Canine prey drive is the instinct that makes many dogs love to locate, pursue, and catch game. It’s a trait that has its roots in wolves, but that’s been honed through breeding over centuries. A strong prey drive, once integral for the animal’s survival, is now the trait that’s often the best predictor that a pup will make a good working dog in any field.
Man’s association with the wolf and, later, its domesticated descendants extends back more than 15,000 years. This relationship evolved first out of scavenging—wolves following nomads and living off their waste. But rest assured, man quickly recognized the gifts and abilities of these animals to hunt and track prey. Well before the shotgun, hunters in Europe pursued rabbits and fowl with falcons. And they used dogs to locate, pursue, and flush game for the birds much like they do for the gun. In today’s dogs, you can see prey drive in a number of different incarnations:
- Retrievers to fetch game.
- Hunting hounds to pursue foxes, raccoons, and other animals.
- Narcotics dogs that sniff out drugs.
- Border collies that herd sheep.
- Any dog that’s ever bolted after a squirrel.
But prey drive isn’t limited to hunting or even to working animals. Prey drive also translates into a dog’s motivation to perform. And as a testament to the selective breeding process that’s been honed over centuries, certain elements of prey drive have been deselected. Retrievers, for example, have been bred to pick up game but, contrary to a pure prey instinct, not to consume it. That trait is known as soft mouth. On the other hand, dogs used for hog and bear hunting have been selected for their instinct to catch, hold, and kill game as a pack.
Now if you’re thinking this doesn’t relate to you because you’re not in the business of pursuing feral pigs behind a pack of dogs, I’ve got news for you. Any of these traits—both desirable and not—can be present in shelter dogs of the type that commonly end up in homes. Evaluating a dog’s prey drive should be of paramount consideration to you in selecting a pet or a working dog alike. Does the untrained dog have any interest in thrown objects? Will he give them up after fetching them or does he clamp down fiercely?
CONTROLLING PREY DRIVE
The Wildrose training methodology is designed to bring out the natural abilities of dogs (instincts), apply controls, and forge a working relationship (bond) between the dog and the handler. This is where prey drive becomes important. We want to promote natural instincts like tracking, flushing, and retrieving, but control them so that the dog is looking to us for guidance and not bolting at the first sign of a bird. We accomplish this by establishing a positive relationship between the handler and the dog and relying on a training methodology that uses fulfillment of a dog’s natural desires as rewards for calm behavior. You give us what we want; we give you what you want.
This article originally appeared on Outside K9, the former dog blog of Outside magazine, on July 27, 2009.