PREY BEHAVIOR



In the first installment, defense in its many forms was examined with the conclusion that this very complex behavioral response demands the highest skills from the protection trainer. If a trainer ignores defense, he will pay the price for incomplete training. If he recognizes the important role of defense, but fails to observe the rules required to make a dog think of defense as a positive and voluntary behavior, the result could be extreme stress and even failure. In this installment, we will look at a totally different kind of behavior: one that is much simpler to understand and apply, but is still the most misunderstood by the general public.

Think of the articles you have read in the past few years about the working dog sports and how the critics unanimously agree that we all are training aggressive, even savage, dogs. Yet, their pictures I have seen and the events that these critics have reported attending were a demonstration of good prey, not aggressive, behavior. While there are unfortunate examples of dogs gone amuck against their handlers or even strangers, the pictures of sport dogs biting suits and sleeves that are offered by the critics are little more than evidence that these same dogs probably are pretty good at chasing rabbits and balls.

Prey or predatory behavior invades every part of good working dog training, whether tracking, obedience or protection. Over the years, I have been particularly interested in the conditioning and development of puppy and young dog behavior, with about 90 percent of this work devoted to social bonding and prey development.The concept of prey behavior seems simple enough if it is no more than the predator's desire to chase and kill. But, if we think about prey in more basic terms than just chasing to kill and instead concentrate on the animal's whole survival strategy being decided by how skilled it is in hunting, detecting, chasing and killing its prey, then the development of prey behavior should be one of the most important goals of the beginning dog trainer.

For those who might not accept the idea that prey behavior invades and controls so much of good dog training, there are a multitude of examples showing how the many forms of prey responses converge to create the foundation for most of our training. Prey reactions can be disguised in so many forms that one has to look closely to make sure what is really happening. I once watched a Cheetah tracking a young Gazelle. It moved very slowly in the grass, sensing the odor of its prey, but not having an idea of its location. It slowly moved along the prey's path and as the scent grew stronger, the pace of the cat gradually increased. It continued to increase in speed until the prey, previously frozen, bolted and attempted to flee. At this point, the Cheetah pursued at full speed, relying on its eyes and speed to make the kill. It seems to me absurd to say that the Cheetah was constantly shifting from one type of behavior to another during this process; it being more likely that it was totally motivated by prey behavior from the first detection of the Gazelle's scent through the final kill. The only noticeable difference in its behavior being what physical resources it relied on to find and capture its prey.

One of the most startling, yet long understood, examples of how man can use the predatory drive of a dog is in sheep herding. By all logic, the wolf being left to guard the prey seems nonsensical. Yet, herding trainers have taken the child of the wolf and taught it to serve man, not by eliminating its predatory behavior, but building on it. Watch a herding dog and all its overt behavior seems directed toward killing a sheep. It will slowly circle the herd, crouch and even charge a wayward flock member, but it stops short of the final, killing behavior of its wolf ancestor.

So, prey behavior is not the simple chasing and killing of another animal, but the demonstration of all those techniques that go into basic hunting skills. These would include scenting, hunting, pursuit skills and biting. The fact that these abilities are natural to the new born dog doesn't mean the trainer can leave well enough alone; witness what a wild dog would do to a sheep herd as compared to a champion herding dog. Further, the process of domesticating our dogs can greatly diminish their prey drives.

When new people come to my training club with a mature dog that has had no previous training, one of my first questions is: Does the dog like the ball? In many cases the dog has no interest in the ball at all, yet every member of my club has a dog that will give its heart for a ball. I doubt that mother nature is so unfair as to give only my club members these prey happy animals.

Research has shown that many animals will react in prey to any quick movement that is non-threatening. This is particularly true with young dogs and it is this natural reaction that the trainer can use to build upon the dog's prey drive. But, if the owner ignores this innate character in the young dog, prey drive may all but disappear. .

Using, again, the example of untrained dogs that are brought to my club, there are many that have absolutely no interest in food. Usually I find that the answer is easy with the dog being overfed or allowed to self feed, effectively killing a strong prey drive. While some puppies are better than others, most show a high degree of nosiness when they are exploring a new area. One can only conclude that the owners who didn't know how to teach their dogs to play ball, also didn't watch while their dog's olfactory skills sank to zero. I have even seen some owners who would correct their dogs for sniffing.

