dog chasing toy

Digging, Chewing, Chasing, Barking: Instinctive Drives you Love or Hate?

 First published at and reprinted with permission

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Instinctive drives are hard-wired behaviours with which we all come equipped. The most obvious one would be eating. We all have to eat. And trying to suppress that desire will only drive it underground. If someone’s hungry and is prevented from eating, they will steal food. If you try to control something that strongly embedded, you’ll get evasive and deceitful responses.

So too with many of the behaviours we see in our dogs. Taken to excess, these compulsions would become annoying or even dangerous. But if you can accommodate them - by giving your dog an outlet for his natural inclinations - you’ll have no trouble with them.

Don’t fight nature!

The Four Instinctive Drives people struggle with

There are four instinctive drives that people tend to complain about most. Contrary to popular perception, all dogs don’t do all these things. It’s not something you have to resign yourself to when you get a puppy. Many dogs will indulge them just a little, some just during puppyhood, and some not at all. But they can all be modified without taking the dog’s enjoyment and basic needs away from him!

Here are some ideas to get you started.

1. Digging

Particularly evident in earth dogs - terriers, ratters - though by no means confined to them. Provide digging opportunities for your digger! 


  • Half-bury old bones, plastic bottles and such like in a part of the garden you earmark for digging. Don’t leave your dog outside unattended - telling him off after the event is a waste of time. As soon as he starts digging, run excitedly to your dig-spot and start digging yourself. Encourage him to dig himself to a standstill!


  • Indoors you can play “Dig for the Toy (or Person) Under the Duvet” games. Be sure to protect the person’s face from those ravaging claws. This exciting game usually results in much laughter all round! Let them dig their bed to bits. Instead of one boring piece of padded bed, give them lots of cushions and blankets they can rearrange and tunnel into. They enjoy the release of energy in ferocious digging, so they need to be able to do it. So what if they damage their bed? It’s their bed. And you can get a new one if they shred it.


  • Digging often wanes with age. My Border Collie Rollo used to pounce on the grass and dig as a puppy - clearly he could hear something creeping about in the earth. He lets the underground traffic of mice and beetles carry on unheeded now. I captured the entertaining pouncing action though, and he’ll still rear up and dive when I say “Rabbit!” Cricket the Whippet enjoys digging so much that she is encouraged to dig her bed, and we’ve kept that behaviour of frantic digging going - long past puppyhood!

2. Chewing

If you don’t want her to chew your things, then you need to supply her with plenty of her things that she can chew. 


  • Large bones she really has to stand on and fight with are the very, very best and most popular chew toys. Choose raw beef bones - ribs or larger. She’ll soon strip off anything fleshy and happily gnaw the clean bones for months. I have a multi-dog household and there are never any bone-fights.


  • Rawhide chews are not the natural product you may think them to be. They’re heavily processed and may have lots of additives and junk.


  • Food-toys are great to soothe anxious chewers and occupy those jaws safely. You can use anything you have handy to fill them: squeezy cheese, liver pate, peanut butter (additive-free), last night’s left-over pasta and sauce. Freezing them makes them last longer. Kibble works well in containers that have to be rolled or wobbled to give up their bounty.


  • All discarded containers (like cereal boxes, toilet roll middles, plastic bottles, for instance) can become food toys. The dogs are welcome to shred them and rip them apart to reach the goodies inside. Ripping and tearing is enormously satisfying for them.


  • I would not want to give my puppy anything to chew now that I didn’t want her to chew later. Old shoes, old jumpers, best Jimmy Choos, favourite blouse: how can she tell the difference? You can launder and recycle old clothes into plaited dog ropes.

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3. Chasing

Chasing - you or dog-friends - in a safe area is fine. Hurtling across a road chasing a squirrel is not.


  • Equal chasing - taking turns to chase each other - makes for great excitement. In a good game dogs will adjust their pace to suit their playmate. They take turns at being chaser and chasee. The game can be fast, but not intense.


  • Flat-out, head-down chasing - leg-biting, flank-grabbing, frustrated barking - are not good. You’ll end up at the Vet with a dog needing stitches. Teach your frustrated chaser to hold a toy in his mouth when chasing. Hanging on to the toy gives him something else to focus on and bite down onto. It muffles the woofs too! If he can’t chase nicely, with or without a toy to hold, then he doesn’t get to chase live things - dogs, people, cats, etc. Some herding dogs and sighthounds need to learn how to chase safely, without nipping or grabbing.


