All About Prey Drive in Dogs

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Are you curious to know why your dog loves to chase squirrels or rabbits around the house or park? If outings with your dog are chaotic because of their tendency to chase other animals, or if your sweet pup has ever horrified you by bouncing up with a wiggling rabbit in their mouth, you might have a dog with a strong prey drive. Here's everything you should know about prey drive in dogs and what you can do to manage it in your pooch.

Why Does My Dog Chase Squirrels?

Basset hound looking up at a squirrel in a tree.While dogs have evolved away from being predators, most have retained the ability and desire to hunt. Thanks to breeding, this drive to hunt manifests itself in different ways in different breeds.

Dogster explains that the prey drive involves five different behaviours: searching, stalking, chasing, biting to grab and biting to kill. Among the dog breeds with a high prey drive, these behaviours manifest differently according to breed. Herding breeds, for example, have a strong chase instinct, while hounds like to stalk and flush out prey.

Terriers originally bred to hunt and kill rodents and other small game still possess a strong drive to do so. Of course, not all dogs have a strong prey drive, and many dogs are content to express whatever mild predatory instincts remain through play, such as chasing a ball or shaking the stuffing out of a toy.

Prey Drive vs. Aggression

While a strong prey drive can sometimes look like aggression — especially to your dog's prey — there is a key difference that is important in understanding your dog's behaviour. Dog aggression is driven by strong emotions, such as fear, says Positively, whereas prey drive is instinctive.

Another key difference is that aggressive dogs desire to increase distance between themselves and the object of their aggression. When operating under the influence of their prey drive, dogs are seeking to get closer to their target. This is good news for dog parents of dogs with strong prey drives, because it means that since there isn't an emotional component to overcome, prey drive is often easier to manage than emotion-based aggression.

Can a Strong Prey Drive Lead to Behavior Problems?

A strong prey drive in dogs can be a problem if it means your dog chases anything that moves. While this can be fun when you're up for a game of fetch, it's not such a good time when you're out for a walk and your pup tries to tear after every squirrel, rabbit or cat that wanders into their peripheral vision.

If not properly restrained, dogs with a strong prey drive may also engage in dangerous behaviour, such as chasing cars, says Dogtime, and your dog may be so focused on prey that they ignore your commands or refuse to come when called. Unfortunately, small pets, such as rodents, birds, cats and even small dogs, may not be safe around a larger dog with an overactive prey drive.

Can Prey Drive in Dogs Be a Good Thing?

Australian shepherd herding four sheep.Prey drive also has a positive side. The term prey drive primarily refers to a dog's level of excitement or motivation to perform a task involving hunting-related behaviours or going after an object, says The Bark. This drive can be immensely useful in training dogs for agility or for military and police K-9 jobs.

It's also the reason herding dogs are good at herding livestock and why hunting dogs are good hunting companions. In a domestic setting, your dog's prey drive might make them more playful and active, and also might make them helpful in keeping down the unwanted rodent and pest population, depending on how their prey drive manifests.

Which Breeds Have a Strong Prey Drive?

Generally speaking, dogs bred to either hunt or to herd have the strongest prey drives. These include dog breeds in the herding group, such as Australian shepherds and border collies; terriers such as the Airedale and the bull terrier; hounds such as beagles and greyhounds; and sporting group breeds that include retrievers, spaniels and pointers.

Some working group breeds, such as Siberian huskies or boxers, although not specifically bred for hunting or herding, nevertheless possess a strong prey drive and may require close supervision around smaller pets.

Managing Your Dog's Prey Drive

While certain aspects of prey drive in dogs range from somewhat annoying to borderline out of control, most of the time a strong prey drive is relatively harmless. In these cases, to curb the annoying behaviours, engaging your dog in play that involves chasing, catching and retrieving, like playing fetch with their favorite tennis ball, can provide a healthy outlet for these instincts.

Involving your pooch in agility sports is another positive and fun outlet for your pup's prey drive. However, if your dog's prey drive leads them to engage in behaviours that compromise either their own safety or that of other animals, you may need to take additional steps to protect your dog and your neighbourhood. In addition to engaging your dog in sports and play, the dog training site Positively recommends the following:

  • If possible, keep your dog confined to a fenced-in area of your garden. Otherwise, never allow your dog outside without a lead.
  • Always use a lead when walking your dog in public areas.
  • Only allow your dog to walk off-lead in areas where there are no dogs, cats or children present, and do so only after your dog learns to reliably come when you call.
  • Never allow your high prey instinct dog to interact with children or other dogs or pets without close supervision. If you have child or dog visitors, it may be necessary to confine your dog to another room or keep on a lead even while inside.
  • Be sure vaccinations are up to date and that you have relevant documentation to prove it. If your dog is bitten by a critter they tried to chase, that will be one less thing you'll need to worry about.

While we often like to think of our dogs as children on four legs, the fact remains that they possess animal instincts that can make them unpredictable. While your dog's prey drive has a lot of positive aspects, you should learn how to manage it as early as possible for their happiness and safety.