Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
High Prey Drive in Dogs
So your dog has a very high level of prey drive. If so, you may be wondering why he is so oblivious to anything around him when he spots some type of prey. Forget about calling him, forget about shaking a bag full of his kibble, forget about dangling a slice of baloney by his nose. He is just totally absorbed by his favorite activity: that is, stalking, pouncing and chasing.
You may be green with envy when you notice how your neighbor's dog cares less about squirrels and how easily and readily he comes when he is called, while your dog is just in trance when he spots any sort of movement through tall grass. What gives? First and foremost, let's take a closer look into the definition of prey drive.
First Off, What is Prey Drive in Dogs?
Wikipedia claims that prey drive is "the instinctive inclination of a carnivore to find, pursue and capture prey." While dogs, unlike other species, are not obligate carnivorous, meaning they don't absolutely need meat because it's biologically essential for survival (as it happens in cats), given the choice, they are evolutionary geared towards meat-eating and therefore crave it.
While nowadays Rover is more likely to be a scavenger than a hunter in the real sense of the word, he may still be strongly attracted to anything that moves quickly, squeaks or chirps. This is something instinctive, deeply ingrained into his genetic core.
Prey drive in dogs is something that has a genetic component, but it can also be shaped by the environment the dogs lives in. Regardless, this drive tends to be pronounced in certain breeds than others.
Modified Versions of Prey Drive
It is said that prey drive follows a distinctive sequence that goes through distinctive behaviors.The predatory sequence encompasses: orienting, eyeing, stalking chasing, biting, dissecting and then finally consuming, but selective breeding in dogs has led to a modified version of prey drive in many dogs.
The herding dogs may therefore eye, stalk and chase, but do not end up biting, dissecting and consuming the herds of sheep, otherwise that would be disastrous to the shepherd!
The retriever breeds retrieve downed fowl with their mouths, but do not exert pressure so to avoid putting bite marks and spoiling the meat they retrieve for their masters.
The hounds will mainly just track scent and pave the path to prey for hunters.
The pointers quietly stalk, observe and then point with their leg lifted and muzzle directed towards the bird, but do not chase giving time for the hunters to cast a net over the birds or shoot.
Spaniels instead specialize in flushing birds out of bushes, so the hunter can shoot at them.
Exceptions to the Rule
While the prey drive sequence has been truncated through selective breeding in many dog breeds, some breeds were purposely bred to complete all or almost all the whole sequence.These dogs are often referred to as "finishers."
For instance, some terriers were bred to hunt and kill vermin in mines and textile mills and many sight hounds were used to detect movement, chase, capture, and kill prey courtesy of their speed.
In the list of dogs with high predatory drive below, you will indeed find many terriers and sight hounds. Therefore, depending on your dog's genetic makeup, you may see more or less prey drive, but no black and white generalizations can be made.
Even the average mutt or the most docile house dog may be intent in chasing and some dogs kill cats or other animals given the opportunity.
20 Dog Breeds With High Prey Drive
- Afghan hound, a sight hound kept as hunting dogs and currently used for lure coursing
- Airedale Terrier, utilized for hunting, rabbits, hare, fowl and other small animals by retrieving game killed by his master, or directly killing the animals and, bringing them back himself.
- Alaskan Malamute, used to hunt large predators such as bears.
- Australian Terrier, bred to eradicate mice and rats.
- Bedlington Terrier, prized hunting dog of foxes, hares and badger.
- Bolognese, kept on ships to hunt rats, and mice.
- Border Terrier, used for bolting fox gone to ground and to kill rodents.
- Borzoi, sight hounds that will chase anything that moves
- Chihuahua, bred for hunting small game. In the desert, these tiny dogs hunted rats, mice, and lizards.
- English Foxhound, as the name implies, this breed was bred for hunting foxes.
- Fox terrier, bred to chase quarry into burrows and dens
- Greyhound, bred for hunting in the open nu using is valuable eyesight.
- Ibizan Hound, bred to to hunt rabbits and other small game by by scent, sound and sight.
- Irish Wolfhound, bred as hunting dogs by the ancients
- Italian Greyhound, have been used for hunting rats or mice.
- Pharaoh Hound, a breed that has been traditionally used by Maltese men for hunting rabbits.
- Saluki, "sight" hounds, which that hunt by sight, chase, catch and kill or retrieve.
- Scottish Deerhound, a sight hound, once used to hunt the Red Deer Whippet, a sight hound used to catch rats, and hunt rabbits
- Siberian husky: these dogs were bred for sled-pulling, but in the cold winters were released to hunt critters
- Yorkshire terriers, these small dogs have excitable prey drives as they were used as "ratters" in clothing mills.
And of course, there are many more!
Why Do Dogs Have High Prey Drive?
As owners, we often get frustrated with dogs who won't listen when they detect any sort of movement and we may be shocked too see our dog chasing or killing innocent animals as birds or bunnies, but likely that's because we are likely engaging in anthropomorphic thoughts, giving dogs human traits they do not possess.
