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Understanding your dog's drives

Drives refer to the natural instincts that dogs are born with. If you are a client of ours you will likely have heard us talk about your dog's drives at least once. This is because it is so important to understand the drive that is fuelling your dog's behaviour in order to properly identify and address it. There are three main drives: prey, pack and defence.

Prey Drive

This represents a dog's natural instinct to find food. There are four main stages in the prey drive sequence and these are as follows

  • Hunting: this includes sniffing the ground and air, tracking, and scanning

  • Stalking: this involves the dog fixing their gaze on the "prey", slowing their movements or freezing, lying down or crouching and slowly approaching the prey. It also includes herding.

  • Catch: this includes chasing, catching and killing the prey

  • Consumption: the final stage involves eating the prey

Whilst prey drive is a natural behaviour and we never want to get rid of it, it can also be the cause of problems if you do not have control of it or your dog is prey driving on the wrong things such as people, dogs and cars. Most cases of reactivity come from prey drive, as well as issues with recall and pulling on the lead.

Pack Drive

Pack drive is often described as the opposite for prey drive. It is the desire of a dog to be with their pack members / family. Examples of this are when a dog follows you, recalls perfectly, walks to heel and offers eye contact easily. A dog with a high pack drive is generally easier to train than a dog with a high prey drive.

Defence Drive

This is the drive in between prey and pack and is based on an instinctual need for survival. Defence is split into fight and flight. A high defence dog means that the dog is more likely to go into fight (barking, reacting, biting etc) and a low defence dog means the dog is more likely to go into flight (running away). Then there is also what we call "freeze", where the dog hasn’t fully committed to either fight or flight and is almost stuck between what to do.

If your dog is nervous, then their reactivity may come from defence drive (fight) rather than prey drive, especially where they feel cornered and their option to flight has been taken away.

The impact of genetics and environment on drives

All dogs will have naturally differing levels of each drive, and this is largely due to genetics. For example, breeds such as the Labrador are often naturally high in pack drive, whereas breeds such as terriers are often naturally high in prey drive. Guarding breeds are often high defence dogs, and sighthounds are often low defence. However, it is still important to remember that genetics vary greatly even within the same breed and so whilst some Labradors are couch potatoes, it is not out of the question to have a highly prey driven Labrador (particularly if they are bred from working lines as opposed to show lines). This is why it is so important to choose a breed, and more importantly a specific breeding if you are buying a puppy, that is most likely to suit your lifestyle and training abilities.

The environment and a dog's learned experiences / behaviours can also have an impact on a dog's perceived drives. An easy example of this would be the low defence dog that is pushed into fight because it is trapped. Naturally, it would choose to run away but if it repeatedly gets put into this situation then it will start relying on fight as the only thing that works. On first look it might seem that you have a high defence dog, when in reality this is skewed by the dog's experiences.

Another, less common example would be a dog that disengages and sniffs a lot on walks. In this situation, it might appear that the dog has a high prey drive and low pack drive, but if they are very anxious and find life stressful then this could instead be an appeasement behaviour. An appeasement behaviour is where the dog communicates a desire that they don't want confrontation in the face of a perceived threat and includes behaviours such as sniffing, licking lips, turning away and showing their stomach. Once they grow in confidence then it may be the case that the dog is actually incredibly pack driven.

Applying drives to training

A dog's drives can be altered to an extent through training. We never aim to remove a drive completely because this would involve surpressing the dog and we do not consider this to be an ethical way of training. Instead, our aim is to be able to effectively get our dogs to switch between drives, and exercise some self-control.

Your dog is less likely to get into trouble when in pack drive, and so our aim in training is usually to encourage them from prey drive into pack drive. To do so they have to go through defence drive. To go from pack drive to prey drive your dog can, but doesn’t have to, go through defence. The exact way to do this depends on the strength of the dog’s defence drive and also how quickly they go into defence, so working out your dog’s drives shapes your approach to training them. For example, a dog that easily goes into defence is likely to need a softer approach because if you go in too heavy they will either shut down (low defence) or get into conflict with the handler (high defence). Defence drive is a stressful place for a dog to be, and so the aim of our training is to help them out of this drive as effectively as possible.

Whilst we work on increasing a dog's pack drive, we also want to give them an appropriate outlet for their prey drive. We believe that a holistic approach involves honouring your dog's breed and personality traits by giving them the opportunity to satisfy their genetic drives in a way that doesn't involve reacting to dogs, chasing animals and cars or redirecting onto the handler. This can help to reduce frustration and conflict, and is also an opportunity to practice having a high level of control over your dog even when they are in a high state of arousal.

An example of this is my boxer Harley, who can be described as a high prey drive, high defence dog. In order to allow him to express his inherent drives, which are typical of bull breeds, we train for a sport called GRC. This involves four events: the slat mill, spring pole, wall climb and weight pull and also requires high levels of control under the most exciting of distractions. If I was to not provide him with some sort of opportunity to express his prey drive he would be very frustrated and I would likely see his behaviour worsen as a result.

Another example might be a Collie. As we know, Collies have a natural instinct to herd, and this is the second stage of the prey drive sequence (stalking). A Collie with a very low prey drive would be an awful sheep dog as they would have no interest in sheep, whereas a good sheep dog is a dog that can take direction even when in prey drive, but doesn't go even further into the sequence by catching/consuming. A common behavioural problem that we come across in Collies is chasing cars, and this is the result of them inappropriately expressing their prey drive. In order to solve this issue we would want to work to increase their pack drive, whilst also offering them an opportunity to express their prey drive in a different way such as with a flirt pole or with sports such as flyball and agility.

It goes without saying that if you are going to deliberately put your dog into prey drive, you need to be able to switch back into pack drive again. If you can switch your dog "on" but not switch them off again, you will undoubtedly run into problems. Dogs adrenalise when they go into prey drive, and adrenaline is also the hormone that is released at times of high stress. Whilst the emotions in these situations are likely to be different, the physiological response is the same and a dog always in prey drive can soon become very highly strung and anxious.

To gain a better understanding of why your dog is acting a certain way, the first step is to figure out your own dog's drives. To help people do this, two canine behaviourists, Jack and Wendy Volhard, catalogued ten behaviours in each of the drives and created a "Canine Personality Profile". This is an incredibly helpful starting point and can give a very interesting insight into your dog's behaviour. Follow the link below where you can find the questionnaire and start gaining a deeper understanding into your dog's drives!



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