Sarah Wilson

Dog Expert

For Dogs Who Chase: Using Prey Drive to Control Prey Drive


Lab grabs ball in airJulia, one of the late, great German Shepherds I’ve shared my life with, had a high prey drive. Meaning, left to her own devices, she chased chipmunks, squirrels, ground hogs, rabbits and, on our New York farm, deer.

Now, I’d like to tell you that she stopped on a dime every time I called her. I really would like to tell you that. But she did not, at least, not until I started to use that intense drive of hers to my advantage.

One day, quite by accident, I discovered a better way. Julia was a ball dog of the “live-and-die for the ball” sort. We were walking in a field one afternoon when a deer sprang from the brush in front of us. She and I saw it at the same moment. In what can only be called desperation, I said, “Julia! BALL!” She whipped her head around and I tossed her ball the other way. She bolted after it, bringing it back to me tail wagging with me praising her mightily.

That event helped me understand the value of teaching head turns and set in her a strong willingness to turn away from deer that held for the rest of her life (which astonished me).

For some dogs you can use really good food but no food, no matter how good, was ever half as good as a ball to Julia. With high prey-drive dogs, I’ve had more success channeling that drive into tug or fetch than trying to use food once they were intent. Most of my shepherds have had the “get the treat out of my face, I’m working here” attitude when their prey drive was engaged.

If you’d like to use prey drive to control prey drive try the following:

  • Work lots of head turns off non-prey, stationary items. (Biscuits are my usual starting place.)
  • Work those until your dog turns away before you cue him.
  • Get a special toy you only play with only during this training and build an obsession (a soon to be posted blog).
  • Tug is great redirection for some dogs, too much for others so if you can play using the Rules of Engagement, great. If not, stick with fetch.
  • Then start working around distractions that are moving a bit.
  • Make the head turn back to you the BEST THING EVER. Sell it to your dog in every way you can – attention, praise, joy, play. BIG GREEN LIGHT!
  • When you dog turns away from moving distractions instantly and with joy, you are well on your way to using the very thing that was the problem as the solution.

Keep me posted.


  1. Looking forward to your blog on making a toy obsession. My Aussie Shep thinks everything is pretty good, but nothing is ‘drop everything MUST HAVE THAT TOY’ amazing. I’ll be interested to see what you suggest as it’ll make our training so much easier!

  2. Excellent – the use of functional rewards, be it for management or actual behavior change.

    There is a German protocol called “Zeigen und Benennen” or Z&B that uses functional rewards in a similar manner. The good thing about it is, that like everything else, Pavlov is sitting on your shoulder (thanks Bob Bailey) so there is a lot if conditioning, good conditioning going on.

    Since dog react differently to different stimuli, it can be advantageous to inform them of what is coming up. You do this by identifying the antecedent stimulus for the, “Where is the dog” (for dog-dog fear) and this can initiate one management game, for example, look at that dog coming, but when you’ve got enough info, go back (away from the dog) to mom. Functional reward is distance increasing to the other dog. “Or where is the squirrel?” means look, lust, but go back to mom who has the tug-toy on a rope you get to chase and tug with her.

    So, similar to LAT, you need to condition the dog to actually look for something. Then you nail it down to one specific thing (“Where is the man?”) and work out what the reward can be. It doesn’t always need to be a functional reward. When I did this with my dog for cats, which she LOVES, I used food, because I thought her emotional arousal would already be high enough without pumping her up more with some kind of chase-tug game. But where functional rewards can be of higher priority and channel energy instead of unduly increase it, it’s a great way to go.

    This Z & B was developed by the behavioral biologist, trainer and behavior consultant from Germany, Dr. Ute Blaschke-Berthold.

    • Thank you for such an interesting, relevant and smart reply, Leonard.

    • I have a 1 year old gsd who is “prey driven”, he goes after our 2 1/2 year old puggle and both of our cats. He is also fearful of other dogs and some men (don’t know how he picks and chooses what men he’s going to be fine with and which ones he’s not). I have tried verbal commands, food treats, and ecollars to stop this behavior with only little success. I am looking for other methods of training for him. Walking him on the leash to get rid of energy isn’t always easy as his fear of other dogs and some men send him into a frenzy.

  3. I’m also interested in how to “build an obcession.” My Border Collie/Shiba Inu mix has a high prey drive (and kills groundhogs on our farm, despite her size), but has no fetch at all. In fact, when she was a puppy, a Smooth Collie tried to show her how great fetch was and she took his balls and buried them under the porch (yeah, and he was intact, too, so pun intended!).

    I’m very interested in how to use that prey drive to manage her prey drive — she’s a great dog, but can get lost in her prey drive, chasing and I’d like to work on that.

  4. My dog is prey driven, and is extremely obsessed with chasing balls, or anything thrown for him. Problem is I picked up a stick and threw it in the water, which he fetched promptly, then ran back into the lake paddling around in a obsessed state of excitement searching for another stick. I cannot take him near water now because he rushes in looking for a stick and will not come back when called. He will swim to exhaustion and pays no attention to how far from shore he swims, in circles. I have to physically retrieve him from the water. It is extremely frightening. I made the mistake of throwing a snowball, he now constantly digs and runs in the snow searching for a snowball. It is cute at first, but the behavior is obsessive and dangerousness because he will not respond to me when he gets in these states.

    • That is intense and scary. I’d be doing a lot – a LOT – of head turns back toward you on land until you can get him back to you away from most anything without a touch of the leash. When that is in place, then you have a chance.

      Like all things, you start where you can start to get where you’re going!

  5. Hi loving this article. But can you help. We have Ruby, a 2 year old dobermann bitch, who is the sweetest thing in the world. Until she sees a sheep. We live in a rural sheep- filled community that makes walks a nightmare. She’s constatly wired and pulls on the lead like an idiot.
    We don’t move when she pulls. So we go nowhere fast.
    She is already ball obsessed, and we have tried distracting her with the possibility of getting her mouth on one. But sheep win hands down. Even the squeakiest of balls only turns her head for an instant.
    All ideas really welcome. Thanks

    • Hi Noelle –

      To handle distractions as intense as Ruby, you need to practice a lot of head turns and self control away from sheep. Also, a head halter might be useful. A head halter and a short leash.

      Hands on help would be best with such an intense reaction as that.

      Good luck! I love Dobes.


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