Understanding Hunting

by | Jan 10, 2012 | 0 comments

Common dog behaviour problems

Countless dogs are restricted to a lunge or leash, many are re-homed or worse, because their owners can’t stop them hunting or have allowed it to happen so often the dog thinks it is the way to be. Many dog trainers tell them that ‘It’s a recall problem, more management and cue fluency needed’ and that will certainly help, but there is more to the hunt than that, and humans need to understand the root drives of the hunt in order for behavioural re-modification to work.

To understand the concept of the hunt we need to go into the dogs mind so the question is not ‘how to stop a dog from hunting?’ but ‘what is in it for the dog?’

First you need to understand what is motivating the hunt. There maybe a number of reasons a dog will hunt and chase, reasons such as fixation, fear, prey drive, amusement, boredom, genetics; what it isn’t is a behaviour the dog has come up with just to annoy, frustrate, worry or disobey you!
Depending on the motivation the solution has to apply to the individual reason, but high drive, saltation (breeding on the most wanted traits to carry forward the genes for work), successful hunting etc can be defined as a purely predatory behaviour and we humans need to understand this and look at it from the dogs point of view before we can have any control over the dogs that do it.


The Joy of Hunting

  • Scent, Sight, Sound, Movement… the dog’s sense are tuned to all of these at the same time and then selects them in order of impact on the brain.
  • Opportunity…dogs will energetically work to find an opportunity to hunt and will find a way to do so in, what to us, seems impossible achievement areas. Once they have had success in that location or situation they will look for opportunities to repeat the success.
  • Excitement…all those bodily chemical actions and the re-actions…wow, doggy high… it saturates the system and then there is the activation of the motor neurons in the brain which tells the dog ‘MOVE NOW’.
  • Components of Hunting…searching, stalking, pointing, setting, flushing, catching, retrieving, prey playing, injuring, killing, consuming.


But (but but) Why Do They Do It?

It all comes down to reinforcement. Internal reinforcement is an inherent instinctive drive that is developed and carried on with each generation.  Think about this.  We do not teach inherited instincts.  Did you have to teach your dog to bury a bone? Lift his leg to pee? Bark at an intruder? No of course not as these are actions referred to as ‘motor patterns’.  Hunting is just such a motor pattern developed for wild canines to catch/kill prey in order to survive and then developed by humans in domestic dogs through breeding selection so they work for us.  Internal reinforcement is extremely self-rewarding…it gives a thrill and creates a feeling of being on a ‘high’.

When we train dogs we use external reinforcement…the reward for achieving is the treat, social appraisal or whatever rocks the dog’s boat.  But hunting is internally reinforced as dogs don’t get given a reward for achievement…it is pure unadulterated joy due to that dose of dopamine every time they accomplish an inherited motor pattern, and like the high from a ‘social drug’, it is addictive.

Hunting is a sequential behaviour and in wild canines each part of the chain is followed by the next link.  When selecting the wanted the traits, humans only picked parts of the chain and having selected these links, exaggerated them and then left out the rest; thereby disturbing the balance. Depending on the genetics within the breed the level of internal reinforcement pleasure will vary. Like most spaniels, my clumbers get a huge internal reward from ‘seeking on’ i.e. searching out the prey, then picking up and if need be dispatching; but they do not stalk well. Pointers and Setters get a higher internal reward from stalking (pointing/setting), but many have to be encouraged to dispatch.  The genetic conformity of the breed also has a huge bearing when working for the success of an internal reward. Compare a heavy built Clumber (the ‘tanks’ of the gundog world) bred to go into serious rough cover, using the heavy protected head to barge through at a steady speed with mind tuned to the current task in hand, to that of a finer boned, faster opportunist Springer (the ‘harrier jump jets’ of the gundog world) that will leap off a river bank when on a scent and is also thinking about the next bird while still on to the first.

So to summarise the above; hunting is a motor pattern that is an inherent behaviour and one that is reinforced just by its own action…no other reward is required as the behaviour is rewarding all by it’s self…oh…and they love it!


But (but but) Why Wont They Stop When I Tell Them to?

Not only do they just love it though. That ‘high’ has other effects. The endorphins create such a thrill and pleasure stimulus that in order to achieve a successful, enjoyable, self rewarding hunt the dog will close down the other senses to aid concentration for the task in hand. This is the primary reason why you cannot get that cue reaction to recall, stop, down, wait, leave, sit, do a belly dance etc when dog has gone into full sensory overload. Are you getting this now!  The dog is not disobeying you, s/he simply cannot and doesn’t hear you.

But it is not just all about pleasure.  High drive hunting dogs actually need to hunt.  The breed traits have programmed the dog to carry out this behaviour in order to satisfy their mental needs and as such they will constantly look for a way to achieve this.

