Prey Drive?

Sorry, folks, there's no such animal.

When you introduce your pup to a crate, you are simply getting the pup used to it, not "socializing" it on or to the crate.

Lately I have been reading and hearing more and more hunting dog people referring to an enthusiastic dog as having a high "prey drive." I have received it in email questions on behavior so many times that I felt I should look into it.


The term came into use about 10 years ago when I first heard it being pandered about by obedience trainers. Now it has found its way into all the dog sports. It has been used by fly ball enthusiasts, the agility folks, guard dog trainers, search and rescue dog trainers, and even recently by police K-9 division handlers.

It used to be that the word "drive" alone was used to describe an enthusiastic dog. But "prey drive" has that "I'm so with it" ring, so much more knowledgeable, so wolf behavior-like. In reality, the term is behaviorally nonsensical.


Technically defined, "drive" is a postulated intervening variable to help explain why an animal's response to a given stimulus will vary when all apparent conditions are constant. It is a term used by ethologists (people who study animal behavior in the natural setting) to describe an internal physiological/neurological condition that alters an animal's readiness to respond and variation in the intensity/duration of that response.


The term "drive" was introduced in 1918 by Robert Woodworth to present an alternative to the concept of instinct proposed 10 years earlier by William McDougal. Obviously, the concept of drive is not the newest kid on the block, having been around for more than 90 years.

Woodworth distinguished between the energizing (drive) aspects of motivation and the directing aspects of motivation. He felt primary drives resulted from body tissue needs and secondary drives were derived from learned habits. So hunger and thirst were primary drives, while keeping clean could be considered a secondary drive.

Predation could be considered as a secondary drive perhaps, but prey can never be considered as any type of drive, only an object of predation. The ethologist Konrad Lorenz had similar notions of drive when he postulated (1950) that some sort of energy, specific to one definitive activity, accumulates and is stored while the activity remains quiescent, and that energy is then consumed in the discharge of the activity.

This theory was depicted in his classic hydraulic model. Eating dry or salty food, being deprived of water for several hours and strenuous exercise all act to build up energy (drive) we can call thirst, so when presented with water (Lorenz referred to the water as a releaser for the innate behavior of drinking), an animal will drink.

Thirst subsides as the animal drinks until it finally stops, satiated, or in an ethological framework, the energy is used up. The animal will not drink again until it has enough accumulated energy or drive to again respond to water by drinking. The amount of enough energy required to again drink when presented with water is referred to as the threshold of response.

Because drive is defined as an intervening variable, it cannot be described by the behavior it presumably controls. It would be neither meaningful nor useful to say that an animal drinks water because of a "drink drive." Instead we must postulate a thirst drive to describe how much the animal needs water.

The higher the thirst drive, the grungier the water an animal will tolerate. The gun dog having run for some time in a high temperature will slurp up warm, muddy water from a tire track, but at home, well rested and cool, he may turn up his nose if the water has been in the pan for more than five minutes.

Similarly, the higher the hunger drive, the harder an animal will work to get food and/or the less appetizing food it will eat. And that brings us to predation. A predator will work harder, take more chances, catch and eat less preferred prey as hunger increases.

Hunger increases as a function of hours or days of deprivation, among other things. It can be quantified by measuring blood sugar levels or other blood chemistry parameters. Externally it can be quantifiably tested by measuring how hard the animal will work to get food or the quality of food it will accept.

An animal preys upon another animal because it is hungry. It has an elevated hunger drive, but not a high "prey drive." A speedy little terrier doesn't run down a track, step on a pedal, catch a ball and quickly run back to a start point because it is hungry. Nor does a trained police dog attack the arm of the bad guy holding a gun or a baseball bat because it is hungry. Ditto a pointer speedily coursing a bird field -- again, it's not because the dog is hungry.

These things have nothing at all to do with predation or hunger and certainly are not "prey drive." When I hear the term "prey drive" I bristle, my hackles go up and I think, "Oh boy, here is another self-made behavior expert."

Predatory Myth
The domestic dog, including our hunting dog of today, really isn't a predator. It never was a predator. It is an opportunist and a scavenger. Had it been a predator, it would have eaten our prehistoric progenitors instead of hanging around them for scraps of wooly mammoth meat. So the next time your dog gets off the couch and does something -- anything -- with some enthusiasm, bite your tongue before waxing poetic and exclaiming, "Would you look at that prey drive!" Instead, simply call it what it is, a shot of enthusiasm.

As expected, the people who see "prey drive" in almost any action of their dog are the same ones who are throwing out phrases like "alpha role" and who go around "socializing" their dog on everything imaginable. We talked about the nonsensical aspects of the "alpha wolf" myth some months ago so we won't belabor it further. But I bristle nearly as much when I hear someone is "socializing" his/her dog on something as when I hear "prey drive."

Dogs and all animals, including humans, do socialize. To a behaviorist, "socialize" means two (or more) animals of the same species are engaged in some sort of social interaction so that there is a change in the behavior of at least one of them. Two dogs reciprocally sniffing under each other's tail are socializing. Even two dogs fighting are considered to be socializing.

I was fascinated by an article that appeared in a major dog magazine (not Gun Dog) and later was reprinted in a dog club newsletter. The article carefully explained the steps to go through to "socialize" your dog to his dog crate. I feel deprived by not seeing it done, and can't h

elp wondering how the crate responded.

Then there have been countless articles describing how to socialize your dog to people by walking it on leash around a busy shopping mall, or how to socialize your dog on other dogs by taking it to an off-leash park. Socializing is something dogs do with other dogs; it is not something that is done on or to a dog. Dogs can never be socialized on anything. Again, this is a misuse of legitimate behavior terminology.

What you really are doing when you introduce your dog to his crate is getting him used to it. Exposure to people at a mall is getting him used to people. Exposure to dogs in the park is getting him used to being around dogs.

The behavioral term for that is habituation. You are habituating the dog to a crate, to people, to dogs. Another term you could use for what you are doing is desensitizing, particularly if the dog is showing some fearfulness in any of these situations.

The thing you are not doing is socializing your dog on crates, on people or on dogs. Socializing is dogs meeting, sniffing each others' body parts, posturing, soliciting play or fight or sex.

If you need to bandy behavioral terminology about, please do it correctly, or better, use the common everyday words like enthusiasm to replace prey drive, or habituation to refer to getting dogs used to something--not socializing. This is what is taught in the introductory lectures in Animal Behavior 101.

There's an old saying, "Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt." We might paraphrase it like this: When describing a dog's behavior it is better to use common words and be thought un-cool than to fling around incorrect jargon and confirm one's ignorance.

For solutions to your dogs' behavioral problem or behaviorally related training problem, you can contact Ed Bailey at: edbailey@uoguelph.ca

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