this behaviour will be further reinforced and your recall will be further ruined.

The Recall Essentials:

  • Management is key: use a longline to ensure your dog can’t fail a recall
  • Set up for success: start teaching recall in less distracting environments. One week of recall training is NOT enough, it will take months and months for most dogs. Don’t set him up to fail by trying to teach recall in the woods full of squirrels and don’t expect too much too soon
  • Find what motivates your dog:
    • if he loves to chase then use chasing a toy as a reward
    • throw food treats for him to catch or chase
    • find a food he can’t resist … dry biscuits are boring, so up the value to real meat
    • engage with your dog! Dogs love interaction, make yourself fun and exciting, run around, play with him, teach him fun tricks
  • Apply Premack: once you have some recall foundations and you’ve built the value of other motivations like food, toys or engagement with you, then apply Premack. Start to reward your dog for coming back with a mixture of his biggest ‘human’ motivation (food/toys/engaging) and then add his ‘high probability’ reinforcement by allowing him to go off sniffing again
    • For some dogs, you could use hunting as the reward for recall but only when your dog is reliably coming back. It’s probably not the best reward for most dogs so focus on using other naturally reinforcing behaviours like sniffing, or direct their chase/hunt instincts onto toys which can be used as rewards

Set up Scenarios

Remember, training is all about setting up for success. You and your dog will lose motivation and feel frustrated if you expect too much too soon. It’s hard to perfect the training if you’re hoping to train immediately around a squirrel or deer in the woods, so start easier by working on all these exercises away from ‘prey’. Take a break from more distracting walking environments and take the time to proof your recall in quieter locations away from too many distractions.

You can use toys or stuffed animals initially to work on impulse control, Mark-Reward training and recall. If chase is his favourite then you could ask a helper to run along with a stuffed animal or toy while you work on recall and impulse control from this.

Practice and proof recall in every possible environment. Start easy before moving onto new places and gradually adding in harder environments, but don’t be afraid to go back a step and return to easier places if your dog regresses and you have less success in harder places.

If it’s not working, go back a step. High prey drive dogs, with a history of hunting, will find huge amounts of reinforcement in this behaviour so be prepared for some setbacks and to return to the basics quite a few times!

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