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Predatory Drift - What is it? How to avoid it!

Updated on June 7, 2013

Dogs are amazing animals. They are playful, curious, and more intelligent than we give them credit for. Thousands of years of selective breeding has created a spectacular variety of dog types---Large, small, loving, lazy, feisty, active, and unique. All dogs, regardless of their breed or size, possess similar ‘hard-wired’ instincts that can present at the most interesting and unexpected times. “Predatory drift” is one of those behaviors that people may have seen in their own dog or another dog, but may not understand. In the best circumstance, it is annoying, in the worst case, it can be dangerous and devastating. What is it? Can it be avoided?

Predatory drift originates from a dog’s ancient instinct to hunt and kill prey. It is a hard-wired behavior that can be triggered in any dog. It is prey drive----hunting and killing for food--- in pure form and should not be confused with aggression, which is fighting between dogs, usually based out of fear or defensiveness. In modern society, most pet dogs don’t have to kill for their next meal. The behavior is still there, but now it presents in a new way. Most pet owners have experienced predatory drift between two dogs. One dog is triggered to attack another dog. Once the predatory trigger starts, the behavior continues to its end, often with disastrous consequences to the victim dog.

Predatory drift commonly starts with play but then escalates to more predatory behavior, like stalking, chasing and biting. It also most commonly occurs when large dogs are playing with small dogs. They may seem to play well to start, but then the play escalates and the predatory instinct kicks in and the large dog ‘goes in for the kill’. Sadly, the smaller dog is often mauled or killed.

It is important to understand that selective breeding has modified the predatory process so some breeds, like Border Collies, may ‘herd’ and ‘stalk’ but don’t follow through with an actual attack. There are many breeds that may enjoy the chase, but once they ‘catch’ their prey, they have no idea what to do with it! Other breeds, such as working rat terriers, have been bred and trained to hunt, attack and kill (usually small vermin) with stealth efficiency These dogs are called ‘Finishers’. Some breeds are more ‘hard wired’ to be Finishers, but the behavior is possible in all dogs. Dogs who have had a positive experience with the entire predatory process are the most likely to shift into predatory drift behavior around other dogs.

The challenge with preventing predatory drift is that the behavior is often spontaneous and the dog may have never had any history of aggression toward another dog, until that moment. How do you prevent something you’ve never seen before? Here are some important tips to prevent predatory drift in your pet dog:

  1. Acknowledge the idea that any dog has the potential to display predatory drift behavior, even your dog.
  2. Avoid having large dogs play with little dogs. There is a good reason doggy day care centers and dog parks have segregated play based on size. Even if the large and small dog live together, there is potential for this behavior to occur so every precaution should be taken to manage and protect the smaller dog.
  3. Be aware that predatory drift is often triggered by a dog running, squealing or whining in fear. Think about it…they are acting like ‘prey’!
  4. Predatory drift can also occur when 2 dogs ‘gang up’ on a 3rd dog. Monitor play between multiple dogs very closely and intervene when play escalates to more aggressive or predatory behavior like stalking, intense chasing, and vocalizing.
  5. Dogs with a history of being ‘finishers’, should be very closely monitored and managed. This means concentrated observation of this dog around all dogs and tethering (controlled access to other dogs). If this dog enjoys, and has succeeded with predatory drift, strong consideration should be given into sequestering this dog from other dogs, particularly those dogs that trigger the PD behavior. This type of dog cannot be trusted. Further, dogs that are not known ‘finishers’ but have a strong predilection toward targeting and chasing dogs, particularly small dogs, should be closely managed. The risk is way too high for this type of dog to trigger into predatory drift and severely injure another dog.
  6. If you suspect your pet dog may lean toward this problem behavior and want help, please contact a professional dog behavior specialist for help!
  7. Be aware, be cautious and keep your dog and his playmates safe! He is still just a dog!

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