Prey Drive and Play
Prey Drive and Play
Dogs are descended from wolves. In fact, they are so closely related that they can interbreed and create viable young. Being that wolves are predators, this means that dogs also have a formidable prey drive. They enjoy the hunt! Through the process of domestication we have exaggerated some behaviors in some dogs and limited those behaviors in others.
Wolves and other predators have a sequence of behaviors that allow them to hunt and kill their prey:
By exaggerating some aspects of this sequence, we have developed a variety of purpose-bred breeds. For example, herding breeds, such as Border Collies, are designed to go through stages 1-4 without ever progressing past the chase. Having your shepherd kill your sheep would not be helpful. In the same way, many small terrier breeds have been designed to exaggerate stages 4-7. This is why many of these dogs often grab and shake their toys similarly to the way they would decimate vermin and even rip them up.
What is prey drive? Prey drive is simply the instinct and inclination to find, pursue, and capture prey. While all dogs have this instinct to some degree, the inclination or motivation to follow through is really the issue. While some dogs are only motivated enough to take a few lazy steps towards a squirrel, others (like many sight hounds) can’t stop themselves from full out sprinting after small prey. Motivation and inclination are everything.
What does this have to do with play? Well, dog-dog play is generally a practice form of survival skills: wrestling mimics fighting, mounting mimics reproduction, etc. When it comes to hunting and prey, many dogs engage in chasing games. Chasing games that do not progress past the chase can be safe in some circumstances, particularly when the dog being chased invites the play. However, some dogs begin the chase sequence and then instinctively continue to grab and further the sequence. When dogs of similar size and disposition play together, this can lead to switch to wrestling style play or even jaw sparring.
The biggest dilemma arises when dogs of different sizes and strengths are allowed to engage in prey games. You will most often see this in dog parks, often with the smaller dog being brought into the large dog play area since they love playing rough or seem to play well with any large dogs they have been exposed to. This can lead to disaster. Even if a Jack Russell Terrier plays too rough for a Cavalier King Charles and seems to enjoy wrestling, they are still no match for a large terrier or retriever if things get out of control, even if they play regularly with a Saint Bernard or Rottweiler in other environments. All it takes is one high drive dog to cause a potential fatal mistake.
Separating dogs based on size AND play style is really key to creating safe play environments. Prey drive is innate to dogs; it’s not something that can truly be extinguished through training. Training can absolutely lead to better control and make a dog safer to be around other animals, but it only takes one training mistake or break in criteria for a dog to get very hurt. If you think your dog has a high prey drive, management and training should be a big part of your life together. Knowing who your dog should and should not be exposed to can set your dog up for success. Size and play style are critical in choosing appropriate playmates for your pet.
Head Trainer- Perfect Pooch
BA, CPDT-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator