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Understanding and Enriching Your Dog's Genetic Instincts


Understanding and Enriching Your Dog's Genetic Instincts

When I was growing up, we had a Golden Retriever named Annie. Goldens were originally bred to be Gun dogs, helping their human compatriots by retrieving hunted birds, in particular waterfowl. Now like most Golden Retrievers, Annie loved the water more than anything else in the world. We used to joke that she would break through the ice in January just to swim if she could! Annie also was driven crazy by the sight of birds. In her case, ducks in particular all belonged in her mouth. Well one day, that family joke about her breaking through the ice just to swim, came true.


We were walking at a local park, and Annie was off-leash. Knowing what I know now, she wasn’t ready for that freedom but when you know better you do better, right? Suddenly a flock of ducks swooped in and landed in one of the only open parts of the pond we were walking around. At that moment, all of Annie’s genetic instincts, honed over generations, kicked in. Before we could do anything Annie was off running toward the semi-frozen pond. Annie, a healthy 80-plus-pound dog, promptly broke through the ice, and instead of turning around to get to us, proceeded to swim, breaking the thin top layer of ice with her barrel chest as she went. We were shocked as this happened so fast. All screaming for her to come back, but she was determined. Then suddenly, just before my Dad jumped into the pond, the ducks flew off and Annie turned around and came back. And you know what? She was thrilled with herself. She shook off and immediately started to zoom around, the happiest dog in the park.


What was your dog bred for? How to fulfill breed specific behaviors.

As we know, our dogs share an amazing amount of DNA with wolves, apex predators at the top of the food chain. Their prey drive, the desire to chase, hunt, and capture, is alive and well in our dogs. Our dogs were all selectively bred for specific purposes, but one thing that remains is their desire to hunt. Understanding that overarching truth is one thing, but understanding what your dog was bred for (or what the breeds that comprise your dog’s mix) can help us enrich our dog’s lives by helping them exercise their prey drive in a healthy, safe, and fun way.


Let’s take Terriers for example. Terriers are born rodent hunters. Show me a terrier that doesn’t want to root out and pounce on a rodent. For these guys, flirt poles can provide endless fun. Digging games where you bury toys or bones in a spot that you don’t mind them digging is a good way to keep your lawn intact too! Giving them a kiddie pool full of sand outside can appropriately meet this need. Alternatively, create a ball pit for them inside! A box or kiddie pool filled with ball pit balls can give them another digging outlet.


Hounds are a group where most people know that their nose is always going to be something to contend with. Sniffing games, where you hide treats throughout the house or in the yard are a great way to let your hound do what they love to do. The sport of Nosework is also something to check out if you have a hound in your house. Try a simple treat scatter on the floor inside or in the grass outside and watch as your dog lights up with the opportunity to hunt.


Herding breeds are near and dear to our hearts as we share our lives with two amazing Cattle Dogs. Herding breeds have had their prey drive shaped over generations to move livestock. In some ways, it has been morphed and contained for this specific purpose. That also can mean that they are extremely sensitive to movement. Check out the sport of Treibball to help them channel their herding instincts into something healthy instead of the kids or other dogs in your home! Herding is a collaborative effort and these dogs tend to love interactive work with their guardian. Tricks and Agility can be a fabulous way to channel their breed's typical behavior.


how to train prey drive in dogs

Whatever breed group your dog falls into, being able to get their attention and redirect them from distractions will be exactly what you’ll need to avoid what happened to Annie! If your dog runs off after distractions or struggles to maintain focus when out in the world then be sure to enroll in our free class, The Distracted Dog Reset. You’ll come away with 3 practical skills to use with your dog to boost their engagement and be able to redirect them from distractions, like a flock of ducks! Click here to sign up.


That is just a taste of the 10 recognized breed groups out there. If you want to learn more about what breed group your dog falls into, head over to The Dog Key and take their breed group test. This works for mixed dogs as well! You’ll be able to learn more about what your dog’s genetics are telling them to do and give you an idea of what you can do to make their lives more fulfilling and help funnel their prey drive into something constructive rather than destructive.

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