An often unrecognized benefit of prey behavior is that it can be used to moderate or control other behaviors. Remember, a dog cannot work in more than one drive at a time, but is capable of shifting quickly from one to another. If the handler can create highly focused prey behavior in the dog, this drive need only be raised to help the dog get past a difficult training problem or behavioral response. One example is where the dog might be showing unusual sensitivity in either protection or obedience, where the presence of a swinging sleeve or ball can make the dog ignore its immediate anxieties and perform the task. Another important example, one which will be more thoroughly discussed in a moment, is the use of prey in protection to prevent the defense drive from getting out of control.

The second significance of prey behavior in our training is creating a prey key. All good dog training is based upon sound conditioning and reinforcement. Both areas require a positive reward for the correct behavior, but the demands and stress of working dog training make simple verbal praise either insufficient or mechanically impossible.

Therefore, when first teaching my dog heeling, I can use a ball to hold its focus on me and ignore distractions. Without the ball or food, I am left with either praise or, more likely, compulsion. The key gives me the attitude I want and the dog's high prey drive even allows me to give corrections without seriously affecting its positive and willing attitude. This key, although in a different form, serves the trainer just as well in tracking, where the bait odor, mixed with the track scent, soon teaches the dog what scent it should be following. In protection training, the sleeve and bite are pursued as vigorously as the thrown ball. The prey aid gives the trainer an endless variety of training alternatives that produce a happy, correct working dog. By definition, prey creates no stress, therefore the prey key must produce a non-stressful performance, unless, of course, the handler forgets that the dog can respond in drives other than prey during training.

If, during tracking, obedience or protection training, you see a dog avoid or become stressed, it is not working in prey, no matter what the trainer is doing. Avoidance can only occur in defense or social behavior. When a dog is worried on the sleeve with shallow bites, it is probably working in defense, not prey. One of my cardinal rules in protection is that good bites come from prey and bad bites (excepting physical problems) come from too much defense, too soon. Of course a weakly temperamented dog may be too willing to react negatively in defense, although it has a strong prey drive, but I have found these dogs to be in the minority. More often, I see abusive training or improper use of defense in protection work as the culprit. In the first segment of this series, I discussed the challenge in protection training of teaching the dog to work in the correct kind of defense behavior and then learning how to control that behavior. The answer rests, not just in defense training, but also in the proper use of the prey key.

Returning for a moment to those critics who charge that we trainers are only teaching the dog to bite or show unfettered aggression, I hope that the reader will note that no where is aggression mentioned in our definition of prey behavior. There is a good reason for this: of the many forms that prey behavior can take, none include aggression. In the first installment on defense, I defined aggression as hostile acts against a different species beyond posturing and bluffing. When a dog bites a sleeve or prey, the definition seems to fit, except that it is not a hostile act. While we humans might humorously describe a dog as "aggressively attacking its food", the truth is that this dog is only working in high prey drive without one thought given to any animosity it might have toward its nightly meal. When was the last time you threatened a pot roast?

Prey Behavior and Dog Training

Our goal in early prey training is first to build the strongest drive possible for the prey key that the trainer will use. Having established these keys (I.e., bait or ball), our goal is then to use them in a way where the dog can be manipulated to learn a particular training goal and then to reward it when we get the proper response. You will notice that I haven't included the sleeve or rag as a part of this key development. The reason is that once the dog becomes strongly driven to find or catch the prey, it will easily transfer to other moving objects such as a swinging rag, sleeve or even a running helper.

For a food happy dog, tracking is a delight and easy because of the trainer's careful manipulation of the dog with bait or a drag. At first, the dog has no idea of what it is supposed to do, so the trainer lays a track that is rich with the scents of the track and bait. At this point, the bait is nothing more than a form of bribery, designed to make the dog go forward and explore the cover for more bait. In time, the dog learns to associate the smell of the track with the finding of bait, so bait can then be reduced. Eventually, through patterning, the dog learns to track using only the track scents on the cover and not the bait. All good trainers would agree that you cannot make a dog scent, so with bait and the dog's prey drive, the handler can condition the dog to scent beautifully with no force and rely mostly on manipulating the prey drive. Unlike obedience and protection, in tracking we can totally remove the prey key (I.e., bait) and expect the dog to continue performing as it did when the bait was on the track. It seems to me that the reason for this is that tracking is the purest form of prey behavior we see in the sport and, for only that reason, the dog realizes satisfaction from tracking itself.

