By Linda Cole
If there’s one thing dogs do better than anything else, it’s searching out prey (or what they consider to be prey, anyway). A dog’s prey drive is what makes them good at searching, retrieving, search and rescue, herding or running. Working dogs have been trained to help us with difficult tasks that make our lives easier, and some can even do things better than us, or perform tasks we can’t.
No matter what breed of dog you have, all dogs have a prey drive. Anything moving will initiate their instinct to chase. Some dogs, however, have a stronger drive than others and they are the ones that excel in performing different jobs that help us. Responsible breeders are careful to make sure their dogs have the specific qualities and characteristics inherent in their chosen breed.
Using a dog’s prey drive during training can make the sessions more fun for you and your dog. Games of tug-of-war and tossing a ball or Frisbee are good motivators for some dogs, and you can use it to your advantage while training. After all, even dogs need a break from learning and rewarding them with a game of catch helps keep their prey drive satisfied. If a dog’s drive is strong and he has no way to release pent up energy, he becomes bored and may develop behavioral problems.
There are five parts to a dog’s prey drive: the search, stalking, the chase, the grab, and the take down. They see another animal, or an object like a ball, which begins the search. Eye contact initiates the stalking phase just before they begin the chase. When their “prey” is overtaken, they grab it and take it down. It doesn’t matter if it’s only a ball—each phase of their prey drive is real and the capture and kill have the same meaning to dogs whether it’s a ball or something else.
We use a dog’s prey drive to our advantage when we train certain breeds to do different “jobs” that aid us. Each specific job takes advantage of one of the five steps associated with a dog’s prey drive. Working dogs love having a job to do and thoroughly enjoy it.
Huskies and the Northern dog breeds love to run, and without their help to pull sleds loaded with supplies and mail to remote villages, Alaska would have been a much different environment to live in. Man was able to use the Northern dogs love of the chase in their prey drive to aid them by pulling heavy loads for miles at a time.
A good retriever will seek out whatever prey they are taught to chase. The dog is trained to stop at the capture stage and suppresses the last step in his prey drive. Returning a duck or rabbit to his human goes against his natural instinct, but because of specific breeding and training, a good hunting dog will bring back his quarry intact without any bite marks in the flesh of his prey.
Usually used for herding sheep and sometimes cattle, Border Collies are well known for their intense eye contact while stalking and chasing sheep. The portion of their prey drive that’s been modified through years of careful breeding is the capture and kill part. For them, they get satisfaction in stalking and chasing their “prey.”
Search and rescue dogs and drug or bomb sniffing dogs have a strong desire to search. Search and rescue dogs are sometimes required to perform for hours at a time when going through the rubble after an avalanche, earthquake or other natural disaster. It’s a job that can be discouraging, and the best dogs are the ones with an extremely high prey drive who love to search.
A Bloodhound will happily plod along following a scent, never giving up until he either finds his prey or loses the scent. For him, following his nose gives him joy and satisfaction. And a beagle loves the chase and has a dogged determination to corner his prey. Excited baying when he’s located it is all the reward he needs. Like any good search and rescue dog, Bloodhounds and Beagles also use their love of the search to root out “prey.”
Years of responsible breeding and training has taken the prey drive in dogs and turned their instincts and what they love to do to our advantage. Using dogs who were born to retrieve, herd, search or run benefits both man and dog when we allow a dog do what he does best.
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