To prey or not to prey

Neil Anderson (The Dogzbody)
What is Prey Drive?

Simply put prey drive is an instinctive urge for a dog to find, follow or pursue and then catch their prey, or hunt, catch, kill & eat! The prey is typically for eating although for the domestic dog this may not be the case. The thrill of chasing and catching is a natural drive in a dog that stems from thousands of years of evolution and breeding. The prey drive in a dog is important to ensure the survival of the species, especially in wild dogs that obviously need to hunt their prey (other animals) to eat.

For the domesticated dog, prey drive is more of a game, their urge to pursue is still present and the end result of catching their prey, in most cases a toy is very real for a dog. Prey drive differs from dog to dog, thanks to breeding and a dog's experiences in life. Different classes of dogs approach and use their prey drive in a multitude of ways. For example "Herding dogs" will chase their prey, corner and then attack their prey, Herding dogs include Collies, Sheepdogs, Malinois, Cattle Dogs and Canaans. Hound dogs will stalk their prey, using their nose to seek out a strong scent, track it and then find their prey, Hound dogs include Bloodhound, Beagle, Rhodesian Ridgeback, and Dachshunds. Terriers are known to quickly hunt down their prey and not waste time, they have a mix of using their nose and herding their prey into a corner for example a hole in the ground to then capture their prey. When you have mixed breeds who may have any or all of the above traits then you can also get a mixed prey drive too.

Not all dogs have what is called a "high prey drive" some dogs are simply chilled and are not interested in chasing, herding stalking or sniffing out a new or unusual scent which in turn would usually switch on this natural instinct to pursue prey. It is neither good nor bad if a dog does or does not have a prey drive, it simply is what it is though for training a dog it is preferred to have a high-drive dog.

Training and prey drive

Although dog training encompasses many areas of a dog's ability, the prey drive of a dog can make or break a dog trainer's ability to get a dog to engage with them. When a dog's prey drive is triggered they become totally engaged in the process of seeking out it prey or in dog training terms the toy, lure or treat. By triggering a dog's prey drive a trainer is trying to get a dog to respond to an action or command in return for the prey. The toy or lure can be anything from a professional dog training toy to a favourite squeaky toy or empty water bottle, whatever it is that the dog needs to find exciting and stimulating enough for the dog to want it. Sometimes a dog has very little if no prey drive and this can be a challenge to motivate a dog to respond, if the dog is not excited about a toy or lure then it might not respond and simply ignore the challenge put in front of them, often a dog trainer's worse scenario. A professional dog trainer if up against this block with a dog will use other balanced training techniques to guide the dog towards working in partnership with them in a motivational way.

Using good prey drive in a dog can enhance the skill of a dog responding to commands, they can be taught when to get their prey, how long to hold on to it and more importantly learn when to let go of their prey on command too. Using a dog's prey drive in dog training is a good way of building a mutually understandable dog/handler relationship. 

Like humans, dogs have personalities and can also have good and bad days. As humans are not perfect, the same goes for dogs. Whether a dog fails at getting its prey or indeed captures its prey the end result is important to them. A failed capture whereby nothing is caught can, in wild dogs mean no food which can mean life or death, a threat to survival. This instinct and skill need to be 100% successful to ensure that a dog can eat or protect itself from harm if threatened. This same instinct is in domestic dogs too. Their environment may be different but the two core triggers of prey drive, survival and protection are very much present to varying degrees. In the home setup, a domestic dog’s prey drive is driven by their life experience to date or breed specific traits or a mix of the two. What do we mean by life experience when we talk about prey drive? If a dog has had an easy and non-confrontational life where food has been readily available, they have not felt threatened, they have interacted with those around them in a balanced manner and have had positive experiences with people and other dogs then its prey drive will most probably be balanced. This means they will not be protective of their food (as it’s always been made available), and they are not defensive around others because they have had comfortable relationships with them and felt threatened. Although their prey drive will still be present its need to be used may be less.

In the opposite scenario if a domestic dog has had to search and fight for every mouthful of food and had experienced hunger regularly, for a “street dog” their resource (in this case, food) protection drive will be very high. Even though they may not have had to chase “live food” just seeking out scraps in a bin and hunting for others' unwanted food will mean their prey drive for survival will be very high.

The above life experience examples of a dog can determine how a dog uses their prey drive later in life if its home circumstances change. A dog that has had to search for food on the streets, when in a home environment may be more protective of its food bowl, its high drive to guard if they're caught or found food will be high. 

Prey drive is a very complex matter in all animals it requires a great deal of understanding and most of all respect. It is not to be underestimated as its role in survival is important for both the dog and its prey. Without this raw instinct, life would be messy. Dog trainers find this aspect of dog behaviour extremely interesting as no two dogs are the same when it comes to prey drive. Without having a time machine to look back on a dog's previous experiences, a lot of behavioural work is based on the dog trainers' own experience with other dogs. 

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