Updated: Dec 28, 2022
"...then my dog brought fury down upon the helpless birds..."
Recently a new graduate asked our alumni group for suggestions on helping dogs with high prey drive. Twelve trainers replied and all of them suggested Predation Substitute Training as taught by Simone Mueller.
Good luck finding ANYTHING a group of trainers, even ones from the same school of thought, can agree on. If every trainer in the room agrees you definitely want to take note.
But just what is this method and is it actually effective - or is this just another fad?
What is Predation Substitute Training?
Predation Substitute Training (PST) is a type of dog training that deals with predatory behaviors such as chasing without the use of force or aversive devices. It began in Germany, a wildlife-dense country with many dog owners, when shock collars were banned and dog trainers needed ways of protecting dogs and wildlife without their use.
Most anti-predation protocols rely only on management and interruption of these behaviors. But PST also gives the dog an outlet for their predatory drives through specially designed games, training exercises, and performing safe parts of the predatory sequence as alternatives to chasing (or worse).
For example my dog Nana is part Ridgeback and she has some hunting tendencies. Sure chasing the odd leaf here or there can be cute and funny. But when we are out in the field she had her eyes on something else...the geese! She loved watching them. And watching turned into creeping. And creeping would turn into chasing!
Then my dog brought fury down upon the helpless birds.
Canada Geese are savage and I won't let my girl run into danger like that. We use a long line for safety of course.
But I was always trying to recall her and break her away from this thing she loved. I thought that I had to teach her to ignore her triggers and fight against her own nature. It wasn't working.
But then I tried giving her an outlet for her drives. I deliberately played "hunting" games with her and allowed her to scan for and stalk prey when it was safe. I even taught her to do it on cue and allowed her to enjoy the activity when it made sense, so she could both "get it out of her system" and build up the capacity to break away when needed.
Instead of worrying about my displeasure when she stalks now she can relax a bit and comes back to me after proudly wagging her tail. "Dad I just stalked them so good!"
We had a new deal with regards to her Dad-approved hobby:
Watch as long as you like but no chasing.
And it was working.
Here she was just a few weeks after we changed our approach watching a flock of the feared Canadian "cobra chickens". A little test to see if she could break away from a good stalk with a single gentle request.
Was she a bit reluctant? Sure. But turning away from them like this just a week before would have been impossible. I would have needed to lure her with treats or if she was really zoned in pull her away before she starts moving on them.
While its history goes back decades and many have contributed to it PST was refined and brought to the world at large by Mueller with the release of her book Hunting Together. Since then it has become the "go to" resource for anti predation training in the force-free world.
Why is it Effective?
While most anti-predation training relies on only management and the interruption of the behavior PST takes a more holistic approach. The system teaches management and prevention of the behaviors, provides game based training to give dogs an outlet for their urges, contains protocols to teach dogs to perform safe parts of the predatory sequence on cue, and emphasizes teaching a solid interrupter like Recall or a U-turn maneuver with positive reinforcement techniques.
When put together with diligent practice (this is not a magic pill or a "quick fix" scam) the dog parent becomes a better handler, the dog is allowed to safely participate in a very enriching activity, their self control and ability to disengage increases, and the parent has reliable tools for when things go wrong.
Nana's genetics may sing of times past when her ancestors helped humans hunt lions.
But as a modern girl she must make due with being a passionate stalker of geese.
And PST has helped her build this hobby into one of her favorite activities. I don't know how to tell her that the geese have to go away for the winter!
Predation Substitute Training is popular right now for a few reasons. Firstly it is effective and it has a strong history of results. It is also very accessible with experienced dog parents able to use on their own, and its methods are easy for professional trainers to teach.
Rather than expecting a dog to fight their nature and leave a need unfulfilled this system allows a dog to enjoy a bit of hunting while at the same time building their self control and providing the handler with practical skills.
It solves the problem and it makes dogs happy. Nana is rarely as happy as she is after a good stalk.
It does take some getting used to though. (If you are a trainer used to more mainstream positive methods I dare you to do a PST stalking session without having to constantly remind yourself "I'm not doing LAT! I'm not doing LAT!") Its methods may seem counter intuitive at times.
But for me it has been working. And it's been great fun.
Robin Wong is a certified dog trainer, a graduate of the Victoria Stilwell Academy, and the father of a Boerboel / Ridgeback mix named Nana. He founded Holy Sit to provide premium positive dog training in London Ont.