Many dog breeds were originally bred for hunting, although this innate hunting instinct can soon become a problem in today's society. There can be dangerous consequences if your dog chases after every hare or bird and forgets all commands in the process. But can you stop a dog from hunting or get its hunting instinct be toned down? When is it the right moment to intervene and how does anti-hunt training actually work?
Anti-Hunt Training for Dogs in Five Steps
© Alexandr / stock.adobe.com
Table of contents
- If the dog suddenly gets out of control
- Does every dog have a hunting instinct?
- Regardless of breed
- Further triggers for hunting behaviour
- Why is the hunting instinct so difficult to control?
- When is anti-hunt training necessary?
- Five training components to control a dog's hunting instinct
- How successful is anti-hunt training?
If the dog suddenly gets out of control
Be it a deer, hare, bird or the neighbour's cat, some dogs simply chase after everything that moves. Once a dog has been struck by hunting fever, wildly waving at it, loud cries, shouts or whistling are often pointless. Daily walks with your beloved dog can truly become like running the gauntlet if its hunting behaviour is out of control. After all, dogs don't just endanger the animal they pursue, but also themselves and other pedestrians. It's possible that they may run onto a busy road in the ecstasy of hunting fever. Even if the wild animal isn't captured, some still suffer from the consequences of being chased for a long time, for instance, if they were chased to the point of exhaustion or mothers were not able to protect their young.
Does every dog have a hunting instinct?
Whilst some dogs run off as if stung by an adder simply upon smelling prey, others need visual contact with the animal before commencing the hunt. Some even let the hare passing by move on unscathed. Regardless of what category your dog belongs to, the fact is that the disposition towards hunting is genetically determined. Dogs can thank wolves, their ancestors, for their hunting instinct. Although our domesticated dogs now no longer need to hunt to procure food, their impulse to hunt is still deeply ingrained.
Regardless of breed
The strength of the hunting instinct depends on the dog breed for a start. Some breeds such as the Beagle, German Shorthaired Pointer, Dachshund, Weimaraner, Terrier, Basset and many more were bred specially for hunting purposes. Hunting utility dog specialists suitable either for hounding, stalking and pinning down or grappling with prey were created through targeted breeding. In contrast, the hunting instinct was gradually neglected with other breeds. Golden Retrievers, Boxers, Maltese or Pugs are nowadays considered outright family dogs primarily defined by their good social behaviour.
Further triggers for hunting behaviour
Whether and how quickly a dog's hunting behaviour is triggered depends on its DNA. However, other factors too can strengthen the urge to hunt. Even dogs that have never hunted before can suddenly chase after a wild animal and seem to forget their good training from one second to another. The drawback is that once dogs have shown hunting behaviour, they will always repeat it. On walks with several dogs, it's often enough for just one dog from the group to be struck by hunting fever in order to incite all the others to hunt too. In this context, we speak of emotional contagion. Hormonal fluctuations and a change in the dog's sexual behaviour can also influence the hunting instinct.
Why is the hunting instinct so difficult to control?
Regardless of your dog's breed, the hunting instinct can come to the fore with all canines. Owners of young dogs in particular that don't belong to a hunting dog breed are naturally shocked when their dog that previously trotted alongside them in a well-behaved manner suddenly dashes off. Once the dog has started the pursuit, there's no stopping it. But why is the hunting instinct so strong that the dog will no longer listen to its owner? Endorphins are the reason for this. These are released in the dog's body during hunting and trigger a state of happiness. In order to experience this feeling, simply running after the prey is often sufficient. Dogs don't necessarily need the hunt to be successful in order to experience this rush. Although the reward is twice as good in this case, the chase alone is enough of a self-reward for many dogs due to the release of hormones.
The feeling of happiness the dog experiences is so strong that it is no long interested in other things, regardless of how its owner may grumble. It will chase after the next hare too simply to experience this positive sensation again. Hence, the ideal scenario would be to never allow your dog to end up hunting so that it never experiences this feeling of elation, though unfortunately this is easier said than done. Dog owners should therefore be prepared for such situations.
When is anti-hunt training necessary?
