What Is Crittering?
Many dogs struggle with aggression, or display high prey drive towards other animals. These behaviors can sometimes be very severe, and a significant risk to the safety of the dog and those around it. When it comes to training dogs and working them through these issues, trainers turn to a type of dog training called “crittering.”
Crittering is a type of dog training focused around reduction of the behavior of chasing small animals or other unwanted prey. It is also commonly used to describe training around dog-dog aggression, with other dogs constituting the “critters.” In essence, crittering is training a dog to not engage with other animals in a predatory or aggressive manner.
For a lot of dogs, this can be critical to their survival. Earlier this year, I rescued a high-drive Dutch Shepherd who was surrendered to me for bites on humans; I was this dog’s only option for a route forward that didn’t include euthanasia.
While I did ultimately train this dog up, rehabilitate the behavior that got her surrendered in the first place, and find the perfect working home for her, I had cats in the home that I needed to keep alive and unharmed through her stay with me. Through careful management and crittering training, the Dutchie was able to make it through this imperfect situation until moving on to the next step in her journey.
This is just one example in which crittering can be life-saving to not just animals around the dog in training, but also to the dog itself. Because chasing and aggression issues are often so dire, the following protocols are often pivotal to the long-term success of the dog.
Why “Leave It” Isn’t Enough
One common mistake dog owners make is training a “leave it” command and relying on it to direct their dog around other animals. There are a few fatal flaws with this approach.
The first flaw in “leave it” as a counter to chasing and aggression is that many dogs that get into a chase mindset will find it incredibly rewarding. This makes the reward-based protocol incredibly difficult to keep more motivating than the chase itself. Especially in particularly high-drive dogs, management consistency has to be pristine to avoid natural reinforcement/reward of the behavior, and the handler has to constantly be ready with a motivator that is more enticing than a small animal.
Getting a dog to the point where “leave it” from a handler outweighs the allure of a strong instinctive behavior is a long and arduous process.
Can it be done? Yes. Is it reliable and manageable for most dog owners? Absolutely not. Doing this right would be a painstaking process that would be difficult for most dog owners to accomplish, and ultimately limit the dog’s freedom for an unnecessarily long time.
I talk about this more in my article, The Economics of Dog Behavior.
Another flaw in relying on “leave it” is that, more often than not, engagement begins when the dog is not in sight of their owner/handler. Engagement means the beginning of the behavior, such as the start of the chase or the “click” of the mindset into being too focused on another dog. If the human is not around to anticipate the start of the behavior (or is around and makes a mistake) the human can not give the “leave it” command.
Meaning, by the time you realize your dog has set off on another animal, you may already be out of earshot or too far away for “leave it” or “come” to mean anything. And that’s if your dog is already incredibly well-trained to the “leave it” command and is capable of breaking out of the chase mindset in the first place.
Which brings us to the last point: once your dog starts, “leave it” will likely not be enough to stop your dog mid-behavior. Preventing a chase before it begins is one thing. But when a dog is pumped up with dopamine and adrenaline from engaging in the behavior, it can be nearly impossible for some dogs to stop the behavior at all.
Ultimately, we want “chasing/fighting is off-limits” to be an always-on, implied behavior. It should exist independent of any command, the presence of a handler, or any other factors. Chasing should simply be a no-no behavior, all the time.
This is why we use the following protocols to create a new set of behavior entirely.
How To Train Crittering
At Lugaru K9 Training, we use behavior modification training to ensure that dogs to not even engage with other animals. We want to prevent a chase from ever starting. The end result is a dog that sees the animal, and chooses to not engage of their own decision.
The dog training protocol described here will use language directed at the former, chasing small animals such as cats, rabbits, squirrels, etc. However, we also use these protocols for dog-dog aggression just the same.
This protocol utilizes the e-collar used largely at the working level. For more information on this, I recommend my article on the subject, How to Find Your Dog’s E-Collar Working Level. In short, the working level on a high-quality e-collar is the level in which the dog just begins to feel the stim.
You will also need access to a prey animal, ideally one that the specific dog responds to. For many dogs that come in for this kind of training, cats will work well. For dog-dog crittering, another dog is also a good option. Other potential chase animals, such as deer, are more difficult to get access to, and in these cases you may go out scent hunting. Don’t worry, in all these scenarios we will 100% be keeping the “prey” safe in these protocols.
Chasing and attack behaviors have many progressions that lead into the final behavior:
- The first is picking up on scent. This is often the least distracting, but some breeds such as scent hounds will find smells particularly alluring. However, in most cases this is the easiest point to break the mindset, as a dog will only associate the scent with the chase if they have already done so in the past.
- The second is visual contact with the animal. This is a more difficult point to break the mindset, but can still be done. You may see a “loading” phase here, in which the dog is preparing itself to charge the animal.
- The last progression is the actual behavior of chasing or otherwise engaging with the other animal. This is the absolute most difficult point to break the behavior. With the right level on an e-collar it can still be stopped mid-behavior for many dogs, but we do not recommend letting it get to this point in training.