Dogs like this are extremely hard to cue because in order to get a reliable cue means counter conditioning with an external re-enforcer.  A dog will not stop hunting on a promise of a biccy or a piece of sausage because these rewards are not as valuable to the dog as the internal reinforcement of the ‘high’ from hunting. This is the next reason why you cannot get that cue reaction, as there is nothing you can give the dog that replaces the reward gotten from hunting.  Nor is there any point at all in trying to use punishment, as all they will do is work harder to avoid the punisher while still trying for a successful hunt…and that will double ‘your’ problem.

So to summarise the above; being aware of the concept of the hunt will assist you in the way forward to exercising any control.  If you can accept that there is a huge chemical induced pleasure being achieved from this behaviour and that s/he is not deliberately disobeying you but is reacting to an internal programme, and as such they cannot help it, and that it is simply happening because they were bred to do it. Once you see hunting from the dog’s point of view it is easier to understand how to get that control.  Training a dog not to hunt is not like training a dog to lie down, sit, stay, wait, leave etc. as these behaviours follow a desire to earn a reward given by you.


But (but but) What Do I Do Then?

Well… you can leash for life or use some other management technique or you can step out of that box and actually deal with the problem by letting them hunt under cue…but you wont be able to deal with it in isolation. By working to achieve success within the constraints of internal reinforcement, and because the dog’s need to perform the behaviour causes interference with the dogs mental state, then there is a risk of them developing a negative emotional state that can result with more problems such as severe stress, anxiety and possible types of aggression.

Now…this is going to sound so easy but it isn’t, so view it as a challenge and think of the potential reward for you if you get it right!



  • Environment…be aware off it from the dogs point of view…mmmm I can smell duck !!
  • Challenges…these will include anything that includes problem solving, the repeat of learnt success.  That fence to climb/has climbed, that gate that can be jumped/has jumped, that river that needs swimming across/has swam across, going through a pain or fear barrier…will it hurt…well not enough to matter!! Worth the risk!!
  • Mental boosters…human interaction (the best place to be is around my feet), toys, dummies, balls, scented items…anything that is self rewarding
  • Reward based training… this will improve your mutual relationship and will increase positive interaction (the best place to be is around my feet) you will both get a sense of achievement and learn to mutually respect each other.
  • Take control of the opportunities…you cannot control the actual behaviour so you need to control the target, but but but I hear you say…we cannot control a duck swimming up river…no you can’t but you can change the target to one that you can, but first you have to stop allowing extinction bursts.  There is no point in trying to train when the behaviour is happening as you are then just competing against a higher reward.  Start to focus your dog on one of those mental boosters but don’t do it when there is possible competition with the problem. Alter the chase environment so do it in a place where there has not been a hunt already; in other words reduce the criteria. The new item…toy, dummy etc will be influenced by the dog’s preferred target.  If your dog is a rabbit dog then use a rabbit dummy, for a duck dog use a feathered dummy…add natural scent to up the targets worth
  • Develop to an end game… work to get that retrieve, once the dog knows that this really rocks your boat and is going to be rewarded by the continuance of the game you are a long way to achieving success.
  • Maintain interest…keep the article just for this work, it is not a toy to be used at any other time and keep at it until your dog is desperate to play this game with you.  If you prevent any chasing during this time the drive will remain high but will be aimed at this game with you.
  • Get a fluent cue…introduce a cue that means ‘ooo we going to play the hunting game’ mine is ‘ready’. Use it when the dog is not expecting it to let the dog know the game is on offer.  Throw the article anyway and which way, behind, in front, to the side, hide it to get the seek…the idea is that it really can act like a rabbit or duck.
  • Polish that recall and that stop and sit and down and…use 2 toys so that you can ‘play the game’ and get fluency on all the other basic cues at the same time
  • Add distractions…up the criteria gradually; slowly introduce some competitive distractions such as where there are other dogs, cats on fence, crows in trees etc.
  • Prevent extinction bursts… every time your dog hunts the addiction is being sustained so change your habits; don’t go into an environment where they can or if you do use a lunge.


Now You Will Have Control and a Happy Dog

With this counter conditioning the mental connections between ‘hunt’ and play ‘the game’ will replace those between ‘hunt’ and ‘live rabbit/duck’. With practice and continual reinforcement s/he will actually start to prefer the game to hunting. The replacement time span will depend on how many extinction bursts there has been and the length of time the dog has been allowed to hunt but persistence will pay off. Once your dog gets really excited at the ‘ready’ cue then it is time to test the learning by taking the game up the criteria path until you get it all happening at the highest of the highest criteria but remember even with success at that high criteria you can never stop this because you have to satisfy those needs and if you don’t they will revert to hunting again but now you have the bestest ever reward in the whole world…the article, you, your appraisal…because once the dog learns that the best place to be is really at your feet you have got it made.


We is playing the hunting game!! Cubert at 10 weeks and well on the way to a cued hunt.

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By Jamie Shanks

BDWS is owned and run by me, Jamie Shanks. I’ve been a professional dog walker since 2010. When I’m not walking dogs, I’m usually at home entertaining my three dogs and attending to five hens and my vegetable garden. 


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