Obedience is just the opposite situation from tracking where the dog's responses in trial cannot be influenced by the presence of a ball. Except for retrieval, obedience is fundamentally a test of the relationship between handler and dog. If the dog becomes unfocused during the obedience routine, it will make a mistake. So, the very concept we attempted to create in tracking, total commitment to the track in prey drive, is the problem we will constantly try to work around in obedience. As mentioned earlier, the trainer of a beginning dog will often use either a ball or food as a prey key to manipulate the dog into doing the obedience exercises. Over time, the prey drive should become so strong that the dog can tolerate corrections without any loss in attitude.

Here is where the dilemma comes in. I now have the dog so totally excited about the ball that it may ignore what it is supposed to be doing. At the worst, it might become so excitable in prey that its actions on the trial field are totally unfocused. It may ignore a command, chew on the dumbbell or anticipate the retrieval commands. On the one hand, I want the dog totally responding to the actions and commands of the handler, but I also want to keep a nice, motivated attitude during the work. If we would diminish the ball or food during more advanced training, as we did in tracking, the dog's prey drive would soon diminish and we would not only lose the attitude, but also might make corrections less tolerable to the dog. There are several answers to this, but the trainer must be aware of the specific mechanics required to achieve any of them.

Using beginning heeling as an example, the trainer might be willing to throw the ball every five to ten paces to properly condition the dog. Over time, as the dog becomes more sure, the ball might not be thrown for twenty or thirty paces. This routine goes on until the dog doesn't get the reward until after the exercise is completed. This concept, called fading, is designed to slowly eliminate the frequency of the reinforcement until the dog works with a strong attitude throughout the required exercise. Fading has its problems and requires a constant process of adjusting reinforcement even at advanced levels. We know that withholding a reward increases drive over the short term, so fading often results in the dog becoming more unfocused as the rewards are held back for even longer periods. If the reward is withheld too long, the dog's prey drive starts to slip so that it stops working reliably or with a good attitude. Fading takes more adjustment and patience, for the prey key must be removed slowly. It is for these reasons that many trainers don't use a ball in obedience training and prefer an alternative prey key, food.

Many top AKC and Schutzhund trainers I have seen use food and it is for only for the reasons of controlling prey drive and maintaining focus. An AKC trainer works in a forty-foot ring and under a very demanding point system; the dog must always be near perfect. The Schutzhund trainer is required to complete several different complex exercises where the dog is intentionally exposed to distraction during heeling (I.e., gunfire, group heeling). Food has two distinct advantages over the ball. The first is that food does not bring the dog into as high a drive as the ball, so that controlled enthusiasm and greater attention to the trainer is the result. The second is that the trainer can positively reinforce with food during the training without taking a break to throw the ball and unfocus the dog. It is fairly easy to constantly feed the dog with small morsels during heeling and continue heeling. It is impossible to do this with the ball; each time the ball is thrown, the handler must start the exercise over and regain the attention of the dog.

For those who want the most enthusiastic performance, the ball is the best answer, but where the principal goal is high points, food makes more sense. It also is appropriate in those exercises where we want the highest drive, such as the send out, to use the ball, but use food in other training where a controlled drive is more important. Understand that no matter which method is used, the result comes from how the prey drive was manipulated and the handler's correct use of reinforcement with both corrections and the prey aid. We are still relying on the dog's prey drive to develop the behavior and teach the exercise.

