Prey Drive

First of all, let's clarify prey-drive versus chase drive. A prey driven dog will chase with a great deal of focus on the object it is pursuing and a definite goal of attaining access to its target. A chase driven dog will also chase but usually not with the same intensity or absolute drive to reach its target as the end goal. Many of you have done chase games with both types of dogs. The prey driven dog will drive as hard as it can until it reaches you and when it does you or your toy usually gets hit like a ton of bricks. The chase driven dog can be somewhat frustrating as it will chase you, but not with the drive or intense targeting behavior of the prey driven dog. This dog will often pursue the handler in chase games, but will run on by and not follow through to actually catch the handler. The chase driven dog usually does not exhibit the sudden increased burst of speed that a prey driven dog will when the handler increases their speed. Unfortunately, either tendency can lead to dog chasing and/or aggression (more so in the prey driven dog).

Prey drive is the instinctive inclination of a carnivore to pursue and capture prey, chiefly used to describe habits in dog training. In dog training, prey drive can be used as an advantage because dogs with strong prey drive are also willing to pursue moving objects such as toys, which can then be used to encourage certain kinds of behavior, such as that of greyhound racing or the speed required in dog agility. The prey drive can be an important component of pet dog training, obedience training and schutzhund as well.

Games such as fetch and tug-of-war, can be an effective motivator and reward for learning.

Prey drive is one of the most widely misunderstood aspects of the canine personality. Prey drive is NOT the same as aggression. This has been demonstrated scientifically using Electrical Stimulation of the Brain (ESB) studies. The part of the brain that controls predatory behavior is completely separate from the part of the brain that controls aggressive behavior. Predatory behaviors are fun for animals. Aggressive behaviors are not. This was also demonstrated with ESB studies. When given the choice, animals will push the button to stimulate the predatory part of their brain. When given the choice, animals will NOT push the button to stimulate the aggressive part of their brain. That tells us that predatory behaviors are enjoyable while aggressive behaviors are not.

ESB studies also show that all animals have a predatory part of their brain. In non-predatory animals, like rats, this part of their brain is never triggered (until they did it in a lab with ESB). Dogs are predators as well as scavengers, so that part of their brain does get triggered. A dog who chases and kills prey is doing what normal dogs do. Dogs and cats alike do not always kill for food. Chasing and killing prey are vestigial wolf behaviors. It's not necessary for the domestic dog's survival but lingers from their genetic roots, rather like our appendix! However, as anyone who has had a ruptured appendix knows, this vestigial behavior can cause serious problems.

When we make the decision to bring a predatory animal into our lives, we must accept that prey drive is part of who they are. When prey drive crosses the line from normal dog behavior to serious problem is when the dog is out of control. Dogs who escape their own fences and roam free in the neighborhood killing cats and sometimes even other dogs are a menace to society. Society holds dogs to a different standard than every other predatory animal. It is our responsibility as dog owners to be aware of that and protect our dogs. They could be labeled a dangerous or vicious animal for killing a cat, and it does not matter how irrational that is. For your dog's safety and for your personal liability (you could be sued, fined, or even jailed), make sure your dog is under control

Many people believe that dogs who kill cats will also kill children. This is a false assumption. Normal healthy pet dogs do not kill children and know the difference between a cat and a child. However, several dogs together who have not been fully raised in a domestic home environment can kill large prey such as sheep, goats, and cattle, and even children. Wolves are able to kill prey much larger than themselves because they hunt in packs. When a group of dogs get together, they can emulate this wolf behavior. 

Prey drive can also be a problem when you take your dog for a walk on leash, especially if you have a large dog. Dogs have approximately as much strength as a person 3 times their size. So, if you have an 80 pound dog and you are not a 240+ pound person, you will not be able to control the dog with strength alone. When a high prey drive dog spots a prey animal, something switches in their brain and all they are focused on is that prey. If they decide to take off for the chase, you could have your shoulder wrenched, fall on your face, lose your dog completely as he jerks the leash out of your hand, or all of the above! It is especially important with the high prey drive dog to have voice control of him.

Prey Drive cannot be eliminated in a dog. It can only be managed. One way to do that is to redirect it to appropriate outlets. The energy has to go somewhere, so you might as well control where it goes. You cannot turn your dog into a predator by playing these games. He already is one.

Prey drive in your German shepherd dog.

Levels of prey drive often vary substantially in different dogs. Narcotics detection dogs and search and rescue dogs must have enough prey drive to keep them searching for hours in the hope of finding their quarry (a find which is generally rewarded with a game of tug). Therefore, a dog with low drive will not make a successful detection or search dog, but a dog who is too high in prey drive may be unsuitable as a pet for a suburban home, as it may become bored and destructive when its high drive is not regularly satisfied.

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