Predation and prey drive

Dog people throw the term “prey drive” around a lot.  There is a technical difficulty with this usage — modern scientists do not regard “drive theory” as a valid or accurate predictor or explanation of behavior.  I’m going to skip right past this old debate and focus on the ambiguity in the term.

People who use this term may use it to refer to dogs who like to play with toys: Balls, tugs, etc.  Or they may use to describe dogs who like to chase and kill other animals.  Or they may use it to describe liking to chase cars.  There seems to be an assumption that there’s this one quantity, the desire to chase moving things, which will apply across all types of chase objects in the same way.  And of course that doesn’t actually  happen.

Actual predation is chasing, killing and eating small animals.  Many breeds and individual dogs don’t do this.  They may or may not chase; fewer will kill; very few will actually eat, unless they are starving.  All parts of the predatory sequence are present:  Scan, Eye, Stalk, Chase, Grab-bite, Kill-bite, Dissect, Consume. (See Coppinger.)  Wild canids display these intact sequences toward any game they can catch; typically, they will focus on whichever prey species they can catch and eat with the least net expenditure of energy.

Most dog working behaviors reflect portions of the predatory sequence.  We have manipulated the original intact predatory sequence in various ways by selective breeding to produce various types of working behavior.  Border Collies do a lot of Eye and Stalk, with some Chase.  Grab Bite is discouraged and Kill Bite gets the dog shot behind the barn.  Labradors have a hypertrophied  and also truncated Grab Bite.  That is, they want to grab, but they are not supposed to actually bite down… just hard enough to prevent a dead bird from falling out of their mouths.  Pointers are all about Scan and Eye, and they can get really stuck there!  Many terriers and sighthounds have much more intact sequences, and will move rapidly all the way from Scan to Kill Bite.  It’s possible to identify which pieces of the sequence have been emphasized and which inhibited in various breeds as we examine their desired working behavior.

This differs from actual predation, even in most of the cases where the breed’s working behavior involves catching and killing animals.  The specific animal species targeted are often heavily narrowed.  Terriers are most turned on by small vermin; Labs even at 8 weeks will often show great intensity toward ducks and much less interest in cows or even in  blackbirds.  Working-bred Border Collies focus much harder on sheep or cattle than on birds.  This, in addition to the truncated or punctuated sequence displayed once the chase is on.  And in fact, it can get quite complicated.  A Border Collie might never bite a sheep, but will happily dispatch a vole (this does not get the dog shot behind the barn). The genetic plasticity of this sequence is really quite amazing.

This differs, again, from toy drive.  Some dogs will chase a lure-coursing lure (usually a flappy plastic bag pulled quickly on the ground) who wouldn’t chase a live animal.  Some will show far more interest in a braided fleece tug toy than an actual animal.  Ball-obsessed dogs are legion, and this trait can also be amazingly narrow.  I have a dog who will chase balls all day, and freezes up if he gets two of them in his paws and mouth at the same time, but he has never shown the slightest sign of noticing squirrels, would not chase a lure, will not play tug.  He was bred to play flyball – go figure!

In other words, this desire to “chase moving stuff”  varies wildly from dog to dog and breed to breed.  Is it all “prey drive”?  I don’t like using the same generic term for all of it, because it tends to mislead people.  A lot of people I talk to assume that because their dog kills stuffy toys, it will kill live animals.  Not necessarily so.  And many dogs who will hunt live animals or herd live sheep refuse to acknowledge toys.

The main group of dog folks who promulgated the use of the old “drive theory” were the people training police and military dogs, and dogs who compete in the related sports, such as IPO and ringsport.  They are referring to the dog’s desire to get to the bite sleeve, the running decoy.  This is obviously not predation.  So I propose, and try to stick to, using the term “prey drive” to refer to the desire to interact with toys in a play-predation mode.

I acknowledge that many working behaviors are based in predation. But they are not, in fact, predation.  My Border Collie will chase sheep all day (sadly, she is not terribly talented), but she has no interest in killing them.  She’s working, or at least trying to work, bless her heart.  I can call this behavior “prey drive,” too.

But I suggest that when we are talking about predation, we use the term “predation,” and avoid the term “prey drive.”  For the purpose of dogs, whose predatory sequence we have so severely messed with, I suggest we can include in this slightly incomplete predatory sequences.  I think we can call it “predation” if it moves smoothly from Scan through Kill-bite.  I realize this is a little sloppy.  I’m not a scientist, and right  now I just want a usable set of terms.

You may be wondering why we care.  Clarity is important.  The way these terms are used now is unclear and misleading.  I run into the following scenario pretty often, because of the work I do.  A client will tell me, “my dog has a high prey drive, and I’m really worried about him hurting my cat.”  If “high prey drive” turns out to mean “loves chasing tennis balls,” it’s possible there’s very little to worry about with respect to the cat.  Dogs who kill cats are predating, not playing.  (There are rare cases of more or less accidental death during play, but most cat kills are pretty fast and silent — predation.)  Or, a client may tell me that the dog is safe with the toddler because it has no prey drive.  The dog doesn’t play with toys, so there must not be a problem, right?  If the dog might kill in a predatory fashion, I want to be very clear to label the behavior predatory!

I suspect I will have more to add about this  once the comments start to come in…


2 thoughts on “Predation and prey drive

  1. While walking Leeloo, the 9lb Yorkie-Silkie at Dawson Creek Park, there was a large dog that spotted her from a distance. I can’t remember the breed. The owner was sitting on the park bench chatting on her cell phone. I watched the dog’s attention towards Leeloo. I deemed it more ‘prey drive’ than social interest in her as another dog. So gave both of them a wide swerve and walked in the grass to get around them. The owner tried yelling that her dog was ‘friendly’, but I yelled back. “I’m not getting that with the way your dog is eyeballing mine!” Would I be correct in my assumption that this was ‘prey drive’? Or would predation been more correct?

    • I would tend to go with predation, if that’s what it was. But it may just have been a lot of social interest or social aggression, too. Just because Leeloo is tiny does not mean every dog eyeing her sees her as a rabbit. Some dogs are quieter about staring. Sometimes this is learned — they may have been effectively punished for vocalizing or growling. Some dogs are just quieter than others — Nickel was very quiet!

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