Does your dog have a high prey drive?
As dog owner’s we often forget that our pet dogs are, at their core, predators. Although it has been many years since our dogs have had to catch their own food for survival, it is still an instinct. Prey drive is a dog’s instinctual response to prey. The pursuit and capture of prey is called the predator sequence: eye, orient, stalk, chase, grab/bite, kill/bite, dissect and consume are the steps that make up this sequence.
These 8 stages can exhibit in dog’s differently and the vast majority of dogs will not make it to the later steps. Many dogs will chase but have no desire to actually bite the prey. Prey isn’t always another animal or human. It can also be sticks, balls and other toys. The impulse to chase, capture, bite and eat prey varies from dog to dog and breed often plays a big role in how deep this drive runs. For instance, a Weimaraner will likely have a stronger instinct to chase and capture prey than a non-hunting breed such as a Pug.
Weimaraners were bred to flush out birds that would fly into the air for hunters to shoot. They will often display some level of prey drive as a result of this breeding.
Humans have bred out a lot of these steps for most pet dogs. However, for some working dogs having prey drive is necessary to make them successful in their job. For instance, a border collie needs to stalk and chase sheep to be able to shepherd them, but they likely will not have a huge desire to kill and consume. This would defeat the purpose of herding, and so humans have bred border collies to fit their needs.
Prey drive may become an issue when your dog’s prey drive is high, or is inclined to complete the predator sequence. This is especially true if your dog has been bred to kill vermin, such as terriers. Your dog may perceive other smaller dogs, cats and even some young children as prey!
Collies will often exhibit some form of prey drive as a result of their breeding. However, Stilwell explains that they often have no desire to complete the predatory sequence. They find the stalk and chase reinforcing enough.
Dog breeds with a high prey drive
Breed will of course play a large role in the strength of prey drive your dog exhibits. Hunting or chasing breeds will typically exhibit signs of prey drive much more frequently than other breeds. This of course makes sense as their prey drive is a key element in being able to achieve results in the working fields. The most common breeds to exhibit signs of prey drive are:
Are prey drive and aggression the same thing?
Prey drive is not aggression and differs in a couple ways. Stilwell explains that aggression is generally emotionally driven, whereas prey drive is an instinctual response often dictated by genetics. Aggression is often used as a way for a dog to increase the space between the stimulus whereas in prey drive the dog is trying to decrease the space.
Both Vizslas and Beagles often have a high prey drive. Both are working breeds with an instinct to track prey.
Low prey drive vs high prey drive
There are dogs that exhibit high prey drive and dogs that exhibit low prey drive. As mentioned, breed plays a large role, but just like within any breed group there will be huge variation among individual animals. If you are looking for a working dog it will likely be helpful to assess them as a puppy. Asking the breeder may also be a great way to learn about what kind of traits the puppies possess.
I have been a dog walker for a number of years and have come across dogs that exhibit really high prey drive and some that exhibit very low prey drive. The majority of dogs I’ve been exposed to (which is literally hundreds) fall somewhere in the middle. One of the strongest cases I have seen was with a pair of Borzois. They were originally bred to pursue and hold wolves according to the American Kennel Association, but as a descendant from the Greyhound have a strong chasing instinct.
They were both rescue dogs, one female and one male. The male was the classic case of anything he perceived as prey was his to be pursued. We walked him on leash and with a metal muzzle, his sister walked with a muzzle but off leash. He had a history of going after other dogs, no matter the size. I remember one instance when we came across a german shepherd. I didn’t think we would have an issue but the shepherd cowered away from the massive hound and I ended up having to tie him to a tree until the shepherd was far enough away.
Of course, this is an example of a dog with very high prey drive. Most dogs will exhibit some form of prey drive whether that is chasing a ball or chasing a squirrel. It is extremely rewarding for them to exhibit this kind of behaviour, says Gemma Johnstone from the American Kennel Club.
It’s not often I come across issues with prey drive, for the most part the dogs I walk will happily interact with each other and chase a squirrel together!
Signs of prey drive in dogs
Any of the steps in the predatory sequence will be signs of prey drive in your dog. All dogs will exhibit at least some level of prey drive. Dogs playing with toys, dissecting their toys, chasing squirrels or balls are all signs of prey drive in your dog. For most dogs their prey drive isn’t causing any significant harm, except maybe to your favourite pair of slippers! The issue arises when they find chasing, capturing or killing other animals reinforcing. See below a breakdown of the steps so you know what you are looking for!
This is when your dog’s gaze is fixed on an object or prey. It could be a squirrel in the backyard that they track with their eyes or it could be a tennis ball. The key here is that the dog does not look away. From my experience, this moment is often a good time to try to get your dog’s attention. This step is not as rewarding as some of the later ones and it may be just the opportunity to call your dog back to you.
The orient step is when your dog starts to walk towards the prey. Next, your dog will stalk the prey, this is when your dog follows the prey. The body language exhibited will be rigid and usually their tail will be low. Understanding your dog’s body language may be a huge asset in assessing whether or not your dog is playful or hunting.
