You’ve seen it if you haven’t experienced it personally; a dog dragging his owner down the street in pursuit of a…squirrel, cat, enticing scent. Chasing may be one of the most natural behaviors of every dog ever. But dogs, like people, can and should learn self control. It isn’t easy. I haven’t entirely figured out how to stop eating cookies, so I find it entirely reasonable when even the best trained dogs forget themselves. That doesn’t mean that they cannot learn to NOT chase.
When I was in middle school I hatched my first few chicken eggs from an incubator and raised 3 adorable production red chicks. Two hens and a little rooster that stole my heart and I actually got to take to school one day. I had to return them to the farmer who gave me the eggs when they got too big to stay in the house, and he lost them to a fox shortly after, but it (unsurprisingly) taught me to love chickens. So in high school, I hatched a few more. I built a coop. I kept chickens well into my 20’s and I never thought twice about my dogs harassing them in any way. Of course, I knew that OTHER dogs would bother my chickens. But mine never did and it never occurred to me that they should. Rippity, my old chihuahua mix from childhood, was well into his teens, and while he loved to chase and catch and kill almost anything, he was old when the second brood of chicks were hatched and he knew as soon as I began cuddling them that they were family, not food. My other dogs learned from his example and his not-so-gentle corrections that chickens are not to be chased.
So after more than 10 years without any chickens in my life, I have found myself once again in a feathery fever, with a chicken coop and 10 lovely heritage breed chicks that need safekeeping. I also have 3 very prey driven dogs. (Ritchie is absolutely the worst.) I also keep EVERY OTHER DOG on my property quite frequently and I have some security concerns for my avian charges. I know from experience in helping other dog owners retrain chicken killing dogs, and from personal experience in teaching Cookie (english shepherd rescue) that chasing isn’t the desired behavior, that even very prey driven dogs can be taught not to chase livestock of any kind. It takes a lot of work, a good amount of time, patience, consistency, and more than a handful of prevention.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll review what I’ve been practicing with Cookie. All dogs, even dogs that have harassed, caught, killed, and eaten their prey, can and should be taught using these methods.
First, let’s review. The 3 D’s: Distance, Distraction, Duration. In the beginning of any new training endeavor, these should be kept to a minimum. A dog learning not to chase should be kept under threshold (the level at which the dog becomes too excited to learn) and should first be taught self-control behaviors. My favorite self-control cues are “leave it”, “watch me”, and “stay”. “Wait”, “get back” from a door or object of interest, and a solid “down” cue are all also very valuable. We build all training on offered attention in my group classes. If a dog will not voluntarily look at you, does not find you interesting in high distraction environments before you begin teaching him to leave livestock alone, you’ll have a very difficult time getting his attention when there’s a flock of tasty birds right in front of him.
When you’re certain that all of these things are well proofed, grab a bag of high value treats, your dog’s favorite toy, a camping chair, put your pup on a leash, and head out to the pasture. When you’re beginning, you’ll want to distance yourself from the animal you’re desensitizing your dog to. Find a spot as close to the animals as you can, where your dog still thinks you’re the most interesting thing around. (Remember all that boiled chicken you brought? You are ALWAYS the most interesting thing!) If your dog cannot look away from the animals in question, you’re too close. Practice every still, calm cue your dog knows. Reward him for his success. Isn’t he brave and clever?! Tell him so. Move a little closer and repeat.
Each day you’ll move a little closer to the animals you’re working with. Reward any calm behavior and any time your dog offers you his attention. This is a great time to read a book or play on your phone if you’re not inclined to enjoy the scenery, but remember to keep watch on your dog and reward him frequently. Increase the duration of your visits as your dog’s behavior on leash improves. Be sure to reward frequently, with high value play and treats, especially any time your dog ignores the animals’ abrupt movements. When you can sit or walk around the animals with your dog on a leash and his attention remains on you, or he simply ignores the temptation to focus on other sights and smells, you’re ready to proceed.
When your dog has progressed to the point of boredom, start over. Put him on a long lead (20 feet or more) and practice at a distance again, allowing your dog farther from you. Practice recalls and stays and reward frequently for any success. In this way, you will generalize the idea that your dog should continue his calm behaviors around livestock even when you’re not nearby. Start from the beginning of this procedure with each additional distance you allow him. Be sure to supervise carefully when working your dog at any distances where he is closer to the livestock than to you. I use the precaution of working with the dog on a dropped leash before I allow them off leash near their former prey, but each step is exactly the same as the first.
What to do when your dog tries to misbehave: I say “tries” because presumably, before you ever allow your dog freedom near your other animals, he’s on a leash and you’re supervising. Any behavior your dog offers is the right behavior and he should never be punished for being a dog. If your dog lunges after a chicken as you walk past, you are at fault. You weren’t watching, you were too close, you had not proofed his behavior at the previous distance before you moved closer. Just because your dog did something undesirable does not make him a bad dog or you a bad owner. Cut both of you some slack! Take a few steps back (literally and figuratively) and proof all of his best behaviors at the distance and duration where he can succeed, then proceed again.
Positive punishment will negatively impact not only your bond with your dog, but will also teach your dog to resent or fear the animals he should protect. Never hit or punish your dog for behaving like a dog, you’ll just make it all worse and the entire process will take much longer. If your dog has not learned to walk politely on a leash or if you use aversive equipment to get your dog to behave on leash, set him up for success and teach him to walk loosely on a leash while you’re teaching him to love his new livestock charges.
I’ll be perfectly honest: some dogs are never able to be unsupervised with livestock. They are the exception and not the rule. Just as some dogs never recover fully from trauma and remain reactive in some way, there are dogs whose breeders did not do their due diligence and bred dogs with inappropriate prey drives. All of that said, the vast majority of dogs can and should be taught to coexist peacefully with other animals. If you have questions, feel free to message, email, or call. We’re always here to help!