We try to set dogs up for success. Stopping the chase mid-behavior should be a emergency/damage control protocol in case of a human/handler error, not as a part of the training itself.
In most dogs we recommend starting at the earliest phase of training, the scent alone. This is especially true of dogs who have practiced chasing animals over and over in the past. Again, in an attempt to set dogs up for success, we want to introduce the concepts at the level in which they will be most easily received; this means the least amount of distraction.
The Crittering Protocol
In as large of a space as you can manage, take your dog and have another person meet you; the other person will be in charge of the prey animal. The physically wider your workspace, the better, but lower distraction such as someplace private is also preferable.
If you’re training in a space where your dog has a history of chasing animals, keep in mind they will already have an association and may begin behaviors before ever seeing an animal. You may be able to use this to your advantage, but depending on the dog and where you are starting as a dog trainer this may be more difficult for you.
Your dog should be wearing their e-collar and a reliable leash. I have extra emphasis on “reliable” in this case because in this protocol you are responsible not only for keeping your dog safe but also the safety of the other animal.
There should be close to no chance your dog could physically run off. We recommend prong collars for this, as it can provide smaller people with much-needed leverage on large dogs. Whatever tool you use, however, make sure it is sturdy, secured properly, and backed up to a secondary contact point on the dog.
Additionally, if your space has gates or other barriers in place, starting on opposite sides of that barrier (and at a distance still) can also be a good precaution.
Remember that if your setup fails and the dog bolts off towards the other animal, you may be forced to actually correct your dog on the e-collar, and for some dogs this has to be very high to get it to stop. This is obviously not what we want to have to do in this protocol, so make sure your management is nice and tight.
Start your dog at opposite ends of your large space. Your assistant will take the other animal and walk in back and forth at the other end of the space. They should focus on keeping the animal moving as much as possible, to continue being of interest to your dog and maintain the same level of distraction throughout.
On the leash, pace your dog up and down the opposite end of your chosen space. You should be silent during this protocol and do all communication through the leash. Remember that this is meant to be an always-on behavior change, not a command.
Wait for your dog to notice the other animal. There is a possibility that, if your work space is large enough, your dog may not notice the other animal at complete opposite ends. Have your assistant make a noise such as a chirp — do not have them address the dog specifically or call them by name.
If your dog looks over but still doesn’t notice the cat, close 10% or so of the distance between you and have your assistant repeat getting your dog’s attention. Rinse and repeat until you get your dog to notice the animal.
In many cases, this is where you’ll see the “loading” phase. This looks slightly different for different dogs, but often comes with an intense stare, a lowering of the head, and a bend in the joints as the dog readies for the chase.
When you see this loading phase start, press the stim on the e-collar and step away, pulling your dog in the opposite direction of the animal. Keep the leash loose until you’re pulling them away from the animal. Try to keep the amount of distance between yourself and the dog constant as not to inadvertently give your dog the idea you’re working on recall instead of their reaction to the animal.
The moment your dog looks away from the cat, release the button. Don’t settle for your dog following you if they are still looking over their shoulder and trying to get at the animal. Release pressure for disengagement — looking away from the animal, even for a second.
Bring your dog forward again and pace them around at about the same distance. If you see loading, repeat as necessary, releasing the button on the e-collar as the dog looks away from the animal. As you repeat this process and your dog gets better at disengaging, you can start to inch closer to the other animal. I recommend moving in a diagonal to your distraction as opposed to head-on, as going straight towards the animal can be a lot of excitement to handle.
Again, rinse and repeat as you move closer, making note of your dog’s progress as you repeat the process.
Remember that the basis of this protocol is to teach your dog at low levels that “loading” on other animals will bring an undesirable consequence. We’re using the working level to set the stage.
How Long Does Crittering Take?
With many pet dogs it is possible to get them within a yard or so of the cat within the first session, despite a history of chasing. In extremely drivey dogs, however, limit the expectations and expect to take longer to make progress.
Your dog’s genetics (their inherent drive) will matter, but so will their level of “practice.” Practice in this situation means their history of chasing or attacking other animals. If your dog has chased animals consistently for years, expect it to take more repetitions and sessions to make the same amount of progress.
If you’ve had a dog that has ever successfully killed another animal, expect it to take even longer with more repetitions and sessions. In dogs that have a successful kill in this behavior, we also recommend continued management, supervision, and muzzle training as an extra precaution. This is not because the protocols “don’t work,” but because dogs are living, breathing animals and sometimes unpredictable; it’s always better to have a backup plan that doesn’t end in disaster.
Lastly, understand that while we are using working level for this protocol, once the behavior has hundreds of successful repetitions, we do start to use correction levels for chasing behaviors. Once we set the stage at working level for what is acceptable, we do “proof” the behavior by using levels that are more uncomfortable in real-world situations. We also add in times that the dog may think they are not being watched, in order to get the most dialed-in behavior possible.
How long it takes will depend on the dog in front of you. However with the above protocol, we see most average pet dogs capable of being close to the critter in a session or two.