dog games

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

 First published at and reprinted with permission

Dog prey drive, bad dog behavior, dog training | Digging, Chewing, Chasing Barking: Instinctive drives you love or hate? | #newpuppy, #dogbarking, #dogbehavior |

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.

Dog prey drive, bad dog behavior, dog training | Digging, Chewing, Chasing Barking: Instinctive drives you love or hate? | #newpuppy, #dogbarking, #dogbehavior |

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.

Much more to learn in our free email course for common dog problems

And if your dog is chasing or barking aggressively, head here for another free email course




Teach your dog to fetch, retrieve, find, and bring things back

Dog training, new puppy, puppy training, dog retrieve training | Teach your dog to retrieve, fetch, and bring things back | FREE EMAIL COURSE | #newpuppy, #dogtraining, #newrescuedog, #puppytraining, #dogbehavior |

When you first got your new dog you may have expected him to come with a retrieve installed. After all, don’t all dogs love chasing balls and sticks?

Well no - actually not all of them do!

You may have struck lucky and got a natural retriever, or you may have a dog that stares in puzzlement at anything you drop or throw. But all is not lost! You can teach your dog to love retrieving. 

In fact you may be better off having to teach from the start. When I was working in Obedience competition with my dogs many years ago, I had two Border Collies.

Rupert was a natural retriever. He loved pouncing on toys, making them scoot away so he could chase them again, grabbing them, tossing them in the air, and racing around shaking them. Can you imagine how hard it was to get a formal retrieve from him? Dear Rupert could lose a lot of marks on retrieve.

Dodger, on the other hand, came to me a little later in life and had no idea what to do with objects. So I broke the retrieve down into many separate steps - the first being to hold the item in his mouth - and taught him step-by-step. When it came to competition I always knew I’d have full marks in the bag for Dodger’s retrieve: it was always accurate and faultless.

So even if you have a happy-go-lucky toy-fetcher you could still look at tidying up some aspects of his retrieve. It’s so handy to have a dog who can fetch your shoes, keys, or the tv remote without fearing that they will arrive in your lap in many pieces.

Check out my new online Dog Training Course  teaching new dog owners to achieve lasting results through six weeks of dog-friendly coaching - retrieve included!


'Tis a common question

I’ve had some emails lately on just this subject. First was Kevin and his ESS Charlie:

"I have found your four books extremely useful and continually use them as reference material. I have an English Springer Spaniel, almost one year old, and have been using your methods with considerable success. I would like some advice on how to teach him to fetch as he does not seem at all interested in returning thrown items nor holding on to them for even a short period of time. It doesn't seem instinctive to him. Thank you."

What a delightful challenge for me: a spaniel who doesn’t retrieve! Here’s what I suggested Kevin try:

"For getting your pup interested in toys, I suggest using foodtoys - kongs with a bit of liver sausage smeared inside, or a lotus ball, or even better an old knotted sock with some bits of cheese or sausage in. Get Charlie to chase it and grab it. Then you can open it for him. After a while you can show him you're putting food in, then chuck it away, so he has to give it to you to open. You can gradually build up a desire to hold the toy. The first thing is to plug in to the instinctive chase drive. 
Let me know how it goes!"

[A lotus ball is a soft ball-shaped toy that opens up to reveal its foodie contents]

This was Kevin’s first response:

"Tried the sock/return idea. Only shows interest in chewing at the sock to get at the contents. I've ordered a lotus ball so that may work. Perhaps I'm doing something wrong here."

Kevin wasn’t quick enough to reach Charlie when he got the sock - no need for him to bring it back at this stage, just show an interest. Remember, we're breaking it down into tiny steps. So here’s what I suggested next: 

"When Charlie’s about to grab the sock, twitch it away on the ground a few inches. As long as he tries to get it, do this two or three times - then when he grabs it, open the sock and give him a bit of the food. Then twitch it again. You want to stimulate his chase instinct. You know how rabbits run, freeze, twitch whiskers, then dart again? This is the action you want to simulate to get his chase going. He may start by just stamping on it - he'll graduate to catching it in his mouth. If you put the sock on a string that will help to get him interested without crowding him - some dogs don’t like you leaning over them while they are focussed on a toy and will shy away.

