Impulse Control (Prey Drive) & Livestock
I’m a homesteader living in a very rural setting. I have livestock and wild animals all around. Having impulse control is critical and has stopped my dog chasing after deer in the dead of night. I also mush, and it is not safe to have a dog running off trail into a ditch to chase an animal while I am being towed behind them. This is the foundation for "on by" when I mush.
My heart dogs are huskies, and all too often we see bad advice about huskies and small animals- especially poultry. Too often we make excuses saying “it’s a husky thing, it won’t ever change” and we begin to slowly stop actually training the behavior. Dogs to NOT get a taste for blood, dogs learn they can do high energy behavior with no repercussions, so they will keep doing it until they learn not to. Many dogs are actually more rewarded by the chase than the culmination. The more you let them repeat this behavior the harder it becomes to change that habit. There is no excuse for letting this continue. I do not give a shit what your dog did yesterday, but I do care what your dog does today and tomorrow- because we CAN control that.
Some people will give you the most asinine responses; beat the dog, tie a dead bird to it, shock them when they go after the bird... Just don’t. If you want to read about why Alpha Theory and tactics like this are ridiculous, go here.
They do not "grow" out of it. They are trained either indirectly or directly! It does take a good deal of patience and consistency up front to build trust in the training. A big part of this is having the dog to think that the response you want to the stimuli is the only acceptable response and in some ways, their idea. We do this by giving them small manageable chunks. My dogs are also athletes (we mush) so I do watch their food intake. You can use treats, but I use regular daily kibble and some raw treats. I like to handfeed. Not only does this help teach a “gentle mouth” but it also lays the framework for leave it. This helps your dog realize that the obvious visual payout (reward) that is sitting there right for the taking is not for them- this sets the stage.
The below is just one method, there are many ways to train (and also some wrong ones as noted above).
Before starting, be familiar with recall, tether training, and creating calm behaviors/structure.
Let's begin (indoors)
First off, I will say that when you cannot supervise the interactions 100% to tether train. This doesn’t allow the dog access to the chickens, but does continue to desensitize him to it. Some dogs, especially hunting breeds, go wild when they see movement of a small critter. It just seems to activate instinct. This doesn’t allow them to give into that instinct, at all.
You need to start at level 1 with the basic behavior and as little distractions as possible. Slowly add in more complex tasks and distractions.
When it comes to prey drive our goal is to suppress it and teach a new behavior. The best way to do this, like all training, is to give them all the tools they need, teach them how to use those tools, and what the outcome is. This ensures that we build a framework to stack on new and harder and harder tasks each time. It also gives the dog options to explore each time they encounter this stimulus/command. I recommend no more than 10-15 minutes of training each session. I like to do this after a structured walk or playtime as it gets a little bit of the energy out (like lunging a feisty horse before riding). Always end on a positive note and leave them wanting more. Turn it into a fun game. A solid video can be found with my good friends at Outback Dog Training: Venus Fly Trap.
Start with your reward in your hand. With your dog in front of you hold out an open hand of food, do not say anything. If your dog makes a motion to take the food close your hand and keep it closed. The second your dog looks away or stops focusing on that food verbally praise them. Then offer the reward of food after the praise. You WILL need to repeat this several times for a few lessons. This is a VERY hard lesson for most dogs, but it is the most important one. This will set the foundation for everything else. Do this for a few short lessons a few times until your dog is solid and being working in a “leave it” command that you will use when they do the behavior. I try to ask for a few times in a row correct before I end the lesson.
Take a step back - If your dog is too frustrated or energetic do some placework and just get them to maintain a place. We have a video here. If your dog can maintain this “place” consistently feel free to move on to the lesson with food.
Pro-Tip – I encourage my dog to give and maintain eye contact. Making a motion with your hand towards your eyes or moving the reward up to your eyes and locking eyes before giving the reward (praise again for this!) can help. This is an added level of communication with your dog to signal they made a choice and are now looking to you for the next step- it builds focus. It is not necessary, but I do recommend it.
