Updated: May 2
ORIENT > EYE > STALK > CHASE > GRAB-BITE > KILL-BITE > DISSECT > CONSUME
This is the canine predatory motor sequence. In other words, notice the prey and turn to look, creep up on the prey, chase and grab, dispatch the prey with a bite, rip it open and eat it.
Not all dogs have the full predatory sequence; it’s been modified through artificial selection as humans bred dogs for work that would help in their day to day lives. You don’t want a herding dog that will kill and eat your sheep, so any dog used for that purpose that was predisposed to the sequence of KILL-BITE > DISSECT > CONSUME wasn’t allowed to contribute their genes to the herding dog population. Dogs have modified predatory sequence anywhere from almost none of the sequence, to all of the sequence, depending on the genetic make-up of what the dog was bred to do.
Dog play styles
The way dogs behave and play many times is caused by their predatory dispositions. See a rabbit, chase a rabbit. Bringing the ball back repeatedly for a tireless game of fetch. Chasing the children when they run. Those are all behaviors triggered by the first part of the predatory motor pattern. And we can be mindful of that pattern and how strong it presents in a specific dog when we think about ways to give them exercise.
What is the purpose of a flirt pole?
One of my favorite ways to play with my dogs engages the first half of the predatory sequence by using a toy called a flirt pole. What is a flirt pole? If you’ve ever seen a cat owner using a fishing pole toy, you’ll get a good idea of what a flirt pole is. The toy for dogs is much, much bigger than the one used for cats.
You can purchase flirt poles for dogs, but many of them are on the small side. Unless you’re using them for a toy breed or small dog they won’t be practical. For most dogs you’ll want a flirt pole that with the combined pole and rope extends at least 8 feet. My flirt pole is a lunge whip with a 5’ pole and 5’ rope that I tied a toy to. This is the perfect extension for my 55lb border collie mix, and for my very speedy 23lb terrier mix. Lunge whips can be purchased where horse supplies are sold, and as dog exercise equipment goes they are pretty inexpensive.
When using a flirt pole for the first time your dog might be a bit afraid or suspicious of it. What I’ve found works great is to just ignore the dog and walk with the pole so that the toy drags on the ground behind you. Most dogs will see the moving toy and suddenly be interested in chasing it. At this point you can start moving it around, but go slowly and help your dog build up their confidence. In no time they’ll start to chase so enthusiastically that you’ll have to work hard to keep it away from them.
Here's some basics about using a flirt pole so that you’ll ensure your dog stays safe and has fun:
For puppies and young dogs keep the toy on the ground. We don’t want dogs that are still growing to do a lot of jumping. I also minimize the amount of jumping that happens with my adult dogs and try to prevent them from jumping too high.
Some dogs become obsessed with playing with the flirt pole and will keep going long after they should have stopped from exhaustion. I find 10 minutes at a time playing with it is plenty and really will tire your dog out.
Make sure the surface is safe. Don’t play on hard surfaces like concrete or asphalt. If playing on a lawn make sure the grass isn’t slippery from dew or rain. And don’t play in the winter when the ground is frozen hard and/or there’s snow on the ground. We want to be sure our dogs are running on a surface with some give, and prevent them from slipping and possibly injuring themselves.
Remember that dogs are predators, and the toy at the end of the pole is their prey. I see so many people waggle a toy a few inches from a dog’s face to try and get them to engage with it. But a squirrel isn’t going to run back and forth in front of a dog – he’s going to try and get away, and usually not run in a straight line. Prey animals will zig zag to try to be unpredictable to the predator and hopefully gain some distance. Use the toy the same way; move it in different directions and keep your dog guessing.
If/when your dog grabs the toy and you don’t have a good drop it/out, resist the urge to pull it out of your dog’s mouth as that will tend to morph the game into tug and you’ll lose. If your dog is food motivated you can try putting some treats right in front of your dog’s nose and then scatter them on the ground. Many dogs will drop the toy to get the food. Another option is to grab hold of the toy, and hold it tight against your leg without moving it. Because you aren’t pulling back a lot of dogs will get bored and let go. When they release the toy immediately put it back into play as reinforcement for dropping it.
Training your dog with a flirt pole
There are a lot of dog enrichment ideas out there, and I’ll address some of those in a future blog post. However flirt poles are one of my favorites because it does combine using the dog’s natural predatory behaviors with giving them a ton of exercise. Additionally, using a flirt pole can combine play and training in a very effective manner. Because the dogs are so crazy about chasing the toy on the end of the pole, you can use this toy as a training tool!
You’ll want to get a very good foundation on a behavior first, because once you bring the flirt pole out dogs tend to get a little bit overexcited and have a harder time responding to cues. If they already have prior training in other situations, it will be easier for them to respond when you have their favorite toy out.
So for instance, you would ask your dog for a down when you had the toy out, but before you started playing with them, As soon as they responded to the down cue and went into a down position, you would immediately throw the toy and let them chase it for a minute or so. It’s very important that you let them have the toy almost immediately after they go into the down, especially at first. If your dog doesn’t get what they desperately want right away, you lose the benefit of using the flirt pole as reinforcement. Your dog may decide that you aren’t going to pay up, and then stop responding to your requests.
After a minute or two of letting them chase the toy at the end of the flirt pole you would grab the toy and remove it from play, and then maybe ask for a sit. And as soon as they sit you would immediately throw the toy out and let them chase.
As far as ways to exercise with your dog, using a flirt pole is a great method to add enrichment and exercise to your dog’s life. When I had foot surgery recently and had to figure out how to exercise dogs without walking, I was grateful that using a flirt pole was an option. The fact that it tires a dog out so much faster than a leash walk makes it perfect to use when you’re short on time.
So go make the predator you share your life with happy, and get a flirt pole. If you want to see how the game is played take a look at my dog flirt pole video below!