  • Chasing crows. As long as the area is safe I’m happy to let mine chase foraging crows off the ground as we approach. They’ll never catch them, so the birds are in no danger. This tends to be a puppy thing, as they give up the unequal contest after a number of failures. But it gives the dog an outlet for that very rewarding surge of energy and focus that comes with a good chase.


  • Teach your dog to chase with rules. A flirt pole is ideal for this. He may not grab it from the air or your hand - he has to wait till you release him to pounce on it. You can build up to this level of self-control. To begin with it will be a massive outlet for his chasing desire. It will also wear him out very fast - great for days when there’s too much energy and too little opportunity to get out and use it up. Regular play with the flirt pole gives my whippet an outlet for her very strong rabbit-chasing instincts, making recalls off rabbits a snap.


  • “You can’t catch me!” A chase game round the garden with a toy reward can be great fun and use up a lot of energy (for both of you!). As long as your dog will come right to you when you want to hold her collar, playing Keep Away is fine.

4. Barking

Some breeds or types of dog are very barky. It’s pointless to attempt to suppress this barking. You will lose. Try channelling it instead.


  • Teach your dog to bark on cue. “Woof!” followed by “Quiet!”, repeat till your ears are ringing.


  • Pair “Thank you” with a treat. Then thank your dog for alerting you to the serious danger of the mother pushing her pushchair down the road past your house, or the terrifying prospect of invasion from the postman. Reward her for coming to you when you say Thank you - every time. Quite soon you’ll have a dog who draws breath to bark, thinks again and comes trotting to you for a treat. Be sure to reward her mightily for this excellent decision!


  • As soon as your dog starts barking, toss some hard treats or kibble at a hard surface (door, hard floor, cupboard door). She’ll scurry across to gobble them up, and probably look at you for more. Now you have silence and her attention! And all without shouting, yelling, or barking yourself.


  • On our own in a huge forest or an empty beach is the place where my barkers are encouraged to bark themselves silly.



If you choose to share your life with a dog, you have to take the rough with the smooth. But I’ve just given you a load of sandpaper to smooth off the rough edges a bit, without suppression, judgment, or bossiness. Use your dog’s instinctive drives as a starting point for new and exciting games you can enjoy together. 

Key takeaway? Enjoy your dog as he is, not the perfect dog you thought you wanted when you got him.

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How to teach your dog to catch!

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My dogs are great catchers. I get great pleasure from watching their athleticism and joy.

Sometimes people watching their frisbee acrobatics look sadly at their own dog and say “My dog is stupid - he can’t catch”.

He’s not stupid - you just haven't taught him how to do it yet! Mine didn’t come with catching installed: this skill was carefully nurtured and developed.

You’ll get a lot of entertainment from teaching your dog to catch - with a puppy it’s even more fun! And, of course, it’s a great way to use up lots of your dog’s energy - as long as you observe some safety rules.

Puppy Gym

Puppies arrive on the planet with a mouth (and eyes) .. and that’s about the extent of their self-knowledge. Helping them discover where all their component parts are is an essential part of puppy-rearing. (This is why I feature “Puppy Gym” prominently in my puppy classes.) Learning that legs can move independently, that they can move sideways and backwards as well as forwards, that they can climb on and off things safely, and that they can land safely when they jump is key to their development.

And you can add teaching your dog to catch to this list.

Don’t start teaching catch too young with your pup. A very young pup (up to 10 weeks or so) doesn’t spot or focus on things very quickly. I’d wait till 16 weeks or thereabouts - and preferably once he knows lots of games featuring treat-rewards as well as chasing down toys.

To teach him eye-mouth co-ordination, make it easy for him by always tossing your treat with the same arm movement. I favour the downward toss- i.e. you hold up your hand near your shoulder, wave it a bit to get pup’s attention, then slowly bring it downwards and release the treat so it loops down to the pup. Aim for the top of his muzzle, right where the nose leather begins. The more accurate your throws the faster he’ll get it.

This is the entertaining bit! To begin with the treats will bounce off his muzzle and he’ll scramble to get them off the floor. 

Eventually his mouth will start to open as the treat comes through the air. And after a lot of practice at this, he’ll actually catch one!

He’ll probably be more surprised than you and start hunting on the floor for it again, not realising it’s in his mouth!

