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Prey Drive That Causes Biting Needs Special Training
I recently saw a post on a forum about a Jack Russell Terrier problem. The dog owner who had made the post was quite upset. She had her newly acquired rescue out in a park with her other two dogs. All the dogs were playing together when a jogger happened by. The rescue Jack Russell not only pursued the jogger, he bit her on the ankle, breaking the skin. The dog owner was shocked since this mature dog had shown no previous aggression. Anytime a dog bites, especially if the dog breaks the skin, a dog owner has a good reason to be concerned. After this kind of an incident, a dog owner might ask him or herself several questions: Will this problem continue, or was this a chance happening? Can the dog be reformed? Does the dog need returned to rescue because of aggression issues?
Lets look at why this dog did what he did. In the last article, different kinds of aggression were discussed. Although a lot of people are quick to flag this kind of action as dominance aggression, this is not an act of dominance aggression. This is a result of a dog with a strong prey drive who is acting on his inborn urges in an unacceptable manner.
To better understand this problem, let's review exactly what a drive is. A drive is an internal impulse or urge that motivates an animal to take certain actions. In order for something to be classified as a drive, there has to be a drive specific stimulus, drive specific action, and a drive goal. With the problem dog mentioned above, the drive that urged the dog to take action was the predatory (prey) drive. All dogs have a certain degree of prey drive, because prey drive is part of the food acquisition behavior of dogs. However, Jack Russell Terriers who are bred to hunt are selectively bred with a more acute prey drive.
The prey drive actions are chasing, pouncing, biting, pulling down, shaking to death, re-biting, and carrying. The end goal of the drive is possession of the prey with the intent to eat something. The stimuli which is going to trigger prey drive in your dog include erratic, fast, and evasive movements. As mentioned, all dogs have prey drive, but in a lot of Jack Russells those drives are intensified, and in some, those drives can be so strong that whatever stimulated the prey drive becomes "all consuming." That excessive predatory drive is one of the reasons some of the dogs are obsessed about attacking things like your vacuum cleaner.
With a lot of dogs, when the dog see something moving fast, although the dog wants to pursue, the dog realizes that biting people is not allowed. In some Jack Russells, the prey drive is so strong, normal dog precautions seem to become suspended and the dog becomes "all action and intent" in his prey drive response, making some dogs seem out of control. There are several triggers that can send these dogs into an excessive prey drive response. Someone running is one of the triggers. Kids, making higher-pitched noises which can sound like an animal in distress, is another. When in a predatory mode, canines have a natural drive to join into the kill when prey sounds panicked. Children playing can make higher pitched noises which sound like an animal in distress. That same distressed sound, especially if the kid is running, will make a Jack Russell with a higher prey drive want to bite whatever is making that noise.
Now that you hopefully better understand the problem, let's talk about some solutions. This rescue Jack Russell's problem of chasing and biting can be stopped; but there are several steps to accomplishing that goal. The first step is to train the dog in basic obedience. The Jack Russell is bred to work independently and also has a very high degree of self-importance. Both traits urge the dog to choose his bidding over that of his owner's. Teaching the basics like sit, stay, and the watch command is the first step to introducing your Jack Russell Terrier to the concept that the dog needs to do what you ask over what the dog wants to do, at least once in a while.
Although basic obedience is a good start, with a Jack Russell, you will need to do more than basic obedience. To get more control with your Jack Russell, you need to do what I call Power Training. After you teach your Jack Russell how to stay, then you need to tempt the dog to do something he wants to do, like break that stay. You also need to be prepared to make the dog comply by finding a way of keeping the dog from doing his desire over your command. I often do this by putting the dog in a stay, tossing a treat, and using a leash to make sure the dog can't break that stay and pursue that tossed treat, until I give him a release word. When I say "okay" to release the dog, he is then allowed to claim the treat as a reward for his obedience. However, before I give that release word, I will wait until the dog makes eye contact with me (the watch command taught during basic obedience). By having the dog look at me, the dog learns to wait for my cue before he takes an action he wants to take. Once the dog learns not to break a stay when I toss a treat, I am ready to begin my training to call off of a chase.
With a lot of dogs, the best way to deal with this issue is to teach the dog to redirect to you when he sees the stimulus, or in this case the jogger. However, I've discovered that most Jack Russells want to try things their way before doing things your way. For that reason, I teach the dog to recall while in pursuit, then I teach a redirect.
With a dog like the rescue Jack who liked to bite joggers in the park, to train the dog, I would take the dog back to that park and wait for a jogger. How far away from the stimulus, the jogger, I need to do my training would depend on the dog. Some dogs will want to pursue the jogger when she is twenty feet away, some will want to give chase at ten feet, and so on. However, keep in mind that if you are too close to the stimulus, the dog will become so reactive he will not able to focus on any training. To effectively train the dog you need to first find out how far away you need to go so the dog ignores the target. Then, slowly approach the target until the dog begins to show attention, such as pulling on the leash. Try your training at this point. If you don't have success because the dog is too excited about the stimulus, then you will need to train further away from the stimulus.
Once I establish my training distance, I let the dog begin to take chase. I then call the dog back to return to me, and I use the leash to enforce my command. When the dog is back in front of me, I have the dog sit and focus on me by once again asking for that watch command. Once the dog focuses on me, I reward the dog with treats, praise, or a little playing, depending on what the dog values. As the dog begins to understand he must return when I call him, I begin to work closer to the stimulus. The dog graduates when he is willing to recall from his pursuit, without me having to use that extra long leash to pull him back.
After the dog learns to call off of a chase, you can work to intervene before the dog takes chase. This is done by watching for something that tempts the dog to give chase. As soon as the dog looks at that object, you break the dog's attention from that object with either with a verbal command, a tug on the leash, or both. Then you ask the dog to redirect his attention to you by doing the watch command. You reward the dog for redirecting his attention to you with the same reward that you gave for the recall. If I keep on top of things and redirect the dog in a timely fashion, then over time, most dogs will learn to never pursue a jogger. However, don't be hasty to let your dog off leash. Make sure the dog no longer wants to pursue a jogger under any circumstances. If the dog is allowed to chase sometimes, and prevented other times, you will not effectively train the dog.
Many Jack Russell Terriers are bred with a very strong prey drive, and the dog may act aggressively when pursuing something that triggers the dog's prey drive. With a Jack Russell, when it comes to doing your thing over his, harsh discipline, punishment, or doing an alpha roll will not change the dog's behavior. You need training to achieve compliance. Although basic training with the dog is a good beginning, it will not stop the dog from acting on those inbred urges. Specialized training is needed to stop or deter unwanted behaviors, which result from the dog's strong prey drive.
For those of you who need help training your Jack Russell, my book "Training the Hard to Train Dog" is going to be released this fall. Keep a watch on my website for more details, and check for helpful articles, which I post from time to time. www.peggyswager.com. For you mystery fans, I hope you give my book Murder was a Stranger a read, and learn how a Jack Russell helped solve a mystery.
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