Our job in protection may be the most difficult of all. In tracking, our job is to keep the dog concentrating in prey drive, trying to find and hold the track. In obedience, the handler requires the dog's social drives to dominate, but uses the prey key to manipulate the dog through the obedience exercises, particularly during the learning phases. Protection training requires that prey, defense and social drives be balanced and under the dog's control during the trial. At some times it must focus on only the helper and ignore the handler, while at other times it must do the opposite. Only if the dog's defense and prey drives are under its control, can it properly respond to the handler. Let's look at two different types of good temperament in a starting dog to see how important a job prey training is during protection.

The prey dog has been mightily criticized by some working dog trainers as too soft. Generally, it is characterized as having a high prey drive and a tendency to avoid when confronted in defense. The beginning prey dog is highly active in protection, with a strong and full bite. Its bark is often higher and more play like. When confronted with defense, it may stop barking, start to back or slow dramatically on the moving attacks. The basic training problem with this type of dog is that it is most comfortable working in prey and is less sure when confronted in defense. The training answer rests in the mixing of prey and defense training together.

The other extreme of our two examples is the defense dog. This is the so-called tough dog that most of the old time trainers love. Its bark is deep, it never thinks of avoidance under normal circumstances and alerts on the first appearance of the training helper. On the other hand, his bite may not be as strong as the prey dog's and his drive may be uncontrollable. Again, the training answer rests in the mixing of prey and defense training together.

If it seems that I have given the same solution to both types of temperament, that is not the case. If you would watch a training helper working both types of dogs, it might appear that his work is very similar, but the actual work is dramatically different because the goals for each are fundamentally different.

It is rare that the trainer faces either extreme of temperament in week to week training sessions, as most dogs tend to fall somewhere in between the two. The trainer must still face the task of defining which type of behavior dominates his dog. Is it more prey than defense or just the opposite?

After identifying which type of dog the owner has, a careful training program must be worked out, where the particular goals for each temperament are defined. One of the most common mistakes is to attempt to work the weak drive instead of the strong. The logic goes something like, "Since my dog is a prey dog, it must do strong defense training". This logic is similar to the cook tasting the soup and adding salt as needed, but it doesn't work in dog training. The dog cannot give what it doesn't have. If a dog is strong in prey and weaker in defense, we must develop the defense, but this can only be done in the dog's dominant drive, prey. If this seems a contradiction, let's examine the goals for both the prey and defense temperaments and see how we can use the strong drive to build the weak.

In the last installment, I discussed the concepts of the alert zone, where the dog first responds to a threat. I also reviewed the critical zone, where the dog, working in defense, must decide if aggression is working and consider alternatives, such as avoidance. The first illustration shows the basic physical layout of both of these areas when the training helper is starting protection work with a novice dog.PREY BEHAVIOR

When the helper enters the alert zone, the dog first shows outward signs of aggressive displays, but it should be recognized that these signs are only a prelude to the point where the dog must show absolute commitment in defensive aggression or avoid. As the helper approaches the critical zone, the bluffing character of the gestures starts to change. The dog may start to show conflict by stopping barking, looking away from the helper, lowering its ears, freezing or even backing. With the strong defense dog this point may be closer to the dog than with a weaker or prey dog, who might start to show conflict at a greater distance. If we are doing bite training, a problem then emerges. How do we get close to the critical zone for the bite, without putting the dog into conflict or avoidance?

The answer, especially with the prey dog, is shown in the same diagram. On the alert zone, the helper might give strong defensive gestures against the dog, but as he approaches the alert zone and the dog starts to show some worry, the helper shifts into prey. This may be swinging the sleeve or, more usually, breaking into a sideways run. As prey drive is attracted because the helper is running sideways in a non-threatening way, the dog becomes stronger. The running helper moves back and forth until the critical zone is reached and the bite is given. The helper's goal is to put defensive pressure on the dog and then relieve it with prey when a point is reached where a high risk of avoidance exists. Over many training sessions, the helper will move closer and closer to the critical zone before shifting into prey. Eventually, the helper will be able to move straight into the dog without the sideways running. Here the helper's moves are totally dictated by the dog's responses in defense. As long as the dog is strong, the helper continues to exert defensive pressure, but the second that he detects worry, prey must be used as a relief valve.