See this video of fun with a flirt pole. Once you've got the chase going you're halfway there!

Introducing puppy Cricket to the flirt pole

Report back!"


And I was so pleased to hear from Kevin a little later. It can be very disappointing when you take time to help someone and never hear from them again … not so with Kevin.

"With a combination of your advice including a lotus ball we have success. Charlie is eager to return to hand any thrown items on demand. Thanks again."

Baby Steps

10-week-old Loki learns to tug with all his might!

10-week-old Loki learns to tug with all his might!

So you can see the key to this is to break the problem down into tiny steps and work on just one of them to begin with. In Charlie’s case it was getting him to find his chase instinct. Once he was keen to chase the object to get a tasty reward, he was able to start enjoying the actual chase and the toy itself. 

In some cases a puppy’s chase instinct may have been quashed through punishment early on. (I’m not saying that’s what happened with Charlie! He was like my Dodger - just didn’t get this whole toy thing.)

But if you shout at a puppy for picking up something you don’t want him to have, one of two things may happen. He may be so terrorised by your outburst that he never picks anything up again for fear of being shouted at. Or he may say “Game on!” and try and get you to chase him. Of course if you do, he has succeeded in teaching you a new game that he will always win!

So with a new puppy, tidy up and ensure the only things he can get hold of are his own toys. And I like there to be a wide range of toys so your puppy can choose what appeals to him and fits his mouth.

Two Toys

Interestingly I had another query about retrieve only the other day:

"Could you give a few tips on how to get your dog interested in running after his toys and bringing them back please? My Dodger loves his ropes and used to run after them when I threw them in our garden, but now he’s more interested in lying on the grass and just chewing them. I never could interest him in bringing them back to me, but when I picked up another of his ropes he dropped the rope he had and ran to take the rope I had."

Another Dodger! And this time the writer had inadvertently hit on an answer to this problem. Using two similar toys and getting your dog to switch his attention from one to the other will transform into a retrieve over time. The key is to make the toy you’re playing with alive and exciting, then when you want to swap to the other toy you let the first toy go limp and dead while the other toy springs to life in your other hand. 

Remember you’re harnessing the instinctive drive that every dog - whatever the breed or history - has: to locate prey, stalk it, chase it, catch it and kill it.

Your dog will soon let go of the first toy and transfer to the second. Once he enjoys the engagement with you of pulling on the “live” toy, he’ll know that toys are more fun when you’re involved. Then it’s a short step to you letting go of the toy mid-game and watching him bring it back to you - nudging your hand to get you to play again. 

Here’s a great game which shows you how to get a fast and engaged retrieve. You need to follow the directions closely. 

Tugging: Two Toy Game

What sort of toy should I use?

Rollo waits for his frisbee to drop into his mouth

Rollo waits for his frisbee to drop into his mouth

It’s a mistake to inflict your idea of a retrieve toy onto your dog. Let him choose!

Offer him a few different toys to see which engages him more. For tugging games I favour a soft fleecy plait, long enough to keep hands safely away from teeth, and narrow and soft enough for your dog to grip it comfortably.

Balls work for many dogs, but can be hard to get out of their mouth when they bring it back - all wet and slimy! So I like to use balls on ropes, then there’s something you can hold on to while you wait patiently for your dog to let go. Don't spoil his fun by insisting on him releasing it instantly.

Once you’ve taught your dog to bring back things you throw, you’re ready to teach him how to catch a frisbee! All mine love their frisbees, and as each has his or her own toy, there’s never any arguing over the toys. They’ll simply ignore any toy unless it’s their own.

Want to turn your dog into a star retriever? Check Fetch it! Teach your Brilliant family Dog to catch fetch, retrieve, find and bring things back! and enjoy a new relationship with your dog.