April 04, 2016
Gentlemen, you're walking down the street and coming at you is a gorgeous woman. She's curvy, long legs and wearing a lacy black tank top. What you're feeling, that's prey drive.
It's something you're born with. And that's the way it is with pointers, too. But they are driven to find and point birds. If your dog has prey drive, even a little, you can make a bird dog out of him. If he doesn't, all the training in the world won't amount to a tinker's damn.
So exactly what does prey drive do for a dog? It gives him diligence in his search for birds. A dog that's driven to find game will hunt until he's bone tired, some too exhausted to continue.
He'll relentlessly parse the breeze until he finds the invisible thread of scent molecules that leads him to the bird he knows is there. And then, when he's pointed that bird, he'll immediately start looking for another.
Prey drive also gives a dog enthusiasm. Different breeds display this in different ways. But by and large, prey drive puts a sparkle in a dog's eye and a spring in his step.
In the field, his ground race is animated and exciting to watch. Dogs that command that kind of attention are irresistible; they draw you into their world.
But there are also things a strong prey drive can't give a dog. It won't, for instance, make him smarter, which is another innate quality all good dogs must have. And it won't give him speed, which is largely determined by the characteristics of the breed.
Americans value speed, so most of the well-established American breeds, as a broad general rule, are fleet of foot: English pointers, English setters, Brittanys, shorthairs, and so on.
Many of the European versatile breeds are slower and more methodical, but not because they lack prey drive. That's just how folks hunt across the pond.
Too Much Dog
I used to believe there was no such thing as too much prey drive in a dog, and although that's still an opinion I hold in the abstract, I've been forced by the real world to add a caveat or two.
Dogs with intense prey drive — think English pointers or setters on the horseback trial circuit — can be more dog than the average hunter can handle, the equivalent of trying to put a leash on a train. An experienced trainer has few problems with a dog like that; in fact, that's exactly the kind of dog he may be looking for.
But for the average guy who may train only three or four dogs in his lifetime, being yoked to an animal that explodes out of the back of the truck and immediately makes a 1000 yard cast can be a bit more shock and awe than he's equipped to deal with.
Most people will happily give up a few degrees of intensity in order to have a dog they can comfortably hunt over, and I can't say that I blame them.
A dog can also be so intensely endowed with prey drive that the instinct overrides its ability to learn. This too I've changed my opinion on over the years. Time was I thought a super strong prey drive would invariably lead to more birds, but then a pint-sized setter named Scarlet came into my life.
Scarlet is now pushing 13 and spends her days sleeping like an aging princess on the dog bed in my living room. But when she was younger, she was a bearcat. Scarlet's drive to find birds was so strong that, over the course of her life, she was continually in and out of the vet's office to undo the damage she'd inflicted upon herself in her all-consuming passion to find birds.
This was great at first. Like every other serious bird hunter, I love the passion that my dogs bring to the game. But Scarlet never seemed to learn from her mistakes. If finding birds on Monday meant jumping over a ten-foot bank onto a frozen stream bed and knocking herself silly on the ice below, she was more than happy to do the same thing again on Wednesday.
Unlike the Brittany I owned at the time, who learned from her mistakes and became a much better dog for it, Scarlet never really improved.
And there were days — lots of them — when her pell-mell charge through cover made her run right past birds that a dog with perhaps a tad less speed but a smidgen more intelligence might have stopped to puzzle out.
So now that you know what prey drive is — or at least, you know Carty's abridged version of the same — how do you get a dog that has it? There's one way and one way only: you buy a puppy from a top-notch breeding.
There's simply no substitute for good breeding. When I was a kid, along about the time the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower, you could probably buy a really good puppy for oh, say, fifty bucks. No more. In the realm of bird dogs, paying the money for a well-bred pup is the single most important purchase you'll ever make.
Although you can and should try to enhance the prey drive that a dog is born with, no amount of training can put back in that which doesn't already exist. You could, theoretically, train a German shepherd to hunt, but what kind of bird dog would it be? But a Brittany, a setter or a Pudelpointer with strong prey drive will, with no training whatsoever, still look for birds.
So now you've got a pup from a good breeding. How do you enhance the prey drive it already has? Here's what I do: I introduce it to birds. This can be done by taking your pup for walks and letting it point and chase any birds it runs across, but it's far more effective to plant birds yourself so you can control the entire learning process from beginning to end.
I start my pups young, sometimes as young as seven weeks, although 10 to 12 weeks is more typical. I put a pigeon in a small wire cage (I don't use a manual or electric trap until later) and lead in the puppy from downwind. If I get a point, great! If I don't get a point but the puppy acts excited and interested, also great!
If, on the other hand, the pup seems intimidated, I back off for a week or two and then reintroduce the bird again.
Once the pup is excited about the bird (I'm not too worried about whether it points it at this stage) I release the bird and encourage the pup to chase. Read what your dog is telling you and progress at a pace it's comfortable with.
Before long, you'll see your pup begin to actively hunt, coursing back and forth in the grass as he discovers that wonderful little nose he owns. Later, as you train and then hunt him, that prey drive will grow.
All this takes time, of course, months and months of it. But in my opinion, that process — watching a puppy develop into a hunter — is the stuff hopes are made of, and worth every minute of it.