Reading dogs 14: Prey drive

Hurworth Photography: Shooting Favourites &emdash; Shooting 262

Dogs are predators; they have prey drive: the instinct—that is, the innate impulse—to locate, pursue and catch game or prey animals. A dog’s prey drive is a large part of what makes that dog be a dog, much as the lack of prey drive is what makes a cow be a cow.

Humans who love dogs know that dogs are opportunistic scavengers. Dogs notice when food seems to be lying around, ready to be eaten. Every dog owner has stories about the times that Lassie stole something from the kitchen counter, the coffee table or even the barbecue. Depending on our mood, the dog’s scavenging behaviour can be irritating or amusing.

It is much more difficult for many people to accept that their dog is not only a scavenger, but a predator, too, fully equipped and capable of hunting, capturing and killing other animals for food or for pleasure. Because we feed them well, they have no need to hunt for their meals and so most of our dogs will never kill anything.

In addition to eliminating the need to hunt for food, humans have developed dog breeds, selecting for size, coat, colour and working ability as well as adapting their prey drive to serve specific purposes, whether scenting quarry, herding livestock, retrieving game, guarding property or stock, or dispatching vermin.

Prey sequence

In all predators, the prey drive follows the same sequence of behaviours .


The dog searches the environment, including scenting the air or ground, to locate the quarry. In this context, “eyeing” includes seeing, sniffing and hearing.

Hurworth Photography: Trail Hunting Season 2014-15 Favourites &emdash; Hurworth Hunt 047
Hurworth Photos
Contadini / Foter / CC BY

In the first photo, above left, a hound seeks the scent of the prey prior to the hunt. The photo on the right is of a bloodhound following a scent through a field.

Below, on the left, a pointer stands perfectly still, his whole body aligned in the direction of the quarry so that the hunter will know where to aim. The Weimaraner puppy in the middle is learning to point. Retrievers can also point, as the golden retriever shows, below right.

smilla4 / Foter / CC BY-NC
Weimaramer puppy
Renee V / Foter / CC BY
golden retriever
dglassme / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA


Having located the target, the dog stalks, or pursues it. Collies demonstrate this trait very strongly. The border collie in the wheat field, below left, is performing a typical “eye-stalk” while the five border collies, below right, have also eyed their sheep and are ready to move.

border collie
Canis Lupess
collies stalking
fOtOmoth / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA


A good chase is one of dogs’ favourite activities, whether they’re chasing balls and Frisbees or working. In play, two dogs chasing each other tend to run at about the same speed and their running patterns may be curved or circular. The front dog might bark or dash in different directions to make the chase more exciting. By contrast, in predatory chasing, the silent dog runs straight and fast to the target, taking the most direct route available to catch prey or  to retrieve quarry like ducks and pheasants. Herding dogs incite livestock to move by staring at them, nipping at their heels and hindquarters, or physically nudging or slamming into their sides. Most sheep herding movement relies on the pressure of the dog’s proximity to the flock or individuals to encourage them to move in the direction the shepherd has signalled.

There are many great sheep herding videos on YouTube. If you’re interested in watching dogs work, you can spend a very pleasant afternoon watching them. For fun, in the video below, made by the Guinness brewery for St. Patrick’s day, 2012, a border collie rounds up a group of friends, ensuring that they avoid various obstacles on their way to the pub.

Grab-Bite and Kill-Bite

The dog grabs hold of the target. As I noted, above, herding dogs will nip at the heels or hindquarters of stock. They have been bred to have highly inhibited bites: they don’t nip hard enough to injure the animal. Terriers grab the prey, usually by the neck, and give a very fast shake to break the animal’s neck. Like other breeds, they may also deliver lethal bites to the prey animal’s loin or underside. Packs of wolves, coyotes or domestic dogs can cooperate to bring down prey much larger than they are.


Gutting and eating the prey animal is the end of the prey sequence. Sporting dogs are bred not to eviscerate dead birds. They fetch them, often over rough terrain, and bring them to the hunter. The yellow Labrador retriever at the top of this blog post is bringing in a pheasant and having a wonderful time doing it. Notice how calm and at ease her face and ears are. Her front toes are relaxed. She has a firm hold on the pheasant but there’s no harsh wrinkling on her face and muzzle, indicating that she’s holding the bird only as tightly as she needs to. See the next photos of the Lab as she clears the fence and then is about to land.1)I will happily look at photos of dogs all day. Great photos of working dogs are particularly interesting to me. I’ve spent a long time pouring over the Hurworth Photos website. Amy, the photographer, has a remarkable talent for capturing images of dogs and horses in sporting events.

Prey drive is natural

For dogs, predatory behaviour is instinctive and natural. Dogs don’t think in terms of what is morally right or wrong. They think in terms of what is safe or dangerous. And so, just as a dog’s scavenging instincts may awaken when someone leaves a roast beef sandwich unchaperoned on the coffee table, the dog’s prey drive may come into play when a squirrel runs along a fence and up into a tree. Moreover, dogs will chase squirrels, despite being unable to catch them, simply because it’s fun to do it.

