Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Controlling Predatory Chase Behaviour Using Positive Reinforcement

Thought I would share a story of overcoming an issue with one of my own dogs.

Dinky my leonberger has a very high chase drive and as a pup was a nightmare she was into everything but me! When I took her out she would totally ignore me.

I know the ignoring me was an operant thing meaning a choice and I needed to be more exciting but I also had this predatory recall issue.

There is a big difference between a poor recall and predatory chase behaviour. A poor recall is when the dog chooses not to come back becuase is just would prefer to carry on doing what it is doing.
A dog with a strong predatory drive chases things, other dogs, cars, small furries etc. The movement of the 'prey' triggers the dogs predatory motor pattern into play. This is like a reflex action and the dog is then in prey drive. This is hard for the dog to control and is very intrinsically rewarding. They enjoy it and can start to become obsessed looking for opportunities to do it. If you have a dog with predatory chase behaviour you will know because you can see the dog 'switch' especially when playing with another dog.

By 10 months Dinky just wanted to stalk and chase everything living. She had also learnt that if a dog was not running if she ran up and scared them they would run and she could then chase them. Not really appropriate when you’re a dog trainer and your huge dog is going up to toy breeds in the park to scare and chase them!!!!

She chased two sheep half down a mountain on holiday, I was mortified and just stood on the top of the hill hyperventilating as the farm was at the bottom of the hill and I thought she was going to get shot!! Dinky ran into a tree and came back!

I couldn’t let her play with dogs that ran because she would ‘switch’ into predatory chase behaviour.

She would look for birds, ducks, cats, dogs, rabbits, squirrels and if there was nothing around she could always stalk and chase Snoopy my other dog.

I spent lots of time trying to find motivators/rewards etc to distract her. Toys, food forget it!!

The thing is with a leonberger is its not like a collie and they don’t become ball obsessed. There is big difference to a live animal and a toy and they know it.

I spoke to a friend who advised me on the chase recall. She said if you can’t call her of a ball you won’t get her off an animal. The issue was I could call her off a ball!! Although the concept of the chase recall and starting with easy stuff was my step forward.

I had also read Ray Coppingers book 'Dogs' and understood the predatory motor pattern and applied the advice to this, if I can’t get her attention off ‘eye’ or ‘stalk’ then I can forget chase.

I took Dinky to a 'positive' trainer and we let her off. She chased one of the other dogs and one of the comments was ‘***%^*$$”* that dog can move!!’ I was advised that this behavior could'nt be solved with positive reinforcement the most effective solution was a shock collar!!

I was getting frustrated and desperate and I thought about it. I was so disheartened, was all this positive training rubbish when it came to serious problems.

I decided ethically it goes against everything I believe and as a positive trainer I must prove them wrong, this behaviour can be changed using positive methods.

So taking all the little tips I’d got from different trainers I set to work, first getting Dinky’s attention in a distracting environment. I used a tip from one trainer and went on the field held her lead, ignored her and waited for her to offer attention (Instead of my usual begging for it).

17 minutes and 23 seconds later, freezing my **&% off Dinky eventually looked it me and I clicked and treated bounced about and had a play with her. The next day we went out and it lasted 5 minutes before she looked at me and we played. Then every time we went out she would offer me her attention straight away, I started to introduce some basic training into the play and treats.

Now I had managed to get her to acknowledge I existed we started with some ‘leave’ training. I took Dinky in a 6ft lead to all sorts of places and worked on leave. My initial criteria for ‘Leave’ was you can look at it but your lead must be loose. ‘Self control’ I also worked on stepping back and getting her to come away. We did this where other dogs were playing, by the lake with swans, geese and ducks in the woods with squirrels and on the field with the black crows.

The Crows were probably my biggest help as they do 2 circles low to the ground and then fly up and off. This was a ‘safe’ chase. So when she did a good ‘leave’ I’d clip her off and give her permission to chase. This beat balls, tuggies and food and motivated her to leave.

My main aim was to break to ‘eye’ behaviour and once I could get her to look away to the cue ‘Dinky’ from the distraction we moved on.

We then moved onto the stalk, I found as I had a good ‘down’ when she started to stalk Snoopy I could get her to drop into the down, but I couldn’t break the stare initially once she had started to stalk. So I worked on getting the down and approached dropping treats on the floor between her front legs. She took the treats and this actually distracted her. We progressed to putting the treats at the side of her so she was turning away for them. Then I attached her lead and walked her out rewarding her. Sometimes I let her chase with permission.

So we had progressed I could control the eye and stalk, so lets ‘cut to the chase’

It took months of hard work to get to here………………..

I incorporated the really reliable recall training and started with the chase recall. I would throw a ball and then call her off it, which I could do, her reward was that I ran and she chased me. Chasing a human is better than a ball!

So my recall motivator was stronger. When I work with other breeds that are toy motivated I call off a hand thrown ball and reward with owner running and then launching ball in ‘chuck it’ With Dinky I got out a tuggy and she could grab that once she caught up to me.

All this did was give me the opportunity to give high value rewards and Dinky started to like them, they were good fun.

I just gave her more and more freedom on the line as we progressed. Never moving on until I had 100% control at a specific distance. Which was a permanent loose lead with all distractions.

