I really like this article from The Dog Athlete on building your dog’s drive via play. It’s aimed at performance and sport dogs but is useful for anyone wanting to learn to utilize prey drive in training.
The value of prey and play
Dogs with well developed prey drive can be a pleasure to train; they have exceptional endurance, enthusiasm and motivation for performance activities — agility, flyball, obedience, schutzhund. All dogs are born with some degree of prey drive; the challenge for trainers is to build that drive to a usable level through games that encourage an obsessive expression of prey behaviors, primarily games of tug and fetch.
The purpose of this article is to help you awaken and build on the prey drive inherent in your puppy or young dog. (A subsequent article will address moving your dog to training toys once the prey drive has been strengthened.)
Tug and fetch games can serve as both stress relief and high-valued rewards, something you can use when the dog performs really well. But if the games are done poorly, they become a source of stress for the dog — and for you. So it’s important to teach the dog the games properly and for you to manage the games well.
You can start the games with a puppy or novice dog — age doesn’t matter, just make sure to use an appropriate “drive building” toy. As explained in the article “Selecting the Best Toys to Train and Motivate Your Performance Dog,” drive-building toys are generally long and “whippy” in construction (as opposed to stiff), and they should be easy for the handler to manipulate. Because the goal is for the dog to eventually bite the toy, a drive-building toy should be of a thin material which is easy to grab. Toys that are hard, short, or stiff are not appropriate. Examples of good toys for drive-building are:
- Toy with fleece tops and many leather pieces hanging (for example, the Fenzi Frenzy/Robit)
- Leather puppy rags — chamois type or jute material, at least 18” long
- Long fleece toys with or without multiple fleece pieces hanging from them — snake or octopus shapes work well
For puppies, tie your drive-building toy to the end of a horse lunge whip or other long line. Find an outside area to train in, so you have some room to maneuver. A familiar part of your yard can work well, but avoid areas with lots of interesting smells. Make sure there are no children or other dogs present to discourage, intimidate, or distract the puppy. Then go get your puppy.
Begin to move the lunge whip/toy combination in an erratic fashion, but always away from the puppy. The speed and direction of the toy depends on the puppy’s reaction; the stronger the puppy’s forward motion, the faster and more erratic you can be with the toy. If the puppy is hesitant, let the toy rest on the ground occasionally, but never let the puppy get within a few feet of the toy without causing the toy to “skitter” away as if in fear of the puppy. Don’t let the puppy get hold of the toy — that comes later. At this stage, your goal is to get the puppy to believe his forward motion caused the toy to try to escape.
Continue playing with the puppy in this fashion for about one or two minutes, not more than that. Quit if the puppy becomes bored or starts to leave; next time have a much shorter session. If the puppy shows avoidance-type behaviors — refusing to look at the toy, walking away with nowhere to go, and so on — you were likely too aggressive. Move the toy in a less erratic fashion and at a greater distance until the puppy is confident and moving towards the toy again.
Do this sequence a couple of times a day until your puppy is madly dashing around the yard after the toy, trying to grab hold of whatever piece is closest. Then you can start to shorten the whip portion by wrapping it around the handle until the toy is fairly close to your body. Continue to move the toy in an erratic fashion. When the puppy chases the toy with great enthusiasm on a short lunge line (around your feet), it’s time to let the puppy get hold of the toy — this could occur in the first session, or after more than a week or two. Let the lunge line back out to its full length and let the puppy catch the toy.
At this point, let the puppy rest for a while or stop the session and resume later.
Increasing the prey drive
Next time you play the game, the puppy is going to get to attempt to grab the toy. “Attempt” is the key word here, because the puppy only gets to grab the toy if he can catch it. Your job is to make it possible for the puppy to get the toy, but only if he is putting out great effort.
The victory is much sweeter for the puppy if he believes he has earned it. If you “feed” to the toy to the puppy because you want him to win, the puppy won’t want it nearly as much.
A dog knows that live prey animals don’t suddenly stop moving at his approach so they can be caught; you must try to imitate a real prey animal. You don’t want to be caught and you don’t want to die. You must move in an erratic fashion — left, right , up, and down. But we also know that we really do want the dog to win, so you must fool the dog into thinking he really did win. That is best done by flipping the toy up as the puppy approaches with great enthusiasm. Most puppies will be able to grab some part of the toy — remember, you should use a soft, squishy toy that’s long and easy to bite. We want the puppy to feel victorious.
