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What Is Prey Drive In Dogs?

By Dr. Kaitlin Wurtz May 18, 2021

The term “prey drive” is often thrown around when describing dog breeds or temperaments. This term can sometimes be confused with aggression since they share similar behavioral traits. This article will explain what differentiates prey drive from aggression, how prey drive can be beneficial, and advice on how to safely manage a dog with a strong prey drive.

What Is Prey Drive?

In its simplest terms, prey drive is the desire to hunt. Modern day dogs descended from ancestors that would have had to hunt for their food. Our dogs retain, at various levels, this innate desire to pursue prey. The predator sequence that dogs and their ancestors follow when hunting can be simplified as follows (MacNultry, 2002):

  1. Orient – Orienting their head and/or body towards the object of interest.
  2. Eye – Locking their eyes on their prey. Their body may also freeze in place.
  3. Stalk – Discretely getting closer to their prey. May have lower body posture to avoid being seen.
  4. Chase – Running after the prey.
  5. Grab-bite – Biting at the prey to capture it.
  6. Kill-bite – Biting at the prey to kill it.
  7. Dissect – Pulling apart the prey to consume it.

Within our homes, the predator sequence may be directed towards toys or other objects in place of prey animals. Dogs with strong prey drives may be more willing to engage in competitive games such as tug of war or may be more excited by a game of fetch as these activities help fulfill their desire to hunt prey (Wilsson and Sundgren, 1997; Sanders, 2006). These dogs often have more energy and are more excitable, and greatly enjoy chasing or searching for their toys (Jones et al., 2004; Jones, 2008).

How Is Prey Drive Different Than Aggression?

When dogs attempt to go after prey, it often looks a lot like aggression. They may have erect ears, a rigid tail, puffed up chest/body, or stiff body language. However, the underlying motivation behind prey drive behaviors and aggressive behaviors are quite different. Prey drive is instinctive, whereas aggression is emotionally driven. When dogs display behaviors related to the predatory sequence, they are motivated to get closer to their target. Aggressive dogs on the other hand, will display behaviors in hopes of distancing themselves from a perceived threat. Dogs that have a strong prey drive are not any more or less likely to be aggressive than dogs with low prey drives. Instead, aggression is most likely to occur in fearful dogs that lack confidence (Sanders, 2006).

Can A Strong Prey Drive Be Dangerous?

While dogs with strong prey drives are not necessarily going to be aggressive towards people or other dogs, their high energy levels and strong desire to chase after small animals can sometimes cause harm. A high prey drive can spell trouble to small animals that the dog recognizes as prey such as squirrels, rabbits, and birds. If the dog gets a hold of them, then they risk being killed. This strong desire to chase and catch small animals can cause a number of problems. For one, the animals that are prey targets can be dangerous to your dog such as a bee or a snake. Secondly, your dog’s excitement can cause them to end up running far away from home and getting lost or run out into traffic during their pursuit. A dog’s prey drive is often triggered by small, erratic moving objects. Unfortunately, this sometimes can mean that other family pets, such as cats or hamsters can end up becoming your dog’s target. Other times, fast moving children can also trigger a dog’s prey drive, causing them to nip at the child. When walking a dog with a strong prey drive, one must be aware of their surroundings and be ready to brace themselves if the dog decides to lunge after something. This can be especially dangerous for the elderly, or when walking in icy conditions.

What Dogs Are Known For Having A Strong Prey Drive?

Dogs have been selectively bred for both their looks and behavior. By selecting dogs to perform specific tasks, such as hunting or herding, we have removed certain steps in the predatory sequence. For example, herding dogs have been bred to orient, eye, stalk, and sometimes chase, but not to bite. Retrievers have been bred to capture prey without progressing to the kill-bite or dissection phase. Scent hounds have been bred to track and hold prey, without chasing them away or attacking them. Other dogs have been bred to be good home companions without a strong predatory drive. Overall, dogs with the strongest prey drives are those that have been bred to help us hunt or move livestock (Jones et al., 2004; Parker et al., 2017). Examples include herding dogs such as Australian Shepherds and Border Collies, terriers such as the Airedale and Bull Terrier, hounds such as Beagles and Greyhounds, and sporting dogs such as retrievers, spaniels, and pointers. A couple other dog breeds known for their strong prey drives are Huskies and Boxers, although these dogs do not fit the typical working dog pattern.

