Prey Drive and Predatory Aggression in Dogs
Prey drive is one of the most misunderstood components in the dog training world so let’s define a few terms.
1: Prey/play drive
2: Prey/stimulation drive
3: Acquisition drive
4: Predatory aggression
1. Prey/play drive. This is often the drive dog trainers refer to when evaluating the interest level a dog has to chase or retrieve a ball or toy. This attribute can be very beneficial when noted in a dog who will be trained in high-level obedience, dog sports and even in police K9 dogs. This drive is shown when a toy or object of value is moved quickly to create a desire in the dog as a form of motivation or reward. You’ll note that any vocalizations in this setting are typically very high-pitched in tone. This drive is of great benefit for dog trainers and dog owners during the training process to incentivize the dog who is being worked within an effort to perform specific behaviors in anticipation of this stimulating reward and often a game of tug.
Some of these dogs like aspects of this game more than others. Some are driven by the act of being teased while hoping they will get access to the toy. Others love the conflict of tugging with the toy/item more than the teasing aspect, and others love when the trainer/owner allows them to have the toy while they go and lay down with the toy with a feeling of ownership. This last element is not of great benefit to training, but many dogs like just having the toy/item and others love to destroy the toy/item.
2: Prey/stimulation drive. This aspect of the drive is also driven by movement, however, it’s not triggered by a toy, it’s triggered by another dog or animal, and sometimes a person. Again you’ll find the vocalization to be very high-pitched in nature. Many of these dogs are misdiagnosed as dog or human-aggressive because of the insane noises that they make when in this drive. To the untrained ear, they sound like they are going to kill something if they get off the leash and this is not typically the case with these dogs. These dogs struggle on a chemical level with massive levels of dopamine addiction.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (chemical) that activates the pleasure-seeking part of the brain making these behaviors feel really good. It’s also incredibly addictive which is why the dogs that struggle with this type of reactivity continue to seek this state. You’ll also notice the pain thresholds of these dogs will increase exponentially when in this drive. Many of these dogs are very sensitive to corrections and physical touch when they are not in this drive, then transition to a different mental state. Combine high pain thresholds with dopamine addiction and you often get dogs who redirect on their owners out of frustration. (I see this in boxers every freaking day…) These dogs make terrible decisions when in this state of overarousal.
They are most stimulated by movement, and they tend to be far past any threshold within moments of seeing the other dog. These dogs are visually stimulated which is why they all hunt for other dogs the moment they leave the owner’s front door. Visual scanning from side to side. Ears forward. Skin rolls tight like rippled chips on the dog’s forehead. Tail high or in a tight curl. As they get closer to the other dog, the hair will stand up on the back over the shoulders, and at the base of the tail. Many misdiagnose the standing of hair as fear when really it’s a reflection of extreme stimulation. Around this point, the breathing pattern starts to change dramatically. Short in duration, the deep breaths are now easy to hear because they are loud. This is called loaded breathing and it’s a physiological manifestation of the dog’s preparation to explode at the other dog. He needs all the oxygen he can muster.
Again, it starts with the scanning, the ears, the tail, the hair, and the breathing, and ends with the high-pitched cascade of musical wonder that results in dog owners never being invited to dinner parties.
For the most part, these dogs don’t desire to hurt or harm. However, the problem lies in the fact that dogs in this drive don’t care about what another dog or human wants or doesn’t want. Only needing to fulfill their desire for more dopamine.
Take this scenario for example: in the moment when this dog rushes over to another dog or human barking and lunging another dog or human is not going to take too kindly to that level of overstimulation and rudeness. What transpires tends to be two dogs on their back legs, teeth-gnashing, with plenty of vocal shenanigans. These are not fights, they are arguments and rarely result in stitches or blood, only four-letter words and several bottles of wine.
3: Acquisition drive. Have you ever seen a dog pin another dog on the ground? Many of my client’s dogs have done this in the past and the clients are always convinced that their dog was trying to kill the other dog. Ok, so he targeted the neck, but heck, he’s smart enough to know that if he targeted the tail, he’d never pin the dog on the ground. If he was trying to seriously injure the other dog, he had more than enough time to bite down once causing a serious injury but he didn’t. The desire of these dogs is to subdue the other dog without harming them. Most of these dogs are grumpy, male dogs that have an “ain’t nobody got time for that” response. They see toxic energy in another dog and try to de-escalate that energy without spilling blood.
4: Predatory aggression. This is scary stuff. These dogs kill people, dogs, and animals. What’s even more terrifying is the lack of ability for most dog trainers, vets, dog rescue folks and dog owners to notice it. These dogs are not vocal. They don’t freak out with high-pitch serenades. They are quiet, and they stalk like a leopard about to jump from a tree limb onto an unsuspecting animal. Most people can’t notice these dogs. I hate to be a breed-bashing lunatic but I’ve only seen this predation in livestock guardian dogs and bully-breed dogs. With the livestock guardians, it tends to be toward people and with the bullies, it is most often toward other dogs. With American bulldogs, it can be towards both people and dogs.
Often these dogs will let out a quick, guttural growl right before they attack and then put serious intensity into the lunge. These dogs are incredibly dangerous and they don’t alert the world to their motives. If one of these dogs attacks you, you, my friend, are done. Many of these predatory dogs can live with other dogs and people often without issue which is why it’s so hard to notice this drive in some dogs. The loud dogs are rarely the ones that you have to worry about.
The majority of dogs who get into fights, go into the interaction without that intent. These dogs have high pain thresholds, are pushy, and don’t care about what the person or other dog wants or don’t want and this is what creates the conflict. Their complete inability to care about what others want gets them into trouble. This article could discuss more complex ideas like territorial aggression and social justice warriors, but I’ll leave some of those topics for another post because they are not specifically related to predation.