This concept follows throughout the early training of a prey dog. If the dog is on the sleeve and the helper applies strong defensive pressure, such as with body contact or the drive, the helper will immediately shift into prey work when he detects that the defensive drive is in trouble. This may be dropping the sleeve or moving it back and forth while the dog is on the sleeve. This training concept is called confidence building. Over time, the helper applies pressure in defense, relieves it in prey and then applies more defense. The dog gains strength and eventually learns to work at a high level of defense confidently.

Unlike the prey dog that may show problems in the beginning with confidence in defense, the high defense dog is confident but its defense drive goes completely out of control. The good temperamented, high defense dog may have good nerve and a strong willingness to engage in aggression, but this drive is unmolded and can rise to the extremes of defense if the helper applies too much pressure. Again, our answer is prey training.

PREY BEHAVIOR

The second diagram more clearly shows the problem. When a protection training session starts, the diagram shows that the dog is in neutral drive, having no interest in either prey or defense. In the diagram, the training helper can take the drive to any place an arrow indicates: high or low prey and aggression or avoidance. With the high prey dog, the helper might take the dog into defense level one and then relieve it with prey maneuvers. Having relieved the pressure, it is then his goal to take the dog to defense level two and so on. At any point, there is a risk that the dog will avoid because of excessive pressure and the higher the helper attempts to move the dog in defensive aggression, the greater the risk of avoidance.

This is not so much the problem with the high defense dog, although any dog can be made to avoid with unfettered helper pressure. Instead, with this type of dog, the helper's goal is to control the level of defense being shown by the dog, with the ultimate objective being to teach the dog to control its aggression. It is not unusual to see a high defense dog move from level one to level four at the first threat of the helper.

The high defense dog, with good nerve, is always capable of working at a high level of defense, but what happens when the trial rules require that drive to come down, such as during the out after a strong drive. In theory, during a trial we would want the dog to rise to level four during the hardest defensive test and then return to level two for the out, on its own.

Starting again from the alert zone, the helper will act very similarly to the way he worked the high prey dog. The difference is how the helper will read the dog. Instead of looking for conflict as he moves toward the critical zone, the helper will look for the dog's defense drive becoming too high. As an example, he might move toward the dog until he sees the drive getting too high, at which point he will shift into prey running as shown in the first diagram. At some point, he might stop and again raise defense by staring at or mildly agitating the dog. When the dog returns to defense, the helper might start running again. This process is repeated until the bite is given. When the dog is on the sleeve, the helper might raise defense and then drop the sleeve to allow the dog to run with the sleeve, a pure prey maneuver.

The training progression, then, is to teach the high defense dog to work easily at ever higher levels of defense and then shift to prey. The effect is for the dog to learn to control its defense drive, even when it might be as high as level four.This concept, called channeling, is only used with dogs that have high levels of defense. I have worked some dogs that were so extreme in defense that they would barely bite or carry the sleeve, yet within a few training sessions, the dog would carry the sleeve with a full bite. The important point to remember is that this dog's problems arise from its behavior, not the type of training. This work is directed toward teaching the dog to modify and control its level of behavior.

Because the helper work is so similar, mixing defense with prey, the two concepts of confidence building and channeling might seem confusing. The difference lies in the objectives of the training after analyzing the basic temperament of the dog. In confidence building, the helper is attempting to build the dog to the highest level of defensive aggression without tipping it into avoidance. In channeling, the goal is to teach the dog to regulate its level of defense so that it can voluntarily lower its defense drive on the command of the handler. The concepts of drive control in protection are complex and it takes good handler-helper coordination. The application of these theories is detailed in my book, Schutzhund Protection Training.

The important point is that in both theories, we are addressing the drive that needs work, defense, and the tool that gets us there is prey. With confidence building, prey relieves the pressure of defense at a critical point in training. In channeling, prey makes the dog shift from defense to prey behavior. Since a dog cannot work in more than one drive at a time and if the helper is showing strong prey moves, the dog must shift into prey, taking it out of defense. If the dog can do this, then it is starting to learn to control its defense drive.

In the next installment, we will examine the relationship between handler and dog. While generally understood by most dog trainers, there are a few surprises in how the social behavior of a dog works in the training environment.


The views and opinions expressed on this web site are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of SiriusDog.com, the staff, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Categories