What is predatory aggression?

13 Nov 2021, 7 a.m. by Tracey McLennan


Experts in dog behaviour love to label and categorise it. Dogs might be diagnosed as being fear aggressive or having territorial aggression or protective aggression. Some dogs are diagnosed as having predatory aggression.

I’m never sure how useful the labels actually are. I mean - aggression directed as things that are scary is ridiculously common. I’d imagine that almost every human and dog might be fear aggressive in certain circumstances.

Of all of them, I think that the category of predatory aggression is the least helpful. I completely understand why predatory behaviour might be considered to be aggression. After all, any animal being chased down by a dog will feel as if the dog has hostile intent. Predatory behaviour probably results in injury or death of the target far more often than happens if a dog behaves aggressively through fear.

Even so, I feel as if predatory behaviour is in a different category than aggression.

For a start, it is something that the animals our dogs are descended from would do in order to get food. So perhaps the behaviour is really about foraging for food more than anything else.

Then there is the fact that humans have selectively bred domestic dogs to want to perform predatory behaviour. Generally speaking, aggression is seen as unwanted but much of the behaviour that might be described as predatory aggression is very much wanted by people. A rat will not want to be killed by a terrier but the farmer who has the terrier likely has the dog to keep their rat population lower. The terrier wouldn’t last long in that home unless they were killing rats on a regular basis.

Then, when making a behavioural diagnosis of predatory aggression, behaviourists will look for quiet, calm behaviour like staring or stalking or salivating. None of these are really behaviours that are normally associated with aggression – much as being stared at or stalked can be uncomfortable.

The underlying emotions the drive the predatory behaviour are different than the underlying emotions that are associated with aggressive behaviour. Most aggression is about one of three things:

❣️ Keeping something away from the dog.
❣️ Allowing the dog to keep something they have.
❣️ Allowing the dog to control a situation.

The emotions involved in these situations are usually quite negative. Usually, the dog isn’t feeling good about having to be aggressive.

Predatory behaviour is different. Dogs love it. For some dogs, it is the absolute highlight of their lives and is what they’d rather do above everything else. The emotions are all positive, happy emotions and result in the dog wanting to do more and more of the predatory behaviour.

Much of the treatment of aggression relies on changing the dog’s emotional response to whatever their trigger is. The emotions involved are so negative that if the dog starts to see the trigger in a better way, normally the aggression disappears on its own.

That is not the case with predatory behaviour because the dog already feels good. Predatory behaviour is so significant to many dogs that to entirely remove it from their lives would result in their welfare suffering. I would never suggest letting dogs set off to decimate the local wildlife population, but they do need appropriate outlets for their predatory behaviour to truly live happy and fulfilled lives.

Whereas, no dog needs to be regularly behaving aggressively to have a happy life.

So, for me, the term predatory aggression is one that I would like to see disappearing from use. I just don’t think it’s a helpful label.












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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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