What is prey drive in dogs?

25 Sep 2021, 4:39 p.m. by Tracey McLennan

Prey drive is often misunderstood or thought to be simpler than it is. It is blamed for a whole range of behaviour problems. Some dogs who attack and seriously injure or kill other dogs are sometimes described as doing it due to prey drive – something that, while possible, is not so likely to be the case. Sometimes dogs who are overly excited by the outside world are said to be that way because of their prey drive.

Simply put, prey drive is the amount of desire that a dog has to perform predatory behaviour.

Predatory behaviour isn’t actually a good way of describing it. Predatory behaviour is really a string of separate actions that the dog might take that relate (or related at one time) to getting food. The string of actions is commonly called the Predatory Motor Sequence. In domestic dogs, things are complicated further by the way they have been bred. Humans have selectively bred dogs to carry out a whole range of tasks and most of the time, the tasks require the dog to have an interest in some sort of prey.

Border collies herd by performing a truncated hunt of sheep.

Labrador retrievers help hunters by performing a very different truncated hunt to that of border collies and theirs is mostly directed toward game birds -at least in the UK, game birds are the normal focus.

Maremma sheepdogs and the other livestock guardian breeds help farmers by having no desire to hunt at all. They hang out with the sheep and keep them safe unsupervised by people so it’s important that they have no prey drive. They will aggressively chase off any wolves or dogs who try to worry their flock.

The Predatory Motor Sequence consists of the following:

Hunt or Search – This is the sort of ground covering searching that is done by spaniels, setters, pointers and HPR breeds. Each has their own style, but all will quarter ground, using their nose to see if there are prey animals around. Full disclosure, this one isn’t often listed in the literature but I always include it because it’s such a big part of what so many breeds do.

Orient - The dog has located a prey animal and turns towards it or moves to a position they can clearly see the animal from.

Eye - The dog will go completely still and stare at the animal. This can happen with toys too and is often seen in border collies.

Stalk - The dog's body will be lowered, their head will be low too and they will move slowly toward the prey animal.

Chase - This is the stage where the dog will be running toward the prey animal - that animal will likely be running away.

Grab-Bite - If the dog gets close enough, they may grab-bite the prey animal, closing their mouth over whichever part of the animal they can. It has been suggested that this bite is intended to disable and may cause injury to the prey animal.

Possess - Retrieving breeds like the Labradors mentioned above, spaniels and HPR breeds are likely to do this. The prey (or toy) will be held in the dog's jaws and carried - often for long periods of time. This is an integral part of retrieving. Again, full disclosure - this isn't often mentioned in the literature about prey drive. I include it because it is so important to many breeds of dog.

Kill-Bite - In dogs, this is a harder bite then the grab-bite and is often accompanied by the dog shaking their head while holding onto the prey animal (or toy).

Dissect - The dog will use their teeth to tear the skin of the prey animal. This is often seen being done to soft toys in pet dogs.

Consume - In animals where predatory behaviour is aimed at getting food, this is the final stage. Few dogs would eat a prey animal if they killed one.

I hope this helps you to understand prey drive a little bit better.

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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.

I love to hear from people who read my blog so if you want to let me know what you thought, email me on tracey@bestdoglearningandstuff.co.uk