An Instinctive Behavior
Truth is, left to their own devices, given the skill, some dogs would likely hunt and kill given the opportunity, and like it or not, this is instinctive and linked to survival. However, this doesn't mean we should unleash our dogs and let them be, there are many ways to channel predatory drive without hurting other animals.
First off, let's better understand what happens in the dog's mind when he detects prey, and afterward, let's look at productive ways to channel this drive.
You may wonder why your dog is so focused on prey when you can just serve him a bowl of food without the need to stalk, chase, pounce, dissect and kill. Truth is, dogs are different from us. We may enjoy meat that can be popped in the microwave and ready to eat within minutes rather than going hunting, some dogs instead remain often hunters at heart.
From early puppy hood, you will notice how play often entails hunting behaviors such as stalking, pouncing and shaking toys as if they were prey. No puppy learns this type of play, it is instinctive. There is belief that play behaviors in dogs are practice sessions to refine their future hunting skills.
If you look at it analytically, you will notice that prey drive in dogs is something so strong, they lose self-control, and risk putting themselves in peril if not supervised. You may have a dog run into traffic just to chase a squirrel, a dog jump into a lake to catch a bird or a dog run into a bush full of thorns just to hunt rabbits. Behaviors they would probably not engage in if they weren't hunting. But there is more than that...
What Happens in the Dog's Brain?
If you think your dog is in trance when he spots prey, he's pretty close to that. According to dog trainer David D. Cardona, when hunting, dogs reach an emotional natural high as the neurochemical ‘dopamine’ ends up sending endorphins throughout the dog's body. The hunting action itself therefore, becomes addicting and self-reinforcing.
Trying to stop a dog with high predatory drive from chasing is very difficult and can be frustrating. David D. Cardona claims that owners should accept that they will never take the chase instinct out of the dog. It's will always be there. If we think of it, it doesn't make sense and is unfair to want to stop a hound from chasing, when these dogs were selectively bred to chase in the first place!
Often, owners may try to make themselves interesting or may try to offer treats, but unfortunately, these forms of rewards may not compete well with the adrenaline rush associated with the hunt. After all, in the past no hunter would have wanted their hunting dog partners to get distracted by their presence or the smell of food! They wanted dogs who were totally focused on the task and made effective hunters.
So what's left to do if you are dealing with a dog with high predatory drive? Not all is lost. Fortunately, there are ways to channel this energy for your benefit. Skilled trainers like dogs with high drive, since once they find ways to channel their energy and drive, they can utilize that energy, focus and determination with success in many doggy sports.
Rewarding Voluntary Check-ins
Channeling High Predatory Drive in Dogs
If dogs receive a high when they stalk, pounce and chase, you may struggle in getting your dog's attention. The good news is that there are several strategies that you can use to provide an outlet for that high predatory drive.
Stimulate Prey Drive With Toys
You can try to recreate part of that same high by getting your dog focused on toys. A ball or a Frisbee may mimic the erratic movements of prey.
The best part is that, unlike prey, the dog will be actually more successful in catching these items so it also helps release frustration that may build-up when the dog is unable to catch prey.
A game of tug may also be a good way to release the need to catch, grab and bite. Many dogs who excel in the canine sports of disc dog, fly ball, agility, coursing and nose work are dogs with high predatory drive.
Start Training in Low Distraction Areas
Dealing with a dog who has high predatory drive requires obedience training around strong distractions. It always helps to start in low distraction areas with the dog under threshold. Initially, you may need to keep your dog on leash or on a long line and at a distance from anything the elicits predatory drive.
The dog may be taught to focus, with the dog being rewarded for looking at the owner versus trying to search for prey. I personally like to reward high- predatory dogs for making eye contact with high-value treats. If the treats are high value enough, the dog should be making eye contact more and more.
You can then raise criteria, and get closer to the areas where the dog rehearses predatory behaviors, up to the point of being off leash and being able to focus. In many instances, sending your dog back to resuming his predatory behavior of sniffing and exploring may be the best reward!
Rock Tossing Games
If you further want to up your training a notch, if you happen to be in an open field, you can add distractions by using my method of tossing rocks in the tall grass. Your dog will orient towards that noise, and you can work on focus exercises despite this distraction. Of course, any time your dog doesn't respond, it means that your dog isn't ready for that level of training yet! Take a few steps back!
With a foster dog I worked with last year who had a very strong predatory drive, at one point I had my hubby dragging a stuffed animal in tall grass to mimic prey, as we worked on focus exercises.
Reward Voluntary Check-Ins
Sometimes, dogs do not realize that sticking by you can be rewarding. They simply do not know. You can walk your dog around the yard on a long line and reward him for sticking by your side and looking at you. If you do this often enough, a time may come where even off leash he will still stick by your side now and then, versus being completely oblivious to your presence.
Voluntary check-ins are also important to reward. When your dog is with you out in the yard, make sure you always reward those times where he heads your way and checks on you. This will overtime, strengthen your bond.