You can make it a lot easier for him by using treats that are clear to see - so little cubes of cheese are good. With one particularly slow-to-catch-on adult dog I used popcorn (plain, of course). And while corn should not generally form part of a dog’s diet, an exception can occasionally be made to get what you want. The popcorn worked for that dog because it’s huge, white, and floats down slowly.

At this stage you could be feeding your dog’s whole dinner this way, one tossed piece of kibble at a time.

Once your dog can catch a flying treat aimed carefully at his mouth, you can start tossing them at different angles. An adult dog (especially a greedy one!) will become quite athletic getting his treats. Take care that he’s on a firm footing, not a slippery floor. And build up slowly towards jumping.

Now you’ve got the catch mastered, you can move up a gear and start teaching your dog to catch a frisbee. 

Jake showing his catching prowess on his 14th Birthday!

Jake showing his catching prowess on his 14th Birthday!

Now add your frisbee

You need a soft frisbee that is gentle on the mouth and teeth - one made for dogs. This is a good one. It’s soft on the mouth, easy to squash into a pocket, and floats beautifully in the air for controlled catching.

Now using the same idea as with the cheese, you float the frisbee towards your dog who is right in front of you. So we’re talking about a couple of feet from hand to nose. No distance yet. After a lot of failed attempts he’ll be catching the frisbee expertly by the rim.

If he’s not inclined to release the frisbee, or wants to run off with it, simply stand on his lead so he can’t, then swap it for a treat every time. Once he’s got that, you can change your reward from treat to instant throw. He’ll soon know that the routine of “catch then give” means you’ll throw it again immediately. So he’ll be anxious to hand it over straight away.

Now start adding a little distance - maybe a yard to start with. 

And gradually grade up. As you increase the distance, you’ll build your own skill with the frisbee. A flick of the wrist is what’s needed to spin it, rather than brute force. And one of the reasons I like those soft cloth frisbees is because they’re so easy to spin and send over large distances. 

Now you have a way to exercise your dog safely while enjoying the sight of him flying after his frisbee and catching it expertly, bringing it straight back to you and pushing it into your hand - to throw again!

Safety note

There are dogs who do amazing antics catching their frisbee in competitions. But I have to say these images and videos make me very uneasy. The gyrations and hard landings look to me as if they’d take their toll pretty quickly on these dogs. I like to take life easier, and I aim to float the frisbee over the dog’s head, so that he can leap through an arc to catch it, landing comfortably and carrying on running. 

You’ll see in the photos illustrating this post that I look for fast running, an athletic leap, a soft landing - and I ensure that we’re not working on parched or frozen ground that would be too hard to land on. 

Remember this is another golden opportunity to teach some impulse control. Your dog will never get the frisbee by snatching it from your hand, or leaping up to mug you for it. He has to wait while you prepare to throw. You may want him to sit and wait, lie down and wait, or you may be happy for him to hurtle out twenty yards in the direction you’re about to throw it. Similarly, when you put out your hand for the frisbee to be delivered, it should be pushed into your hand - and not snatched away again!


Also on safety - don’t use sticks!


The only time I’d use a stick is if the dogs are in the pond and I know I can throw it far enough for it to be floating in the water by the time they reach it. Dreadful injuries happen (sadly quite frequently) to dogs who catch sticks in the air or on the bounce. The stick wedges itself against the ground and can impale the speeding dog with horrible results. So if you absolutely must throw a stick, ensure that it will land and be still long before your dog can reach it.

Multiple dogs?

Agile Coco Poodle loves his frisbee too

Agile Coco Poodle loves his frisbee too

Each of my dogs has his or her own frisbee. This means that

  1. I too get a great workout as my arms are going like a windmill, collecting and throwing frisbees one after the other, and 
  2. There’s never a collision or scrap over possession of the toy. They only go for their own toys. 

While my two older dogs will carry their frisbee for the entire walk without losing it, the two younger ones can get distracted and drop it somewhere. So teaching a search is also useful so that they find it instead of me spending ages looking for it. Rollo the Border Collie is brilliant at finding toys, and will lie down next to one (while his own is firmly clamped in his mouth) until it’s restored to its owner. 

Another supreme virtue of the dogs loving their frisbee: I can distract them very easily from incoming dogs to avoid confrontations. So if you have a reactive or growly dog, get him mad about retrieving as soon as possible!


So if you don’t as yet have a catching dog, get started teaching him this skill today. Enjoy!


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