Most dogs love to chase. But some dogs–– influenced by their breeds-–have different intentions with their targets. Most terriers and sighthounds, for example, were bred to chase down and kill animals on their own. Pointers, on the other hand, were bred to locate birds, but allow the hunter to take the shot. Countless years of selective breeding have shaped the way that dogs perceive and interact with “prey.” So where do Australian Shepherds fall on this spectrum?
All Dogs Have Prey Drives
Prey drive is defined as the “instinctive inclination of a carnivore to find, pursue and capture prey.” Being carnivores, nearly all dogs have some level of prey drive instinct. But prey drive is not a black-and-white issue, nor is there a cut-and-dry answer for whether a dog breed has prey drive or not. Prey drive can manifest as moderately as a Labradoodle’s desire to chase a ball, or as extremely as an American Bully’s obsession with trying to stalk, chase, and hunt down the neighbor’s cat.
Dogs with strong prey drives might behave obsessively around small animals or even children’s toys that rumble, shake, walk, dance, or vibrate. Inanimate objects with wheels, including wheelchairs, shopping carts, or even cars, can become objects of obsession for dogs with an uncontrolled prey drive. Depending on the strength of the dog’s instinct, prey drive is often triggered by fast, erratic, or sudden movements of the object or animal at hand.
For some dog owners, this is just the day in the life of an active canine. For other owners, however, prey aggression can lead to common behavioral problems in dogs.
Prey Drive Doesn’t Necessarily Equal Aggression
Fortunately, there is no correlation between prey drive and dog-to-human aggression. Dogs perceive us humans differently than they view prey animals; we are their companions, guardians, and packmates. However, prey drive can cause human safety issues when it escalates to the point of overstimulation and hysteria in the dog. In this highly aroused state, dogs may redirect aggression onto their human caregivers unintentionally.
Dog Instincts: Herding vs. Hunting
Prey drive can be broken down into eight sequences: eye, orient, stalk, chase, bite to grab, bite to kill, dissect, and consume. While all dogs are individuals, these tendencies are also heavily influenced by genetics. Different breed groups were selectively bred over vast amounts of time to carry out different sequences of prey drive. Herding breeds like Australian Shepherds are an interesting case study because, unlike most other breed groups, they were created to execute prey drive with strict control.
A good herding dog should fixate on their herding subjects enough to respond to every minuscule movement the animal makes. However, carrying out the full prey drive sequence would be problematic. An Australian Shepherd who killed or severely injured a farmed animal would not be bred, so their genetic lineage would end.
Australian Shepherds are not always gentle with other animals. Herding requires strong, assertive body pressure, and sometimes, the use of teeth. An Aussie who hasn’t been trained in herding may still exhibit herding instincts but without reservation.
Training Can Curb an Aussie’s Instincts
With training tricks and healthy outlets for Aussie’s mental energy, these dogs can make excellent family pets, and can safely live with a variety of animals. Australian Shepherds are a much stronger candidate for living safely with small animals than many terrier or sighthound breeds.
Harnessing Your Dog’s Chase Drive
Australian Shepherds are not independent dogs. As a herding breed, they need extensive direction from their caregivers. This does not mean that you need to use force, punishment, or harshness with your Aussie. It means that as an Aussie caregiver, you must dedicate time to helping your dog learn what is expected of them.
Plenty of engagement on walks can help implement structure into your Aussie’s routine. Playing games can keep them interested. If you tend to glaze over and stare at your phone while walking your dog, an Australian Shepherd is the wrong breed for you! Keep things interesting by bringing toys and treats on your walk, asking your dog for occasional trick behaviors, and occasionally throwing treats down beside you simply to give the dog a reason to pay attention.
Frisbees, herding balls, and other toys can be used in moderation to help exercise an Aussie’s chase drive.
Aussie Excel at Dog-Specific Sports
Trick training and dog sports exercise the herding part of an Aussie’s brain. This is why herding breeds, particularly Border Collies, Australian Cattle Dogs, and Australian Shepherds, tend to excel and dominate at breed-specific sports, such as agility. Try to dedicate ten minutes per day to mastering a new trick or activity with your Aussie. It will make a world of difference!
Satisfy Your Dog’s Prey Drive With These Tips
Some dog breeds are energetic and task-driven by nature––and that’s certainly the case for the lovable Australian Shepherd. Here are some easy tips that only stimulate these dog athletes:
Practice Recall Skills
For any dog with a strong chase drive (and any dog in general!), having solid recall skills is essential before having off-leash time. Contrary to popular belief, a “firm hand” is not necessary to teach dogs top-notch recall skills. In fact, you’ll want to give them a reason to choose to come bounding back to you without a second thought.
Recall training should begin in the home without distractions, pairing high-value rewards with a special recall sound, word, or whistle- whichever you choose. Treats, toys, and exuberant praise can all rotate as forms of reinforcement for listening to your recall.
Take Your Dog to a Fenced Dog-Friendly Park
For dogs working on their recall training, long leads can provide freedom without taking risks. Fenced spaces, such as SniffSpot locations, can also serve as a safety barrier. While it’s not necessary for dogs to be able to run off-leash in unfenced spaces, this can certainly improve a dog’s life and curb high prey drives.
Partake in Predation Substitute Training
For those especially struggling to recall their dogs in the presence of wildlife, Predation Substitute Training is a fascinating program. Developed by German dog trainer Simone Mueller, Predation Substitute Training focuses on harnessing your dog’s prey drive in a way that encourages cooperative work between you and your dog and allowing outlets for prey drive in a safe and healthy manner. For the Australian Shepherd who just can’t stop taking off after deer, birds, cats, or other animals, this is an excellent resource!