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Prey drive is not "aggression"

A dog who chases cats or chickens is not dominant or aggressive. We are talking prey drive. Cats who chase strings are not dominant or aggressive, they are simply responding to a hard-wired instinct that keeps them alive should they need to feed themselves. It's a survival instinct. It is triggered without thought.

All dogs have a certain degree of prey drive. In many breeds, this drive has been cultivated to a heightened state in order to do their jobs as herders, hunters and vermin killers. A border collie could not herd sheep without it. The border collie would also be a lousy help to its owner if it took the sheep down and ate it. The difference here is training, managing the pup's behavior around the sheep at a young age and socializing the dog heavily around sheep so it isn't overstimulated when it first encounters one.

Cat Chasing

photo courtesy of Jeanine LaPorte

Any breed can be good with critters - Here's Indy the Pitbull cross with her good buddy Jack Frost.

It's easier to shape appropriate behavior than it is to change an established behavior.

It is natural for puppies to play with other pups, you, cats, toddlers, kids, etc. in a chase, pounce, wrestle, bite manner. The pup needs to learn, early on, that it is not appropriate to chase and bite the baby *or* the cat. He must learn self-control. What about the older dog? You may have heard it said that "once they taste blood" they will never be cured. The chase itself is extremely reinforcing. The dog enjoys an adrenalin high from the pursuit and success of capture is a jackpot which makes curbing the desire to chase difficult if not impossible in some dogs. Behaviors that are rewarding are more apt to be repeated. Re-training a dog with a long reinforcement history will take dedication and time and monumental amounts of management.

Success in changing the behavior depends on the degree of prey drive.

It could be a simple socialization and training process or a life-long management issue. Some dogs are so hard-wired and fixated that achieving a reliable level of self-control around furred or feathered things, especially furry running things, is such a challenge that even the most experienced and dedicated trainer would opt for management: never allowing the dog in a situation to practice such behavior. I've worked with retired racing greyhounds who were great with cats and could be easily redirected if the chase instinct was triggered and I've fostered some that were recommended to "non-cat owning families" only. It's a matter of degree. It's not worth risking a cat's life over.

Photo courtesy of Jim Leighty

The cat is just another piece of furniture ... no big deal.


It's a de-sensitization, habituation and counter-conditioning issue. Your plan is to keep the pup's and the cat's adrenalin levels low and their comfort levels high while just hanging out in the same room for hours at a time until the novelty of seeing the cat is desensitized. We want the pup to think of the cat as "just another piece of furniture." Pick a mellow time of day and put the cat in a carrier or on a lap and the pup on leash at a distance they can feel comfortable and watch movies. As they start to ignore each other, you may move closer but don't be in a hurry.


Allow quiet, curious investigation by the pup and praise/food treats for all appropriate behavior. Use phrases like "easy" or "gentle" and show him how. Pet the kitty and then pet him. Spread kitty scent on him and doggy scent on the kitty. The goal is simply to help the cat feel safe and the dog feel calm. Calm curiosity is fine, intensity is not. Redirect or time-out for inappropriate behavior. The one and only goal is to teach the animals to relax in each other's presence. 

As their relationship reaches a point where they have more freedom in each other's presence, put a trailing line on the puppy, long enough that you can step on it easily, as a safety net in case of chasing. The pup should wear this line until you are 99.9% sure there will be no chasing. Should the pup start to think about chasing, quietly step on the line. You want to simply eliminate his ability to chase. Be careful that the pup is never in a position to gain much speed - we don't want to whiplash the pup, just interrupt the thought of chasing. If you find have to use the line, take a step or two backward in your desensitizing process. It probably means you are giving too much freedom too soon. 

Good manners and training are essential.


How can you follow cues if you don't understand them?


If your dog won't keep his face out of your dinner plate and ignores your pleas for compliance to commands, what hope do you have of telling him to leave the cat alone? 


Teach "Leave it" with easy things first and work your way up to fun, hissing, running things.

Sometimes the cat is the instigator ...

If your cat saunters by with that sly face, tail up and making figure eights, makes sure the pup sees her and then makes a mad dash up and over the furniture, you must ask yourself who's getting the rush out of the situation? Who really needs the interruption? A long range squirt bottle can work wonders to end the "let's get the puppy in trouble" game. Maybe the cat likes the dog! Some cats enjoy being covered in dog slobber. If the cat is throwing itself on the floor in front of the puppy and wrapping it's arms around the pup's head while it wrestles it til the cat is sopping wet and no one is getting hurt and nothing escalates, this may be a friendship not a conflict at all.


Your cats are safe, but the neighborhood cats may not be.

Many dogs will learn to ignore their own cats in the house, but chase them in the yard. Some will totally ignore their "own cats" but still be death on any strange cat that hops the back fence. Dogs don't generalize well - it's a challenge to move the training from "specific cats" to "all cats anywhere, anytime." The other problem is in the house, it is your domain. The yard may be seen by the dog as his turf. The reaction of the cat has much to do with the dog's response. Your own cats are calm and no big deal about the dog. Strange cats startle, jump, run, climb and trigger a far more intense chase instinct in the dog.


Defensive driving is essential.

If you call your dog before he spots the squirrel, it's highly likely he will come. If you call him when he's just noticed the squirrel, it's still pretty likely he'll come. The likelihood of a successful response to the command decreases as the level of distraction increases:


    A. dog fixates on squirrel

    B. takes first step toward squirrel

    C. decides to go after the squirrel

    D. bolts after the squirrel


To be able to call your dog back at level D. is exceedingly difficult for even the BEST trained dog - the further he travels from you and the closer he gets to the squirrel, the higher the probability he won't even remember you are in the park. What level of training is YOUR dog at? 

Safety with birds and small animals?


The critical socialization period for puppies is 3 weeks to 12 weeks - for breeds with high prey drive (terriers, pitbulls, huskies, etc) unless they have had super saturation of careful socialization very early on, they will very likely never be trustworthy with cats or small animals.

For breeds with a lower level of prey drive, the probability of successful co-existence will be increased the younger the dog is at first meeting.


At left is Sonny, our Doberman who was raised with cats, guinea pigs, rats, mice, snakes, lizards, hedgehogs, ferrets ... and the occasional baby bird that fell out of a nest, like this Magpie. She was trustworthy with all of them.

To the right and below is Indy, Pit bull/Lab cross who has a special relationship with the family cats and guinea pigs.


"Anytime the Guinea Pigs go out for
'outside time' Indy keeps an eye on them."


Thanks, Jeannine LaPorte for sharing!

This handout may be reprinted in its entirety for distribution free of charge and with full credit given:
© CAROL A. BYRNES "DIAMONDS IN THE RUFF" Training for Dogs & Their People -
ditr_training @ - 

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