Zora, my 16 month old Husky/GSD mix, is very well-behaved MOST of the time. However, when we go for walks, she spots squirrels, birds or cats well before I do. With no warning, she good-naturedly, yet violently lunges towards the prey. When she does this, I make her sit to calm herself, but when we resume walking she again lunges at the next animal she sees. I am afraid she will catch me off guard, pull away and run into traffic. I use a back-looped harness and this seems to encourage the behavior. I used a choke collar, but she pulled so hard I thought she would hurt herself. What is the best way to make our walks more pleasant and safe?
Your situation is not uncommon. Zora’s predation is normal dog behavior. All dogs are predators, yet some appear to have the predation gene – more “developed” due to their breed (s) and/or because chasing – be it cars, rabbits, etc. – has been a possibility in their lives and they have found the activity very reinforcing.
Zora’s breed combo- Husky/GSD presents a double whammy in this regard as both her breeds are high on the predation/movement response scale.
I am afraid that your situation does not allow for a quick fix; if any. However, there are things that you could try to do in order to get her to focus on something else while on your walks with hopes of re- irecting some of her predatory urges. Notice that I did not say, “get rid of” her predatory behavior because this is truly impossible – it comes pre-wired. 🙂
First off, I would ONLY walk a dog like Zora who has a strong predatory inclination with a head-halter. Anything else such as harnesses or collars will not allow you to influence her movements enough where you can exercise some control over them, and as a result you might get injured or as you pointed out she can get free and run into traffic.
In order to walk her with a head-halter you first need to get her used to wearing it comfortably. There are many brands out there and they differ on how they must be fitted so read the instructions carefully to make sure that the head-halter is fitted correctly.
This will ensure that it’s comfortable for Zora and to make sure she cannot break loose. If you send me a follow up email, I can send you a training plan to help with desensitizing her to the head-halter.
Secondly, I am on the fence about having her sit after each chase attempt for a couple of reasons, and since you have not had success with this strategy I would encourage you to abort that and to try something different. My recommendations are below: I do not know if Zora is keen on playing tug with you. If she is, play regularly with her daily, if possible. This should only take but a few minutes with added benefits besides curtailing chasing behaviors. However, make sure you only play with her by the rules in order to keep her arousal levels in check and to teach her some needed impulse control.
If you search my blog you will find a post on this. If she is not keen on playing tug I would also make this a priority.
The advantage of playing tug often (while following some rules) with dogs in general, and particularly with dogs with high prey drive, is that we give them a legal outlet to practice some of the same behaviors involved in predation.
Other alternatives for substitutes of predatory impulses are using a whippet toy, (similar to playing tug but with a longer range) again I have written about this on my blog and to some extent ball tossing/chasing.
In addition to the above, I would suggest you walk Zora when she is EXTREMELY hungry (have her skip dinner or even two meals – she will not starve, before walks) so that you can have her re-direct her attention to you and the goods you are giving out- try this at least while you are trying to instill an alternative to chasing.
Do keep in mind that the more she is allowed to pull and lunge the stronger (and more permanent) the behaviors will be. So preventing her by using high-value food with a hungry Zora while you teach her an alternative behavior is my recommendation.
The goal here would be to teach Zora a specific behavior such as a U-turn instead of pulling and lunging after what attracts her.
The U-turn is your dog pivoting on the spot and turning around (on or off leash) on verbal cue so that you can more readily have her change the direction you are walking. In your case (and once very solid under easier distractions) when YOU spot the possible target for pulling.
You need to begin training her first in a non-distracting environment (say your living room) and only adding distractions as you find that she can respond to the verbal cue at least 9 out of 10 times under current distractions.
Wildlife or any moving object such as cars, if she also chases them, will be the very last criteria.
I like to train this behavior as a game by using an enthusiastic approach and paying with high rewards.
I recommend practicing this behavior once Zora has learned it not only in the presence of the high distraction but at times when there are no distractions so that the dog does not begin to associate the behavior – the U-turn with the presence of a high-level distraction such as a prey.
You mentioned that she pulls hard “without warning” I am pressed to tell you that there is even the tiniest behavior (s) that she is offering just before pulling. Perhaps it is small and to the untrained or distracted person difficult to spot. For this, I recommend that when you are walking her (with the head-halter as discussed above) you pay very close attention to her body language, especially pay attention to the position of her head and ears.
Most likely she is lowering her head just before lunging forward, or staring in the direction of the prey. The goal here would be for you to be able to anticipate her lunging by watching for any visual antecedent to the lunging so that you can better re-direct before she is pulling and/or lunging.
As I said earlier this is a difficult behavior to work with so do not expect “miracles” too soon. In addition, consider suspending walks where the highest level of distraction/lunging occurs until you get some of the techniques mentioned in place. In order for any new and better alternate behavior to “stick” she needs to be successful so that you can reward (reinforce) many, many, many times! The more she gets reinforced for an alternative behavior (s) the higher the chances you will have in re-directing her lunging habit. I hope the above suggestions help.