Training Dogs And Humans For A More Enjoyable Life Together
By Susan Smith, East Valley Dog Training
There are no questions from readers, this week, so I’m writing about a topic that is not well understood by the public, but should be. Predatory drift is a concept first conceived of by Dr. Ian Dunbar, who is a veterinary behaviorist and spent many years at UC Berkeley involved in a study of dog behavior. To my knowledge, there has been no formal study of predatory drift, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that it exists.
The first thing to understand is the difference between predation and aggression. Predation is about food gathering; whereas, aggression is about protecting oneself and our property. So, as the name suggests, predatory drift is about food gathering and is not aggression. And, more importantly, it can happen with any dog – the nicest dog in the neighborhood can display predatory drift, under the right circumstances.
So, what is predatory drift? And why should you care? Predatory drift is when certain events which mimic movements or sounds that a prey animal might make, such as high-pitched noises, fast movements, etc. occur. Without any conscious thought, the dog’s predatory instincts are triggered and they go after whatever is making those sounds and/or movements.
Again, I want to stress that this is not an aggressive event – it’s food gathering. This phenomenon probably happens with most predatory species; however, there are a couple of reasons it’s a bigger problem with dogs than other species.
First, dogs live in our homes with us and are often expected to live peacefully with other animals and small children – both of which can trigger predatory drift. Children squeal, flap their arms and legs, and generally make prey-animal-type noises and movements. Then there are our pet cats, gerbils, hamsters, etc. – all of which would be prey to a wild-living predator such as a coyote.
Second, the size differential that humans have bred into dogs makes small dogs vulnerable to predatory drift in a larger dog. It only takes a moment for a Labrador Retriever to grab, shake, and kill a Chihuahua who is running past him at full speed in the dog park, barking a high-pitched bark. But, again – this doesn’t mean the Lab is aggressive to small dogs, as this is a food gathering behavior. Nevertheless, the smaller dog can end up dead or seriously injured.
There is no way to train for predatory drift – it just happens. Most dogs will go their entire life without ever having their prey drive triggered in this way. However, most of us who have dogs know that if a cat runs, the dog will chase it – and that is predation at work.
So, the purpose of this article is not to scare you, but to make you aware. If you own a small dog, play in the small-dog section of the dog park – that’s why it exists. If you have small children, supervise them when they’re around your big dog. You should be supervising small children around all pets, as unintentional harm can come to both the child and the animal, given the right circumstances.
If you have questions for the trainer, please send them to:
Susan Smith, CDBC, CPDT-KA, is a dog trainer in San Tan Valley, AZ, specializing in pet dog training as well as cat and parrot training—from obedience behaviors to serious problems such as aggression. She can be contacted at:
Sue is also the owner of Raising Canine, LLC which provides professional education to animal trainers.