Once your dog has had a few sessions to master that (even if they already know how to do it to get their mind working) up the stakes a bit. Drop the food on the floor with them sitting facing you. Have your hand or foot ready to cover it if they make a dash for it. This adds a bit of movement to the training. Repeat this until they are ignoring the food and looking away or giving you the eye contact. Once they get that drop the food and step back, walk away a bit. If they make a motion to it step forward into their space and/or cover the food. Use your body language to tell them “no, this is my zone, my bubble”. I stay on this one a bit longer as it tends to be harder for dogs that have never done any placework or this sort of body language.
When you have a solid foundation like this (sometimes you may need to revisit the basics, and that is OK) you can up it a bit. Just like with horses each time you introduce a new element you may need to have a constant or step back a bit to earlier steps. The next thing to do is to take this outside (away from the chickens). Start with the first step we did with the hands. Let them know that you can also ask this behavior of them outside as well as inside. They should catch onto this a bit quicker if you did your job inside. If they are still heavily distracted, then stay here for a bit. I always leave a leash on during this time to create a “tether” to me. Then move onto dropping the food and then dropping and leaving the food… etc etc…
Then you are ready for some tougher work! Have your chickens behind a fence where they can see/smell you. Find a good distance to be away where you dog notices them but isn’t ridiculously fixated. You may even need to use a higher value treat. Start over again with the food in the hand and work your way up like before. You may need to spend a good deal of time here. Once you master that move a bit closer to the chickens, and continue to repeat this. Again, have that leash so they have a bubble they must stay within. I use a long leash for this type of work. When you can be next to the chicken pen and do the leave it command solidly you are ready to have the chickens out and you there with your leash (again start farther away at the first step and repeat). At this time, if you feel your dog still needs some work take a step back or look into conditioning him with a basket muzzle. He can still play the impulse control game with food, but if a chicken does dive in he will be unable to take action. If he does take action the thing to do is to give him that “leave it” then remove him from the situation and get right back to practicing. Your job is to maintain control and only alter one variable at a time.
Now that you have taught him leave it, and to not focus on your chickens you can do the next step. This would be to apply "leave it" to the chickens... You have taught them to focus on you, now teach them to look away from the chickens. Every time your dog focuses on the chickens do the “leave it”. He should now have a solid foundation. When he looks anywhere but at them (preferably at you). Again, start far away until he nails it and move in closer, always having that leash handy for now. A solid foundation in recall is a great thing too. The eCollar helps with that.
DO NOT USE AN ECOLLAR UNLESS YOU ARE WORKING WITH A TRAINER OR HAVE A SOLID TRAINING FOUNDATION YOURSELF. I recommend starting with Larry Krohn and this video.
Now, if that doesn’t seem to be your style (each dog learns differently). My pit mix was surprisingly more stubborn than my crazy husky…. You can use an eCollar. An eCollar is NOT a training device, it is a proofing tool. It cannot teach only reinforce the behavior they already know. They are a wonderful tool that is like a “tap” on the shoulder, it is not a shock. An eCollar says “hey, that thing you are thinking about doing? Don’t do it” and brings their focus back to you. I train eCollar with a leave it command and with recall. Larry Krohne on Youtube is the MAN for this. I will 100% defer you to his amazing videos. Again, start inside the house where you have few variables and build up slowly to outside. I have had GREAT success with this tool and am now using the smallest settings, if at all (our pit mix is new to country life). We use the eCollar to call him back if he gives into chasing anything.
And, lastly, I hope it goes without saying, but if your dog does happen to harm someone’s livestock please offer to pay for damages and/or to help rebuild fences. I own livestock myself and we put our heart and soul into our animals. There is a LOT of time, effort, and money that goes into raising a single bird. Through all of that (even meatbirds) they become things we care about. They are part of the family. So please, do the right thing and offer some help. You should always keep good fences or a tether for your dog if they are prone to wandering. You cannot correct them when you cannot supervise. It is irresponsible and dangerous to allow your dog to freely roam.