Canine Behavior/prey drive
I regularly care for my son's lab/pit mix 2yr old dog at my home. I try to exercise her regularly by walking her and having her retrieve her ball. This tires her out some, but on return to my home she periodically tries to dart off after squirrels, ducks or cats. Otherwise, she is calm around other dogs and people. I was hoping to train her to stay off a leash when around my home, but she also darts off after any such prey as above mentioned. I therefore must keep her on a leash at all times when she is walking or in the front yard of my home for fear she may be hit by a car or hurt an animal. Is there anything I can do to curb her anxiety around such said prey?
******* I think it's excellent that you're prepared to tackle this challenge head on. I wish you the best of luck. There were just a couple things I want you to keep in mind going forward. First - it's excellent that you have a good yard for this work. Remember, though, that dogs do not generalize the same way that we do. So he may learn to totally ignore squirrels, or come to you when he sees a squirrel in your back yard. But, he'll need to practice in your front yard, on walks and in other locations as well before he's able to generalize that behavior change. So, go through the entire protocol until he's completely unconcerned with squirrels in your back yard. Then you'll need to start the whole process over again in your front yard (it usually goes faster the next time through). Then again, the entire protocol when out on walks or at a local public park, etc. After working through the whole thing (from a distance and building up his tolerance and behavior choice moving closer and closer to the squirrels) in several locations, and we see an appropriate behavior choice (ignoring the squirrel or looking to you), then we can say that he's generalized the response.
Second, as for hanging out in the front yard, especially since you know there are less social dogs in your neighborhood, I would not allow her to run around off leash. But, you can get a harness (don't use her collar for this) and a long lead and tie her out so she can be with you, have some room to move around, but still be properly contained to your yard. There are a few options - long leashes come in 15, 20, 30, 40 and 50 foot lengths. You can tie it to a post, gate or tree (close to your house, not near the edge of the property), or they make tie-outs that use a spike in the ground or that tie between two trees and hang from above, allowing her to run back and forth, with about a 5-foot swing on either side of the zip-line. The key is to make sure that while she has freedom to move around and access to shade/water, she cannot get closer than about 10 inches to the edge of your property (sidewalk). I'm thinking in terms of liability for you. If a not-so-nice dog comes by and your dog can get to the sidewalk, then you may be held liable for any altercation between the two dogs. On the other hand, if your dog is tied such that they cannot get closer than about 10 inches to the sidewalk, that requires the other dog to come onto your property before an altercation can take place. In that scenario, you have properly contained your dog and the other owner would be liable. This is a big deal because people are quick to blame any dog that has pit or any pit-type breeding in them for any fights that occur, so it's on us (the responsible owners) to ensure that we have done everything RIGHT to avoid such an incident.
Good luck with the training. Please followup in a few weeks and let me know how the progress is going.*******
Thank you for your question. Prey drive is a totally normal behavior in dogs, even if it's an unacceptable behavior from our perspective (much like eating poop...). I expect your son's dog is not feeling anxiety over seeing small prey, so much as excitement. There may be some anxiety at her lack of ability to get to the prey animal, but her desire to chase it is 100% normal.
There are some things we can do to try to curb it a bit, but it may not be possible to turn that drive off altogether, as that would be like asking her to stop breathing while at your home. There are leash laws in your state that demand that dogs be on leash when in public, so I wouldn't be aiming for leash-free walks in your neighborhood even if we do completely eliminate the prey drive from her behavior repertoire. But if you have a fenced in yard, it would be nice if she could run around the yard without a leash on.
There is a book called Click To Calm: Healing the Aggressive Dog
, by Emma Parsons (a Karen Pryor book)
While this book is focused on aggression directed at other dogs and/or people, the premise of click-to-calm would be appropriate for your situation. The idea is that we first pair the sound of a clicker (available at all major pet stores) with a nice treat (though not a treat so exciting it gets the dog riled up). Then, once the dog understands that the click reliably predicts food, we use that clicker to mark any calm behavior our dog gives. So, when the dog does an appeasement behavior such as yawning (when not actually tired), or sniffing the ground to avoid engaging, or looking to us rather than fixating on the trigger object), we click and give a bite to eat. You have to always keep the dog UNDER threshold. Threshold is the "point of no return." It's the moment of switch between noticing the squirrel and being overwhelmed by a need to chase the squirrel. So you need to be able to start at a distance far enough from the squirrel that the dog notices, but doesn't really care. Or you need to start with a toy version of a squirrel at a distance (attached to a fishing line) so someone else can make it move a bit when you're ready for that.
Let's say your son's dog is comfortable noticing a squirrel 50 feet away - she can see it, but continue doing her own thing where she is without fixating on the squirrel. Then, you start there and every time she notices the squirrel but remains calm, you click and treat. Then, when it's clear that she is not reacting to the squirrel at 50 feet, you move a few feet closer (it may only be 6 inches closer, depending on her level of reaction). Then continue practicing at the new distance until it is completely clear that she can notice the squirrel and remain calm. Build up her tolerance in this way going as slowly as she needs you to go, and sometimes dropping back several feet to take the pressure off and make it really easy for her to stay calm. As she gets used to the process of noticing the squirrel and staying calm, and getting a click/treat for that calm behavior, she'll begin to choose calm more and more. If you work this process at her pace, you will eventually be able to get quite close to a squirrel, and if done correctly, her response at seeing a squirrel will be an immediate check-in with you to see if there's a tasty treat coming her way. Why? Because we've so methodically associated that squirrels in her environment now reliably predict hot dog (or cheese or whatever she likes), that you won't even need to click anymore because the squirrel now tells her that food is coming.
Another book you may find helpful is Behavior Adjustment Training: BAT for Fear, Frustration & Aggression
, by Grisha Stewart.
It uses a similar process, but also uses what she calls a functional reward. The functional reward is something in the environment that the dog wants. In some cases, the dog may wish for more distance between them and the thing that scares them. With frustration, the functional reward may be a game of tug or even getting to move closer to the thing that interests them. So, along with the food reward, BAT also uses the functional reward to help reinforce the choice of calm, confident behavior. When these two methods are done well, you often end up with a dog who seeks out the thing that previously upset them because they've come to feel differently about them. No longer is the "trigger" (squirrel) scary or overwhelming or anxiety producing. Now it's neat and means good things happen.
If you are feeling a bit overwhelmed by the process of working through this issue, I encourage you to work with a professional in your area who is familiar with these training protocols. It can be difficult to get the timing right, and poor timing can actually make the situation worse rather than better. And it can be difficult to work on some of these things without a helper to set up situations or watch the dog and you to make sure everyone is seeing the behavior cues for stress or anxiety or other "over threshold" behaviors.
One last good book is Turid Rugaas' On Talking Terms with Dogs - Calming Signals
. This book walks you through a bunch of behavior cues that dogs will do when they are feeling stressed or anxious/nervous/fearful, known as appeasement signals or calming signals. The book also talks about behaviors designed to keep others at a distance (distance-increasing signals). Knowing these behaviors can help quite a bit as you'll be better able to read your son's dog and know what her mental state is in a given situation, which can then help you determine the best way to manage her while training a different response.
I hope this proves helpful. Good luck. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.
Los Angeles Behaviorist