When I used to teach group classes, we often had during the first day of class the owners walking around with their dog off leash. Often the dogs wandered around and weren't much aware where their owners were, even when the owner was out of sight for a few seconds. At the end of class, we repeated this and it was impressive how focused their dogs were this time, following the owner around and always keeping an eye on them. It was evident that they had bonded together over the 8-week class.
Create the Foundation For a Strong Recall
After your dog has learned to make eye contact with you and regularly checks in with you, he is ready to learn the basics for a successful recall. Of course, calling your dog when he is actively hunting would be setting him for failure, so at first you will have to be picky on when you call your dog.
If you take your dog out first thing in the morning in your yard to explore, give him time to sniff around and monitor the changes that have occurred from yesterday. Yes, your dog notices changes. There may be new bird poop in the yard, the bunnies may have left new scent on a path and your dog may want to relieve himself and mark. Let him explore his environment.
Then, after a while, you will notice he is content with his exploration and may be less intent in sniffing/searching/marking. This is a good time to call him from a close distance.
Make the Indoors Stimulating
Many dogs with high prey drives find the outdoors very interesting and reinforcing so they may dread coming back inside. Calling these dogs to come indoors may feel almost like punishment.
I personally, like to protect my recall by not over using it, and I invest in other cues to get the dog to come back inside after venturing to the yard. I may suddenly run and head back inside, which often leads to the dog following me.
You can even put going back inside on cue by saying something like "let's go back inside" in a very happy voice, then, once you open the door, let a rainfall of treats fall from your hands so your dog can go on a fun "treasure hunt games."
Day after day, the dog looks forward to coming inside versus dreading it as it ends all their searching, sniffing and hunting activities.
So make sure to make the inside a place where your dog can engage in rewarding activities that stimulate his mind. Try to get your dog interested in foraging. For more on this read my hub on "dog foraging." Yes, horses, cows and goats aren't the only animals to forage, dogs do too! Fill up a bottle with his food and have him work for it, or fill up a Kong Wobbler and let him spat it with his paws.
Use flirt poles to engage him play, there are so many good ways to keep these dog's body and mind stimulated, the sky is the limit!
Here are also some tips on how to to teach a dog to love the indoors if he's gaining too much reinforcement from the yard: tips for getting a dog to love the indoors more.
So are dogs with high predatory drive a problem? It may be depending on your dog's level of arousal and excitability, your training goals, your experience and/or your willingness to try things on your own or try to work with a trainer.
Rest assured that if your dog is very motivated and completely focused on a lizard in a bush for a long time, that same dog is likely also blessed with the desire to be focused on any other activity you are able to provide, as long as you make it fun and worthy by stimulating his prey drive!
Outlets for Dogs Breeds High Prey Drive
These dogs have a strong desire for digging
These dogs have a strong desire to sniff
These dogs have a strong desire to chase
These dogs have a strong desire to carry items
Provide a digging pit
Hide kibble around the home and let your hound hunt
Encourage to chase toys
Train dogs to pick up toys
Hide toys in between blankets
Play hide and seek games
Provide a sturdy exercise ball for herding
Play fetching games
Enroll in earthdog trials
Enroll in canine nosework
Enroll in the sport of Treibball or herding trals
Enroll in field trials
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2014 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 05, 2014:
Many dogs love, love, love the Kong Wobbler and the regular Kong strategically stuffed. Many high prey drive dogs love toys that resemble animals, but the bad part is that the love to break them apart and de-gut them! So many dogs ingest the squeaker which may cause a blockage.
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on June 05, 2014:
I have two dogs with predatory instincts. One is okay as she chases only mice and cockroaches. The other goes after rats, rabbits and kittens, so she's a problem. Your advice on the kong is very good. Will have to find one in the Philippines
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 04, 2014:
LOL epbooks! I just got a visual of your dogs living with the bunnies. My dogs are intrigued by the rabbits living on our property, but at the end they only get to enjoy their droppings. Kaiser at times wakes up early in the morning and whines by the door. I discovered there's a bunny that stops near the door and likes to decapitate every morning a different plant. So far has killed all my geraniums and this morning even had a taste of my lavender ;(
Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on June 04, 2014:
Great advice. My one loves to chase rabbits, but never catches them and gives up (which I'm happy about), but the other two could care less. If a rabbit was right next to them, they'd just accept him into the pack! LOL
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 04, 2014:
Yes, the excitement is there, and it's also contagious. If say one of my dogs notices some critter, my other dog will go as well to check and take part in it.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 04, 2014:
My rotties have given up chasing wildlife as they too understood they aren't fast enough. Many of our doggy guests with high prey drive though will try to catch lizards birds, and the occasional rabbit, but they are never successful (fortunately).
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on June 04, 2014:
A great look into the life of dogs here and their ways of attacking prey. Looks a fair amount of excitement between two dogs.
Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on June 03, 2014:
Very interesting read. Mine just like digging for moles. They would love to catch a rabbit or squirrel, but they just aren't fast enough. I won't let them go after cats, although I have often had to hang on to that leash for dear life!