How To Manage A Dog With A Strong Prey Drive?

Since breeds with high prey drives are typically more active and motivated to seek, chase, and guard objects, they may require different management techniques to keep them happy and out of trouble in your home. Dogs that have a tendency to chase after small animals or cars should be kept on a leash at all times when out on walks. Consider using a harness instead of a neck collar for dogs that might lunge to give you better control and to protect your dog’s throat. At home, make sure your home and yard are secure to prevent your dog from escaping and running away. Wearing identification tags and/or having your dog microchipped are always good ideas, but it is especially important for dogs that are at high risk of running off after something exciting. Dogs with strong prey drives excel when given jobs to do such as agility or sporting and when they are given plenty of opportunities for exercise and mental stimulation. Games such as chase and fetch are especially great. Toys called “flirt poles” are also a wonderful option for allowing your dog to express their prey drive in a safe manner. Flirt poles are essentially extra-large cat wands made specifically for dogs. Training can also come in handy when working with an excitable dog. Teaching them the command “leave it” to ignore enticing stimuli and having good recall ability are incredibly useful. These can be further reinforced by playing games that improve your dog’s impulse control. This can involve learning what triggers your dog, redirecting their behavior, and rewarding them for focusing on you or a toy instead of the “prey”. Make sure you are using high value rewards when doing this work as they have to compete with the dog’s trigger.

In addition to providing safe outlets for your dog and improving their training, there are some precautions that should be implemented if you have other small pets at home or young children. Always supervise dogs around children or other animals. Baby gates can be useful to give children protected areas to play. To provide protection for a cat, make sure they have areas to escape to in case they get chased such as shelves, tall furniture, or tall cat trees.

Can A Strong Prey Drive Be Useful?

Dogs with strong prey drives may require some extra precautions, but this temperament can be incredibly rewarding. Strong prey drives are linked with personality traits of courage, hardness, and defensiveness (Wilsson and Sundgren, 1997). They have also been shown to be associated with competitiveness, liveliness, cooperativeness, and curiosity (Wilsson and Sinn, 2012). These traits make training them a breeze as they are highly motivated to perform tasks. It also means they make great working dogs and are often used by the military and police to aid in search and rescue efforts, and for detecting narcotics, bombs, rot or mold (Wilsson and Sundgren, 1997; Jones et al., 2004).  They also make great hunting companions and are excellent for working with livestock.

Conclusion

In summary, a prey drive is the instinctual desire that dogs experience (some more than others) to seek, stalk, chase, and attack prey animals. This drive can also be directed towards other fast-moving objects such as balls, cars, cats, and children. While strong prey drives can sometimes get dogs into trouble, they are linked with a number of desirable traits that make these dogs incredibly trainable and willing to work. With proper exercise, mental stimulation, training, and appropriate outlets (e.g., toys) high prey drive dogs can make fantastic companions and cherished members of your family.

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Works Cited

Jones, Amanda Claire. "Development and validation of a dog personality questionnaire." (2008).

Jones, Katherine E., Karen Dashfield, Amanda B. Downend, and Cynthia M. Otto. "Search-and-rescue dogs: an overview for veterinarians." Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 225, no. 6 (2004): 854-860.

MacNulty, D. R. (2002). The predatory sequence and the influence of injury risk on hunting behavior in the wolf (Doctoral dissertation, University of Minnesota).

Parker, H. G., Dreger, D. L., Rimbault, M., Davis, B. W., Mullen, A. B., Carpintero-Ramirez, G., & Ostrander, E. A. (2017). Genomic analyses reveal the influence of geographic origin, migration, and hybridization on modern dog breed development. Cell reports19(4), 697-708.

Sanders, Clinton R. "“The Dog You Deserve” Ambivalence in the K-9 Officer/Patrol Dog Relationship." Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 35, no. 2 (2006): 148-172.

Wilsson, Erik, and David L. Sinn. "Are there differences between behavioral measurement methods? A comparison of the predictive validity of two ratings methods in a working dog program." Applied Animal Behaviour Science 141, no. 3-4 (2012): 158-172.

Wilsson, Erik, and Per-Erik Sundgren. "The use of a behaviour test for the selection of dogs for service and breeding, I: Method of testing and evaluating test results in the adult dog, demands on different kinds of service dogs, sex and breed differences." Applied Animal Behaviour Science 53, no. 4 (1997): 279-295.