If the puppy lets go, keep the toy moving. Do not let the dog have another chance to grab it — after all, a real rabbit wouldn’t give the dog a second chance. Instead, go back to the chase game for at least another 10 seconds before giving the puppy another opportunity to grab hold.
Dogs learn fast at this point to hold on to keep their prey. Gently keep the toy moving once it is in the puppy’s mouth.
An insecure or unsure dog will literally follow the toy around with it in his mouth. That’s fine, but keep the toy moving away from the puppy, with an occasional, very slight upwards or sideways pull to keep the puppy engaged and hopefully to gain some jaw pressure.
If, on the other hand, your puppy is tenacious she will grab tightly and pull back, roping you into a game of tug. Go ahead and play tug with the puppy. Just remember, if the toy ever falls out of the puppy’s mouth, it must go back to being live prey that tries to escape; never back towards the dog.
When your puppy gets very excited at the sights of the toy on a whip, grabs hold with good energy, and is willing to play a game of tug of war for at least 10 or 15 seconds before losing it, it’s time to move to the next step. This could be minutes or weeks after you begin, so go at your puppy’s pace.
Tightening up the game
The location may be the same place you worked with the lunge whip, or it may be a new location. If you move indoors and the floor is slippery, put down a rug or another non-slip surface to ensure good footing. Remove the whip from your drive building toy. Place your drive building toy on a counter or high out of the puppy’s reach until you are ready to begin work.
Again, the puppy should come to the game moderately bored, so crating or isolation for a short period of time before beginning may be helpful. After you have prepared your work area, get your puppy and place her on the floor. Allow the puppy to explore for a minute or two undisturbed. After the initial excitement over being released has abated somewhat, kneel down on the floor with your toy in your dominant hand, but out of the puppy’s sight.
Grab hold of the toy at one end; if the toy has a handle grasp the handle completely in your hand so none is showing for the puppy to take. Pull the puppy in close to you; if she’s small, you can hold her on your lap with one hand; if she is larger then simply keep your arm around her neck and hold her back by the chest; if you’re dealing with a young adult whom you cannot control one-handed, you can hold on to a wide, buckle collar. As soon as the puppy is secured, flip the toy out as far as possible in front of you and move the toy erratically. Your goal is to imitate the site of a teasing squirrel on the fence or a fleeing rabbit — the same moves as you did with the lunge whip, but now you have the toy in your hand. Move the toy quickly in a direction away from the puppy and then move it in an erratic zigzag pattern back and forth, occasionally “disappearing” it behind your back for a second, but then quickly having it re-emerge into the puppy’s view. The toy should move both quickly and in a wide arc out away from your body (and the puppy’s) to the greatest extent possible. If the toy stops moving, it should only be for a second or two, and never close enough that the puppy can actually reach out and sniff/touch the toy. Keep this motion up for at least 10 – 15 seconds without releasing your puppy.
Your puppy will likely show a reaction to the toy. If the reaction appears to be avoidance, either by trying to get further away or by carefully avoiding looking at the toy, go back to the lunge whip but shorten the whip so the puppy becomes more comfortable working near your feet. Slowly shorten the lunge line until you can hold the toy in your hand and your puppy shows curiosity and an interest in pursuing the toy. Then try the above mentioned steps again.
If your puppy’s reaction is to desperately try to get free of your grip to get the toy, let her go. Initially attempt to keep the toy out of the puppy’s reach to build prey drive to maximum level before allowing her to grasp it.
At this point, it is critically important to put the right amount of pressure and motion on the toy. Too little pressure, and the puppy will try to lie down and chew the toy, or munch and shift the grip to create action since you aren’t providing it, or even just walk away out of boredom. If you use too much pressure and the puppy will give up and stop trying to play. The right amount of pressure allows you to constantly “feel” your dog’s mouth as you continuously move the toy. Most of the time the motion of the toy should be relatively smooth and side to side (not a backwards/forwards tug; side to side). The occasional careful “jerk” will keep the puppy awake and prevent lazy bites or letting the toy hang loosely in the mouth. If the dog lets go of the toy, you must make the toy instantly spring back to life like a rabbit determined to escape for good this time. Make sure the puppy is fully engaged again before allowing her to have another chance.
