Ask the Trainer: Hunting for a ‘prey drive’ solution?

Carla Brown
Special to the Sun
It's hard to compete with a dog's instinct to chase prey. It will take really, really good treats, practice, and situational awareness.
Courtesy | iStockphoto

TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — Dear Carla,

I have a 2 1/2-year-old black lab named Dolly. I typically walk her off leash and she is pretty good about staying with me except when she sees a deer or other wildlife. She takes off after the animal and never looks back. Yesterday she was gone for several minutes and I was really worried. Do you have any advice?

Thanks, Anne

Dear Anne,

What you are describing is called “prey drive.” Some dogs seem to have virtually no prey drive; they will watch a deer or squirrel run by and never flinch. Other dogs take off so fast you barely have time to open your mouth and yell their name!

If a dog has high prey drive and chases squirrels, deer or worse — coyotes — it is a very difficult situation to “fix.”

The dog is hard-wired to hunt and they do it automatically. Once they see the animal and engage, they literally don’t hear you anymore, so having great recall doesn’t accomplish much. You have to constantly be scanning the environment so you can call them back before they engage.

My dog chases coyotes and I’m terrified every time we go out. She has excellent recall, but very high prey drive. I’m very selective about where we walk and I never let her off leash after dark.

Coming when called is a hard thing to train when you are competing with our mountain environment, but here are a few things you should do:

Carry really great treats. Before starting your walk, do some name association exercises by saying your dog’s name in a happy, high pitched voice and follow it with the treat. This will let her know that when she hears her name a wonderful reward will follow.

Once you begin the walk, call her back to you and give her a treat. Repeat this a few times so she will know that paying attention to you will pay off. If she does happen to check in during your walk without being called, reward her. Checking-in is an important recall skill.

During the course of your walk when she isn’t hunting, play a hide-and-seek game by hiding behind a tree and then call her name. When she finds you, reward her. This ups the “fun factor” and increases the probability that she will keep an eye out for you during the walk.

Over the last decade, I have walked hundreds of dogs off leash and one thing I know is that if they do run off and chase something. they almost always come back to the place they left or will return to the car if it is close. Our instinct is to start wandering around looking for them, but it’s better if you stay put and just wait for them to return. There are many GPS devices available that interact with your cell phone. With a GPS, at least you would know where she is.

Carla Brown, CPDT is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog Training and Education Center in Truckee. If you have a pet topic/issue you would like to see covered in the Ask the Trainer column, please email her at

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