It's difficult to get dogs to stop hunting, which gives them so much pleasure. Many owners watch helplessly or in a resigned manner how their beloved dog gets struck by hunting fever, breaks loose and runs away. They are then relieved if their dog returns safe and sound from a disallowed hunt. However, anxiety regarding the next walk becomes even greater with every escape. After all, you as a dog owner aren't just responsible for your dog, but the environment and wildlife surrounding you. In order to prevent their dog from becoming a safety risk, most owners sensibly opt for a lead. Even a drag lead though, which still gives the dog a lot of freedom, isn't satisfactory for either the dog or the owner in the long term, especially because a huge amount of steadfastness is needed if an adult Bloodhound suddenly starts hunting. Indeed, there are extreme examples of hunting utility dogs with a hunting impulse that cannot be suppressed even after anti-hunt training and have to be kept on a drag lead throughout their lives. However, most dogs can learn to resist their hunting urges.
Five training components to control a dog's hunting instinct
In order to get a dog to abandon its beloved hobby, you have to convince it that controlling its hunting instinct brings more positive consequences than hunting itself. It has to learn that it's worthwhile staying with its owner – not just because they have a few treats in their pocket, but because it can have more exciting adventures together with its family than chasing after a panicked hare alone. Although a dog's hunting instinct cannot be completely switched off, it can be redirected towards behaviour acceptable for us humans. Anti-hunt training strictly speaking doesn't involve training dogs out of hunting. On the contrary, it aims to make them easier to control. In order to achieve control over the dog and its behaviour, anti-hunt training is made up of different exercises that use different approaches to promise overall success at the end. It can be split into the following five training components:
- Practise basic obedience
A dog that has never obeyed a call to come back under normal conditions obviously won't do so in a hunting situation. Hence, basic obedience involving a dog reliably mastering the most important commands like “sit”, “down”, “drop”, “heel” and “stay” is essential for successful anti-hunt training. The best scenario is for the dog to receive basic training when it is still a puppy, but don't worry: even adult dogs that have already developed certain bad habits like hunting are able to learn these basic commands. Of course there are some dog breeds that are fundamentally more willing to cooperate than others. However, even very headstrong dogs like the Afghan Hound, Bloodhound or Wolfhound can learn to obey too.
Show your dog that obedience is worth the while. Whenever it behaves as you want it to, comes to you when you call “heel”, lies down when you say “down” or patiently waits for you when you say “stay”, praise your dog. Stroke it, say kind words, give it a treat or a favourite dog toy or do some kind of activity together. Practise commands wherever you are: first inside your home, then in your own garden and later on walks together. It's important for dogs to master basic commands in all situations, even with distractions. You will achieve this goal with patience, consistency and positive reinforcement.
- Attention exercises and strengthening your bond
Many dogs seem to suddenly forget their good training when struck by hunting fever. They split up from their owner, run away and don't take notice even of loud shouting. In order for this not to happen, your dog has to learn to obey your commands even in exceptional situations. This isn't easy whatsoever – after all, the temptations your curious dog is exposed to during a walk in the woods are not to be underestimated. Smells, an interesting trail or even visual contact with prey always prove distracting. It's important that your dog doesn't forget that you're the pack leader despite all the distractions and sensations. You must always be the centre of its attention. If your dog focuses completely on you, this close bond will function like an invisible lead.
An effective means of strengthening the owner-dog bond is rewarding your dog for its attention. Does it seek out eye contact with you on a walk, follow behind you when you change direction or turn towards you when you walk slower? Reward your dog whenever it pays you attention. If you notice that your dog's thoughts are no longer with you and it doesn't react if you suddenly stand still, try hiding behind a tree. Your dog will at first be confused and then will look for you. Reward it enthusiastically when it finds you – this too will strengthen the bond between you both.
- Refocus its hunting instinct on shared activities
A dog with a strong hunting instinct won't be convinced by treats alone that it's wiser to stay with its owner than to chase after prey, since the sense of self-reward generated from hunting due to the aforementioned production of endorphins is simply too great. It's crucial that your dog learns that working as a team with you is more fun than any chase. Take your dog's needs seriously and try to satisfy its urge to quarry, dig and run in a different way. Retrieval and search games, dummy work and of course dog sports like agility, canicross or man-trailing enthuse almost all dogs and ensure that they are adequately stimulated physically and mentally.