Prey drive has nothing to do with aggression. Aggression is based in fear and anxiety. Predatory behaviours are fun for dogs.

Managing prey drive

Prey drive cannot be eradicated from a dog. It is innate, instinctive. Dogs engage in predatory behaviour even when there is no prey around. Many dogs have a strong interest in chasing anything available, including balls, Frisbees and empty plastic bags. They may enjoy pouncing on things. An intense focus on moving things like leaves falling from trees or pebbles kicked up from the path during a walk is also common. And almost every dog enjoys playing with toys during puppyhood, as young adults and sometimes later in life, too. Playing alone or sometimes with another dog, they shake and tearing up toys, shoes, clothes, towels and similar things. As Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and dog trainer Karen London notes, Prey drive is “the enthusiasm and strong motivation that makes dogs sharp on the course, eager to participate and reliably give their all in competition or in play.” (London)

Dogs can be distracted by sounds, sights and smells and may not be aware of other dangers in their environment when they’re excited. For example, a dog might chase a squirrel into the street and be hit by a car. Good obedience skills both keep dogs safe and help manage prey drive by creating acceptable opportunities to engage in these pleasurable behaviours while also teaching them to develop good self-control and learn to focus on their handlers.

Provide acceptable outlets for your dog’s prey drive. These things will not turn your dog into a predator. Dogs are predators already!

  • Teach solid “leave it” and “drop it” cues
  • Teach incompatible behaviours such as sitting on cue instead of running or jumping
  • Play fetch and other retrieving games, including Frisbee and Flyball
  • Play tug
  • Scenting games
  • “Find it” games
  • Foraging games
  • Give plenty of toys and opportunities to play with them

Predatory drift

“Predatory drift” is a term coined by veterinarian, behaviourist and dog trainer Ian Dunbar to describe what happens when dogs who are engaged in social behaviour or play switch abruptly into predatory behaviour toward another dog, cat or human with whom the dog has been socialized, often with deadly results. This is not a frequent behaviour, but the stakes are high and the consequences for the dogs are critical.

According to Jean Donaldson, predatory drift can occur among dogs who had never been predatory before and may never be predatory again. She notes specific, contextual triggers:

  • Play or a squabble between two dogs extremely different in size, especially if the smaller dog panics, yelps and/or struggles. The greater the size difference, the greater the risk.
  • Two or more dogs ‘teaming up’ during intense play, or two or more dogs acting together in a chase or squabble context with a dog that begins to panic, yelp, and/or struggle. . . . . Dogs have also been known to attack injured dogs and this effect is also facilitated by the attacking unit being two or more dogs rather than one. . . .

The risk increases if a dog known to be predatory is involved. (Donaldson 2008)

Predatory drift is not aggression. It is an instinctive fixed-action pattern, which means that once it begins, the dog can’t stop but must finish the pattern. While canine play involves aspects of predatory behaviour such as stalking and chasing, play is voluntary and flexible. Any party can stop playing or switch to a different kind of play. In predatory drift, something happens and the larger dog drifts from playing to predation in an instant. It is not predictable.

Predatory drift may be why smaller animals and children can be endangered by an excited dog. While the most significant factor appears to be that the attacking dog is significantly larger than the target, some breeds seem to be more prone to predatory drift than others. These include Siberian Huskies, Malamutes, Shiba Inu, terriers in general, Doberman Pinschers, Rottweilers, German Shepherd Dogs and Belgian Shepherds.

To prevent predatory drift:

  • Never leave a dog alone with prey animals such as rabbits, mice, guinea pigs, rats or birds
  • Never leave a dog alone with a child under the age of 10-11
  • Do not allow small dogs to play with large ones or only allow it with very close supervision
  • Do not allow dogs to play in packs, especially if the dogs are of different sizes
  • Do not assume that, because a large dog and a small dog, other animal or child live together and have engaged well in the past, they are safe together
  • Research breeds carefully before adopting a dog. Some breeds, as well as individual dogs within any breed, cannot live successfully in a home with cats or with dogs smaller than they are. Some dogs should not live with young children.

Killing is natural behaviour for dogs. To prevent it, manage the dog. Prey drive is instinctive. The dog is not responsible for killing another animal. The owner is responsible for their dog’s behaviour.


Davis, Kathy Diamond. “Killing Animals.” Veterinary Partner.August 21, 2006. Accessed March 22, 2015.

Donaldson, Jean. Oh Behave!: Dogs from Pavlov to Premack to Pinker. Wenatchee, WA: Dogwise Pub., 2008.

London, Karen B. “Prey Drive: Fact or Fiction?” The Bark. Accessed March 22, 2015

O’Heare, James. Aggressive Behavior in Dogs. 2nd ed. Ottawa: BehaveTech Pub., 2014. Print.

References   [ + ]

1. I will happily look at photos of dogs all day. Great photos of working dogs are particularly interesting to me. I’ve spent a long time pouring over the Hurworth Photos website. Amy, the photographer, has a remarkable talent for capturing images of dogs and horses in sporting events.