Prey drive in pet vs working dogs

3 Jun 2022, 6:08 a.m. by Tracey McLennan

A theme that I’ve seen come out again and again in my research is how uncomfortable and unwanted predatory behaviour is when dogs live as companions in people’s homes. I’ve often seen it described as a behaviour problem. When I ran my survey earlier on in the year I had quite a few comments from people who were concerned about how I described predatory behaviour. It triggered some strong feelings and people got in touch to let me know that they did not consider everything I talked about to be linked to prey drive. I used a slightly modified version of what is a widely used and accepted description of predatory behaviour.

This all makes perfect sense really. So much of the media reporting around prey drive and predatory behaviour is negative. I have a few google alerts set up so I see how it is reported and given what I’ve read, I am not surprised that there is so much discomfort around it.

The flip side to all of that is so many of the dogs living in people’s homes as family pets are descended from dogs who were selectively bred to perform some sort of predatory behaviour. Some of them are many generations away from those ancestors and some of them are like my young working cocker, Ren and are no generations away from that breeding. In little dogs like Ren, a strong drive to perform predatory behaviour is desirable. A cocker spaniel who has no interest in finding birds and rabbits wouldn’t make a good working dog. More than that – I have read some research that suggests dogs who have a high prey drive make better working dogs in jobs that don’t involve prey. I have seen it mentioned with scent detection dogs, protection trained dogs and even agility dogs. This all means that lots of dogs are being bred who would be expected to have a high prey drive.

Even in the breeds who have now been bred specifically as companions for hundreds of years, predatory behaviour pops up sometimes. Genetics isn’t straightforward and even those companion breeds had ancestors who did some sort of job where a strong interest in prey was desirable. I used to chat to a woman who had a little cavalier – a breed made to sit on people’s knees and provide gentle companionship. Her dog regularly disappeared on walks and went off to find rabbits – sometimes he’d catch and kill them.

What I’d like to see happening in the future is more support for people with pet dogs who find that their dog does have a high prey drive. More understanding for the dogs, more understanding for the people. And more training that works with the dog’s predatory desires rather than just trying to suppress them.


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Hi - I'm Tracey

I am the author of Canine aggression: Rehabilitating an aggressive dog with kindess and compassion and founder of Best Dog Learning and Stuff Ltd. I specialise in helping people with dogs who have a high prey drive. I have an honours degree in Canine behaviour and training, am a Tellington TTouch practitioner, and an ACE Advanced Tutor. I am currently studying for an MSc in Applied Animal Behaviour and Training.

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