Dogs that hunt due to boredom – and there are a good few of them – will soon abandon hunting if they notice that you offer them sufficient replacement activity. Avoid boring walks that always follow the same route and be creative: bury a treat or toy for your dog that it has to dig up, play hide and seek, throw sticks, let it retrieve a dummy or balance on tree trunks. Be a team and prove to your dog that you understand what it wants and that you can grant it these needs too – of course, based on the rules from previous training. Particularly dogs belonging to hunting dog breeds should be allowed to live out their passion for hunting. Many dog sport schools offer suitable replacement hunt training in the framework of man-trailing or dummy work, which allows dogs to pursue their hunting instinct on artificial trails and in a secure environment.
- Controlling impulses
Anti-hunt training is always about impulse control too – after all, dogs have to learn to control their hunting instinct. However, this controlled behaviour contradicts their animal nature and initially leads to frustration. Hence, impulse control also means that the dog is capable of withstanding frustration. Like everything else, it only learns the ability of self-control when this is proven to be worthwhile. For instance, a dog that impulsively jumps at every visitor has to learn that this is the wrong way to get attention. Only when it sits obediently will it be praised by its family. Anti-hunt training works in a similar way: only when the dog shows that it can master its instincts can it expect a reward. If it doesn't simply chase after prey but first signals it and waits patiently for a command from its owner, they will praise and reward the dog accordingly.
A good exercise for controlling impulses is letting your dog lie down with the “down” command and then throwing a dummy. Ignore it if it jumps up without waiting for your next command, though you should reward it profusely if it manages to wait patiently and only jumps up to fetch the dummy when you give the specific command. Of course, this exercise will only be successful if your dog is calm and relaxed. A dog running around in an agitated manner with a visibly increased stress level won't be able to engage with a training exercise like this. In this case, you should allow your dog to let off steam first of all. Take it jogging, play together in the garden or let it run alongside you when you go cycling – your dog will only engage with your impulse control exercise if it is physically stimulated and its urge for exercise has returned to normal levels.
- Practise an emergency signal
In order to let your dog off the lead during walks in the woods, you have to be 100% certain that it will come back when you call it. But even if your dog comes back to you without any problems when you do so in the park or during encounters with other dogs or humans, this unfortunately doesn't mean that it will do so when faced with a wild animal. If it first considers whether it's more worthwhile to listen to you or to follow its hunting instinct, you and your command will usually lose out. In this situation, you need something stronger than “heel”, which is often heard and becomes rather tired. Arrange with your dog a kind of emergency signal that you only use in urgent situations and that promises your dog something amazing that it only gets on very rare occasions.
Helpful means to practise an emergency signal are a dog whistle and a special treat, such as a bit of sausage, that your dog would do anything to get its paws on. Practise with the whistle at home and slowly increase the amount of external distractions by practising outside in the garden, on a remote car park and later in a field or forest. As soon as your dog comes back to your whistle, hand over its super special treat as a reward. Obviously you shouldn't practise the exercise too frequently, because it could result in the special treat soon no longer being as special and thereby losing its appeal. Once you have successfully trained your dog on the emergency signal, you should really only use it in emergencies and not on every single walk. If the emergency signal keeps its enticing effect, there's a good chance of you being able to call your dog back when it scents prey or even during the chase.
How successful is anti-hunt training?
Successful anti-hunt training certainly requires a huge amount of work. No trainer in the world can suppress a dog's hunting instinct overnight. Patience, consistency and empathy are needed in order to convince the dog that it's better for it to abandon hunting, its great love. There will always be setbacks and whilst some dogs can learn after a few weeks to resist their hunting instinct, it takes almost a lifetime for others. How long it takes training to be successful doesn't just depend on you as a trainer but on the dog, its experiences and needs and the training environment. Particularly for unexperienced dog owners or those taking on a hunting dog breed for the first time, attending anti-hunt training with professional instruction can be helpful, such as at dog schools or dog sport or breed associations.
Don't give up whatever you and your dog decide! Always keep in mind why you're training your dog: for relaxed walks off the lead and a lifelong connection between the two of you! And don't forget that even passionate hunting dogs can learn that life with you has much more to offer than just hunting!
Discover our selection of dog sport & dog training accessories!
Most read articles
Around two-thirds of all cat owners think that their pet suffers to a greater or lesser extent from a food intolerance that has an impact upon its general state of health and predominantly the quality of its skin and fur. However, only in around a quarter of cases does an intolerance towards a food or certain ingredient manifest itself in the form of repeated vomiting and/or diarrhoea. It's important to differentiate intolerance from a real allergy, i.e. a reaction triggered by the immune system.