Vizsladogs, Ltd.

Prey Drive

by Randy Boggs


This article stemmed from a question asked on the VizslaHunt Listserv. Thank you to the participants for letting us use this on the Vizsla Home Page.


"As I mentioned, I'm having a real problem with Morgan chasing tweety birds. She barely passed the hunt test on Saturday and on Sunday she flunked. Normally there will only be an occasional one flying by, so it wouldn't be such a problem, but this weekend they were everywhere, flying low, and she spent the entire brace chasing them. Even when she went on point, she didn't mark the bird when they shot it because she was looking around for flying birds. Sight hunting, the judge called it. Her actual birdwork is almost flawless (you've seen her) - beautiful honor, staunch point, perfect retrieve, all with little or no training. She developed the habit of chasing on our daily walks, because the only time she really gets out and runs really far is when she's chasing, and Joe told me she'd grow out of it so not to worry about it, so I never discouraged her, but she's almost 3 and it's getting worse."

Dear Friend,
The behavior of your dog, chasing tweety birds, is highly desirable. The advice provided by Joe may be resonable since many Vs don't graduate from childhood until 3 or 4 years of age and subsequently don't graduate from adolescence until 4 or 5 years of age. With the information provided, I think you recognize that your dog's behavior is telling you something. You aren't precisely sure what it is or what if anything should be done in order to modify that behavior. I tend to agree with you that something isn't quite right. In order for you to understand where I'm coming from, I must describe to you my perspective of bird dogs, how I basically train them, and why I train them that way.

There are a number of pointing breeds. However, I prefer to lump pointing type dogs into two different groups regardless of their breed. One group: "innately loves running more than hunting" and the other group: "innately loves hunting more than running." I assume that your dog is the latter "innately loves hunting more than running", and my insight and recommendations are based upon that assumption. I speculate, with a high degree of certainty, that your dog has two problems. First, your dog's basic hunting skills were not sufficiently developed before starting the breaking process. Second, the breaking process has induced stress, thus making those tweety birds more attractive than the real McCoys.

Let's start from the development process from "ground zero" and maybe you can figure out where your dog's development has deviated. As a youngster, we take the pup (alone and without leash) for little walks. The purpose of these walks is for them to develop confidence to go out and explore. (Meanwhile, they are introduced to quail and pigeons in the yard, totally independent of the walks). Once they have confidence to explore, they will then start looking for something. They neither know what they're looking for nor know what drives them to explore. But.. they will find something to pursue in order to fulfill their innate prey desires. That desire is fueled by the various scents that the dog encounters. When taking these early walks, I prefer to take them on sterile grounds. These are areas void of game birds, rabbits, ground hogs, and anything else that can become prey for the dog. Especially MICE! As you can probably imagine, such grounds do not exist, but you can see what makes one area more desirable than another for these walks. An area that has tweety birds is well suited for these walks, especially if the pup takes an interest in them. The tweety birds help to prevent interest in the undesirable prey.

"Flight interest" is a dominant and very desirable genetic trait. A pup that takes interest in tweety birds is merely exhibiting that highly desirable trait. This behavior should not be stifled. Introducing game birds into these walks, before interest in undesired species is established, is a critical point in this process. Initial imprinting on a specific species may have a strong and lasting effect. So the objective is to get a positive imprint to game birds in the field before imprinting with an undesired species. Once the imprint is made on game birds, it needs to be continuously reinforced in order to build and set the dog's desire and interest. Successfully completing this part of the process should render the undesirable species lower on the "prey order." At this point in the development process, the dog gets to scent and chase the birds. The scent of game birds is far stronger than tweety birds. Because of the higher sensory impact, a dog with a high tweety bird interest will lower tweety birds on their "prey order." However, if sufficient game bird contact is neither made available for the dog to maintain nor to increase interest, then they will make substitutions in order to satisfy their innate prey desires. Those substitutions can be any species of previous interest as well as other prey that are readily available.

In the development process, typically the first 6 to 12 months are devoted to establishing interest in game birds afield. The next year to two years is devoted to letting them develop their hunting skills while building upon their desire and interest. Once these sound hunting skills are developed and set, breaking to wing & shot can start. The breaking process often terminates development of hunting skills and in many cases causes temporary regression. Regression of hunting skills occurs because of stress. For example, if the dog is broke to wing & shot by using intimidation methods, then the dog will only be broke when it feels the intimidation factor. Regression of hunting skills usually occurs. Conversely, if a dog is broke to wing and shot by via skillful behavior shaping (and the dog's desire for hunting is increased during the breaking process), then it will be broke under nearly all conditions. Regression of hunting skills rarely occurs and in some cases actually improves.These two scenarios basically define the boundaries of possibilities. A dog broke with intimidation methods will suffer from a high level of mental stress. The dog's mind won't allow it to focus on hunting the way it would without the stress. It's focus will be directed more towards its trainer. Over time it may forget, and gradually start to recover its focus...until the next correction for error on a bird. Or, the dog may avidly hunt and suddenly display confusion and anxiety. These are all signs of stress. There are a number of behaviors that are indicative of stress. The trainer's objective is to read them and adjust the process in order to minimze the induced stress because stress is the enemy of behavior shaping. Blinking birds is another behavior indicative of stress. The dog associates the bird with being intimidated and then avoids birds all together. The intimidation factor exceeds the desire factor. In your case, chasing tweety birds could be a form of blinking birds.

In summary, your dog has either not developed sufficient interest and desire for game birds and/or it suffers from the stress of breaking to wing & shot. If you evaluate your dog's situation with the previous things in mind and concur, then here is a recipe to rectify the behavior. Note that this isn't a quick fix since the root of the problem is fundamental in nature. However, I would expect you to see notable results within a month with the diminishing returns continuing to accrue for up to a year. The primary objective is to change your dog's attitude about hunting. When that dog is released into the field, there should be NO DOUBT in his mind that there are game birds out there. First, ensure that he finds a bird every 10 minutes. I use this number because if the primary prey is not found within approximately 15 minutes, then dogs with a multiple "prey order" palate will start working their way down the list. In this regard I also find that once mice are on their palate, they may switch sooner if sufficiently induced by mice sightings and/or scent. Second, kill birds for your dog. Kill them in actual hunting type scenarios. Adding the sense of touch and taste to the experience, above and beyond sight and smell, further elevates their desire. Not only that, but this type of experience truly fulfills their innate prey desires. Anything short of this experience is more like a tease to them over the long term. If they seldom have their innate desires fulfilled, then their desires will eventually wane. ie: stress.

To shape a dog for wing & shot ("shape" is a more appropriate term than "break") the desire factor must exceed the stress factor. Otherwise, negative shaping (learning) occurs. The objective of a trainer is to maximize the desire and to minimize the stress. The more skilled the trainer, the larger the gap between those two factors, and...the faster the behavior is shaped, and...the higher the OVERALL performance that is achieved. Conversely, excessive stress induced in the shaping process often adversely surfaces in other behaviors. So while one may have broke their dog to wing & shot, they may not understand that they have also destroyed desirable hunting behaviors.

When using the above recommendations, and as your dog's desire increases, you will likely find that compliance to wing & shot will become compromised. At first relax your compliance standards. Once confidence and desire is reinstilled, you can correct for the higher compliance standards by using the basic guidelines in the previous paragraph. In some cases, trainers find it necessary to let the dog return to the completely unbroke state and enjoy that status while rebuilding desire and interest. I don't think that will be necessary with your dog, however, keep this in the back of your mind just in case.


Vizsladogs, Ltd.
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Last updated 02
/06/06