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I've adopted a 4yr old recently neutered lab with no training. Was found living wild in the desert. His training is going well. However, his prey drive is like a wild animal. He is 90lbs and has broken away from me to kill 3 rabbits. It took 45 minutes to pry a live, suffering rabbit from his mouth. My question: Will he make a mistake and kill a small dog? I've been socializing him and he is kind to small dogs but what happens if one runs from him. I need help as I am a small woman and may not be able to retrain him for his and my safety.

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Short answer: He seems to be aware of the distinction between dog and prey, but there is never a guarantee for what might happen.

  • If the dog was born and raised in the desert and lived there for all of his juvenile live, there is no chance to somehow "deactivate" his prey drive. The most optimistic outlook is that you can distract him from his instincts before he can do any damage.
  • Dogs are very well able to distinguish between prey and fellow dogs (regardless of their size), but I will not give any guarantees that he'll never attack a small dog.
  • He'll probably never be able to ignore a wild rabbit or other prey animal. You always risk that he dashes off full speed, rips the leash from your hands and kills again.

I strongly advise you to employ additional security measures like always putting a muzzle on him while outside. There are different types of muzzles, including ones that are padded for prolonged use and allow the dog to pant.

I also advise you to hire a professional dog trainer to help you with your efforts. This shouldn't be a weekly puppy school, but a one-on-one session every 4 - 6 weeks to review your progress and plan the next steps in your training. When you feel confident enough, these sessions won't be necessary any longer.

What won't work

Many people are quick to use choking collars or electric shock collars on dogs that pull on the leash or misbehave. If you're afraid he might attack a small dog, these collars won't stop him at all. Once his prey drive kicks in, he's pumped so full of adrenaline that he simply ignores the collar.

What might possibly work

The best approach is to avoid triggering his prey drive. You can do this by training an alternate behavior with him that he can act on instead of hunting.

The underlying concept is that you establish a special reward for this alternate behavior that's more rewarding to your dog than the reward he feels while hunting. With sufficient training he should choose to rather follow your command and get his special reward than to hunt and kill.

Motivation

First you should find out what motivates him the most: food or toys?

If it's food, try different things like cheese, hotdog sausages or cooked chicken to find the one he reacts best to. Make sure it's not dangerous for him, like foods containing onions and garlic or chocolate and certain other spices and that you can transport it during walks.
Have a look at some "irresistible dog treats"

If he's toy motivated, buy or make a new toy that has a different form from anything he has right now. Just another ball won't do it, it must be "special" in the sense that this toy is unique in his life.

Then you need to make this new toy as valuable as possible. Perform a little soap opera by admiring the toy in front of your dog and praising it without ever letting him have it (the only time he can have this toy is during training). Do this several times a day for just a minute to establish it as a valuable object.

Whatever you choose, let's call it "his reward" from now onward.

Training

As mentioned above, you simply cannot suppress his hunting instincts. The best way to keep him from killing is to offer an alternate behavior. This is where his reward comes into play.

It must be a very special reward and he must only have it when you train this alternate behavior with him, never at any other time and never without working for it.

What exactly you choose to train as alternate behavior isn't very important. It could be "come here and sit" or "fetch your reward", but it must be a unique word or command that you don't use for any other purpose. Bonus points if the chance of other people saying the command is very low, like "beetlejuice" or a distinct word in a different language.

Train this behavior with his reward daily, but only for a short time. You must stop the training before your dog had enough to keep it interesting and valuable. If his reward is food, don't train just after he ate. If his reward is a toy, don't play until he's tired. Stop the training while it's the most fun.

During walks

When you have trained your dog to react to the new command, you need to take his reward with you on every walk.

You should continue training during walks regularly to keep it fresh in his mind. Train in different situations (like when he's distracted or meeting another dog).

As soon as you perceive a dangerous situation (like a wild rabbit sitting somewhere or your dog suddenly lifting his head, ears pointing forwards, fixating on something you might not have noticed yet), give the special command and his reward like you trained with him.

The underlying concept is that the special reward for this special command is more rewarding to your dog than the reward he feels while hunting. With sufficient training he should choose to follow your command and get his special reward rather than to hunt and kill.

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  • Thank you for taking the time for such a detailed answer. I've trained dogs for most of my life but he has been a challenge and your suggestions pointed me in the right direction. I'm happy to report that this lovely boy is responding well to my efforts. – CRS Nov 7 '19 at 16:46

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