Using the prey drive as a reward – are we just practicing behaviour we don’t want?


In my group class the other week we looked at using toys as a reward for your dog, especially for helping us to recall among distractions. I have a selection of toys, mostly fluffy, squeaky and tuggy, that my clients used and tried with their dogs. It was hilarious and a bit crazy!

After the class we had this really interesting exchange on email, started by my lovely client Marsha who has a young lurcher. (Produced with her permission!)

‘Quick question about using ‘animal like’ tuggies – I know my dog was bred to kill – he’s shown his skills on a rabbit! – but does using these encourage it or focus that natural urge (which I don’t want to fight against) on something that isn’t going to send him running for hours away from me? just interested in the reasoning behind it (for training) I was going to do a lure coursing afternoon and people told me it would encourage him to chase stuff – I hoped it would work with his natural instincts and be fun for him but I did get put off a bit….

Basically trying to avoid a tiny dog / cat massacre! 

 And here is my response:

Really good question and you will get different answers. This is mine!

 Prey drive is something you cannot get rid of- it’s deeply inbuilt into the doggy brain and in some breeds very highly so.  

The logic behind not doing anything similar is that you are not letting the dog practice the urge at all- hoping that this will make the dog less likely to chase etc. 

I however don’t think this works. I want the dog to practice the urges with me. The reasoning is this:

A. By controlling the amount and type of what we are doing we are teaching the dog to control himself. So not just chase a tuggy and destroy it, but chase and tuggy for a bit and then stop and do something else. By showing him that he can ignore a tuggy until invited to ‘take’ this directly translates to practicing ignoring a rabbit. But if we start with the rabbit it’s too much for eh dog. So it’s not the behaviour we are always practicing it is the stopping! Hence we look at arousal up and arousal down – teaching the dogs how to calm afterwards and teaching the dogs how to stop!

B. Play is always practising something pretty innate and usually violent. Squeaky balls will often get squeaked until they ‘die’. Stuffed animals will get eviscerated. Dogs play fight. By playing with your dog you are building a bond and using the play centres of the brain which produces serotonin in the dog and he associates you with that happy energy. The fact that you don’t recognise the chase instinct in going after a tennis ball- I assure you the dog does! By getting the toys that are the bees knees for the dog we are simply making ourselves more rewarding to be with- any play is usually linked to the predatory / survival type behaviour. In a lot of dogs frankly the tennis balls just don’t cut it – they will ignore a ball and just go get a rabbit. 

C. By controlled play you are adding value to yourself not the environment. A dog that is playing with you is not looking to amuse himself with small fluffy dogs etc. He is learning that he’s doesn’t  need to chase them because he gets what he needs from you. Why chase a deer (which is exciting but also carries lots of risk for the dog) when he knows for a certainty he can chase you and then get a tuggy for sure because he has practiced this many times. We are making it easy for him to choose to do what we want and also to get his needs met.

D. using very high value toys as a reward increases the dogs drive to do what we ask and also increases the likelihood of them complying. When we need to add energy and drive to a task (say a recall) we choose the rewards most likely to do this. Adding the chase and the fluffy things increase the value of the reward and makes the response much stronger. Personally I feel not using our dog’s inbuilt predatory responses and just relying on food is like not using all of the tools in our toolbox. I want to use all of them and be aware of their use. When I want to calm a dog I may use a good reward scattered on the ground to get snuffled up. When I want to create urgency in a response I will use something like a tuggy as it both creates and redirect energy appropriately.

Having said that I wouldn’t use these toys without supervision. Part of their value is that they only come out with us in certain situations- that allow us to practice with our dogs their control and their arousal. I wouldn’t just leave them around for the dogs to eat at will because it doesn’t do anything but provide a fleeting pleasure! I also wouldn’t just play chase and tug again again again until the dog is crazy wound up. ‘

 So there you have it. Do you use tuggy toys? Chase me toys? If not why not?


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