If she ever ignored me or attempted to chase the consequence was we went home. Game over!
Using my non reward marker of ‘Whoops’ I like this word as it’s hard to say in an angry or frustrated tone as some people do with a non reward marker.

As we progressed I found sometimes Dinky would try really hard to control herself and couldn’t. The training had made her become aware of her behaviour and she now had to learn to control these drives, this wasn’t easy for her.
This was a turning point actually understanding that this was really hard for her to do. Sometimes she would chase and come back as though she was really disappointed in herself when Id seen her try to stop herself initially.

I realised at this point how much she needed my help, support and encouragement now more than anything and how unethical punishment would have been. It would have been like electrocuting someone for falling off a tight rope when they had never walked one before.

Dinky was learning how to control her predatory chase behaviour. This in the end was the most rewarding thing to her, she is so proud of herself when she stops herself now.

A fast moving animal will still trigger her but she can stop herself and come away. So after over several months work and it wasn’t all great we had many set backs, bad days etc I could walk her off lead and get her to leave other dogs, squirrels, birds, cats and Snoopy.

Sheep The Ultimate test!!

Two years ago I took her on a herding day which was brilliant. Dinky took her initial assessment with the sheep and didn’t have any herding behaviour and the shepherd said she just wanted to chase or play with the sheep. (yeh I knew that)

After an introduction to sheep in the pen, he let out two sheep from the pen and Dinky chased them round the pen, I could see her getting that ‘mad determined look’ and he told me to call her, I think he saw it too!. I think it was panic type screamy recall at her but she came off them!!!! Hurrah job done!!

Now wherever I go Dinky only wears a lead when she needs to like at roads and she can play with other dogs that run, because I can call her away if she ‘goes predatory’

So if you’re struggling with anything keep going and don’t give up and.....................

You can modify predatory chase behaviour without the use of Positive Punishment.


  1. Excellent post, will begin again with my own dog.

  2. Me too. Tomorrow. I am grateful I found this one.

  3. Read this with great interest. It doesn't offer me a solution to my problem but helps me better understand what areas of behaviour and training to pursue. I can call my WSD off a thrown ball, she will spin on a sixpence and come straight back when in full pelt to greet another dog across the field, she doesn't chase cars, joggers etc. She does try to herd the cats in the house and rush at them but I can tell her to leave and she does immediately.

    My problem is only in the flyball ring where she becomes so excited she forgets to control her chase instinct (which I want) and slips into the "got you" snap at the dog coming out of the start line. She runs successfully, but has to be controlled on the line, put in at the last moment when dog 3 has cleared and can only be run last.

  4. Thanks for your comment, I idea of the post is to get people thinking about their dogs as an individual and not to give up.

    For your dog the trigger is the other dog coming out of the start line so you need to think about giving her an alternative behaviour to do in this situation. Dont wait for it to go wrong and try to fix it. Give her another behaviour to do before the dog comes out and make sure its a easy simple one. I would set up controlled training situations with your flyball training club. If she 'behaves' she gets to run next as a powerful reward.
    Start working her a distance where you can get the right behaviour to happen and gradually decrease the distance towards the start line.

    When some learning, understanding and success has taken place, then take it to the flyball comp. Don't expect her to learn a new behaviour under the conditions of the comp.

    Any kind of correction wont work because she is too aroused and you risk the negative association of punishment being linked to the environment, other dogs or flyball and could ruin her as a flyball dog.

    Hope that helps, good luck :-)

  5. Great Blog! Love your use of positive training for behaviour modification, with time and patience it can be done! I used a very similar method with my collie who had a chase on trains (not good for your health!!) We used the recall off a ball to start plus a watch me at the sound of a train. Long story short, but now train is the cue to watch me and I can recall him from anything moving at all. It took 8 months to do, but so worth it! Take that ECollar and burn it!!!!! Loved reading your post!

  6. Great article, thanks for sharing.

  7. I to am a certificated trainer , and decided to take on a Husky/Karillian bear dog/Coyote cross (there's a challange..lol.) I have had many very similar problems as you did. This was very helpful, i have been feeling discouraged with all my efforts but i feel "where there is a will there's a way" I can hardly wait to try this out. Great post, Thank you!

  8. Thanks for such a helpful account of your journey with your dog. It has inspired me to keep going.

    My problem is wildlife so I find it very difficult to be ready to train when a hare or deer pops up out of the blue. My dog is off lead on most open farmland unless we are too near a road. She is, therefore, often reinforced. My dilemma is whether to keep her on a long line for what could be months on the odd chance of a training opportunity presenting itself.

  9. You need to train with other distractions so your behaviour is strong before you put it under pressure of the problem. You need to think about other ways to trigger it and then teach control. There is nothing like the real thing but there is no point trying to stop the dog chasing those, if you cannot stop it chasing other less rewarding things.

  10. Really great Blog, and has inspired me to keep going with my little Jack Russell. At the moment it feels like we are going 1 step forward and 2 steps back. Since getting him from the rescue in October, I don't think we have made much improvement. After reading this, I think I need to change our training plan. Thanks for sharing your experience x