The easiest motion is a figure eight with your toy hand on the floor. That motion allows the toy to constantly change direction and keeps it in front of you, but also allows you to get the toy fairly far in front so the puppy doesn’t worry about being in close under or near your body. To avoid getting your hands bitten, keep the back of your wrist towards the dog and keep up the figure eight motion (like twirling a baton). With this motion, the dog will be moved around by it’s whole body.
Adding the release
Eventually you’ll want the toy back. This is simple with a puppy: To get the toy back, simply pick up your puppy. As the toy falls from her mouth, tell her she’s a good girl and walk away.
If the puppy or dog is too large to pick up, pick her front end off the floor by cradling underneath her belly and wait her out. Do not try to remove the toy. Instead, let it naturally fall from her mouth to the floor. Keep your hands off the toy as you wait for the release. Then take the dog out of the room with the toy on the floor — otherwise the puppy will feel as though you stole her toy, and it will be harder to get her to release it the next time.
After the release, if you want to go back to playing, just pick the toy up with the puppy still restrained, and start the toy motion again as you let go of the dog. You can repeat as often as you like, but always quit with the dog wanting more. And keep in mind that most dogs won’t work for more than a few minutes at a time at this stage.
Encouraging the reluctant dog
Dogs vary in their need for verbal encouragement. I find that most dogs do better if the owner stays quiet; this allows the puppy to concentrate on the game of chase, grab, tug and kill. If you find that your puppy looks at you rather than at the toy, stop talking! Look at the toy yourself, and be completely absorbed in what you are doing. When the puppy is on the toy, you may encourage the puppy quietly, but stop if it appears to become a distraction. Don’t growl at your puppy! That will be viewed as a threat to your dog, and the next thing you know your puppy won’t want to play anymore.
Over the course of days to weeks, you’ll notice some changes in your puppy. He’ll get very excited at the sight of the toy, even before the toy begins to move. You’ll notice that the puppy has gained in coordination and in his determination to get the toy. You’ll see greater tenacity once the toy is in his mouth, and most likely, the puppy will start to fight much harder; tugging and shaking the toy; moving in closer to your body, trying to get as much of the toy in the mouth as possible.
When you see these signs of growing confidence, you should slowly increase the pressure you place on your puppy. Begin to occasionally touch the puppy with your free hand as you keep the toy moving with your dominant hand. Don’t let the toy stop moving as you add these new distractions, else the puppy may let go. At first, gently pat the puppy on the sides; use with more pressure as he gains confidence.
After a while, pull the toy closer to your body and even up on your legs. Try playing tug while you’re standing up rather than kneeling on the floor. If the puppy shows signs of insecurity — growling, shifting grip, letting go — go back to easier play where the puppy has been successful and try for a smaller increment of pressure. For example, if the puppy lets go when you pull him up onto your lap with the toy, try pulling him towards your legs but don’t make contact.
Over time you can increase the degrees of pressure under which your puppy stays engaged and remains in prey drive. The purpose of the ever increasing pressure is to ‘toughen” your dog; to teach your dog to channel stress into the toy and into play rather than letting go and concentrating on the thing that caused fear. With time, this skill will become extremely valuable when you find yourself at a dog show or another stressful environment.
Taking it on the road
When your puppy plays very hard and very well in a familiar environment, it’s time to take the show on the road. Start small! First work in your front yard. Then down the street. Then with dogs barking in the background. Then at a quiet, local park. Always ask much less in new environments, and don’t be afraid to go all the way back to the toy on a lunge whip if this is what is needed to get your dog’s confidence up. The more places you play with your puppy, the more confidence you will have to work with when it is time for your first performance events.
With time, your puppy will play with you in a range of environments and under different distractions. That’s good! When you find that your puppy is highly motivated to play, goes for the toy as soon as an opportunity presents itself, and bites down hard enough to play a strong game of tug, it’s time to move from drive building toys to drive training toys. We’ll cover that in another article, soon.
Have fun with your dog!
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