Most dogs will exhibit some form of chasing, I’ve found this is a step where it is really hard to call them back to you. It’s really fun to chase things, and often us humans can’t compete! Although quite stressful, this step of the sequence is where many dogs will finish. Many dogs will not bite, dissect or consume the prey. For me, working with dogs I’ve found will depend on the surrounding circumstances. For example, if a situation is controlled or they are on leash the chase might not be as fun. I have a cat at home, and when I introduce her to a new dog calmly, generally the dog is able to resist any urges. However, if a cat happens to pop out of a bush right under your dog’s nose the instinct may be too strong to resist!
This is the step in the sequence where your dog makes contact with the prey. Whether that is grabbing them and pulling away quickly or biting and holding. As with all the steps in the predatory sequence, breed may have an impact. Dogs bred for bull baiting such as the staffordshire terrier may be more inclined to hold. Whereas a border collie may be inclined to nip but probably less likely to hold. See the video below of a farmer herding bull into a trailer. About halfway through he actually asks his dog to nip. This display of prey drive is actually extremely helpful in getting the cattle into the trailer. However, for pet dogs nipping, particularly if they are nipping humans, can be a problem. It’s helpful for training to understand your breed and why your dog might be displaying some of this behaviour.
This is the last step in the predatory sequence. By this point it will be pretty obvious that your dog is displaying signs of prey drive. Terriers are one breed that may be more inclined to complete this sequence or at least kill their prey. The majority of terriers were bred to rid farms and homes of pests and small rodents so it makes perfect sense that they may have more of a desire to kill their prey.
This sequence doesn’t always happen with other animals or humans. Dogs can display this behavior with toys and it can be done in a healthy way.
How to Manage your dog’s prey drive
1. Healthy Outlets
There are many ways to manage your dog’s innate desire to be a predator. Firstly, giving them a healthy outlet to chase and hunt may work really well in managing and controlling your dog’s behaviour. Many areas have breed specific clubs or classes where you can take your dog to do what they were bred to do!
A lovely springer spaniel ripping apart some bark we found in the woods. Although she didn’t have to chase or capture, dissecting it and shaking it back and forth is absolutely displaying her innate prey drive.
For instance, in Vancouver, where I live, if you own a pointer/hound or any kind of bird dog you can take them to bird fly test trials and practices. This is where you run a series of trials to see how inclined your dog is to carry out a task. Or maybe even taking part in flyball or scenting games. You can learn how to work with your breed and give them an outlet to do what they were bred to do. There are tests and trials for dogs who were bred to hunt rodents as well, these include EarthDog and Barn Hunt. Even if the intention is never to work your dog professionally, giving them the outlet to do what they’re bred for may be very helpful in managing their impulses. If you live in the United States the American Kennel Club has lots of recommendations and a list of clubs available.
2. Impulse Control
Playing games to teach your dog impulse control may also be helpful. Just like in human’s, dogs learning to manage their emotions is an essential part in being well adjusted in the world. Especially when that world has squirrels in it! It’s important to bear in mind that playing games that replicate prey/predator relationships need to have strict boundaries. Yes play with your dog, yes make sure it’s fun for them but from my experience having rules is really important, for instance the game ends if there is mouth on hand action. See the below video for some rules for playing tug:
3. Working within threshold
Working within your dog’s threshold is another great way I’ve found to work on improving their impulse control and managing prey drive. Their threshold is the point in which your dog is able to concentrate but knows the stimulus in there. Once they are too close to the stimulus and they become over aroused their learning brain switches off. They get to make a choice to be present with you or try to pursue the stimulus, being far enough away so they choose to be with you is the key here. In other words, we want to set your dog up to succeed and build their confidence.
In the forest away from lots of distractions is a great place to start if your dog is unable to concentrate closer to other animals.
4. Sound Aversion and Recall
Whistle training can also be a great technique. If your dog chooses to pursue an animal or is chasing something you do not want them to chase, having a loud sound to interrupt their thought process can be great. This may include your own voice, working on recall is another great way to manage your dog’s prey drive.
What happens if my dog does catch something?
Ensuring your dog does not catch anything is also really important, says the American Kennel Club. If they have a strong prey drive, catching another animal could be extremely rewarding for them, not to mention they could cause some serious injury! If your dog has had bite incidents in the past it might be a good idea to train your dog to wear a muzzle. That way you can ensure that they will not injure another animal or dog. If you decide to go that route it’s really important that you muzzle train your dog. It could backfire pretty quickly and they could really injure themselves if they are not used to wearing a muzzle.
Letting our dogs be dogs and look how happy it makes them!
If your dog’s prey drive is becoming difficult to manage or if they have had some incidents in the past it also might be helpful to seek professional advice. This will ensure you have tools to manage their behaviour.
Jen Jones is a professional dog trainer and behavior specialist with more than 25 years of experience. As the founder of ‘Your Dog Advisor’ and the ‘Canine Connection’ rehabilitation center, she applies a holistic, empathetic approach, aiming to address root causes rather than merely treating symptoms.
Well known for her intuitive and compassionate approach, Jen adopts scientifically-proven, reward-based methods, encouraging positive reinforcement over punishment. Jen specializes in obedience training, behavior modification, and puppy socialization. Her innovative methods, particularly in addressing anxiety and aggression issues, have been widely recognized. Jen has worked with many of the world’s leading dog behaviorists and in her free time volunteers with local animal shelters and rescue groups.