Canine Instincts – Prey Drive

“In all predators the prey drive follows an inevitable sequence: Search (orient, eye); Stalk; Chase; Bite (grab-bite, kill-bite); Dissect; Consume. In wolves, the prey drive is complete and balanced, as it utilizes the whole range from search to kill, ending in the consumption of the prey.

In different breeds of dog certain steps of these five have been amplified or reduced by human-controlled selective breeding for various purposes. The “search” aspect of the prey drive, for example, is most valuable in detection dogs such as bloodhounds and beagles. The “eye-stalk” is a strong component of the behaviors used by herding dogs. The “chase” is seen most clearly in racing dogs such as Greyhounds and Lurchers, while the “grab-bite” and “kill-bite” are valuable in the training of terriers.

In many breeds of dog, prey drive is so strong that the chance to satisfy the drive is its own reward, and extrinsic reinforcers are not required to compel the dog to perform the behavior.”

– Wikipedia (Prey Drive)

As I was researching instinctual human behavior for the DireWolf Guardians Philosophy of Dog Training book coming out soon from DireWolf Publishing, I found this Wikipedia article on inherited instincts in dogs. Apparently, human instincts are much too controversial to make a consistent list of instincts passed down genetically in Homo sapiens, but researchers and scientists identified one human instinct in common, namely that people are congenitally afraid of snakes and spiders. Even infants as young as 3 months old show this fear. The thought is that the fear of snakes and spiders evolved as a way for humans to survive through the ages, so we have developed a strong aversion to them that lingers in our genetic make-up even now. 

In dogs, however, there is wide-spread consensus that the species Canis is hard-wired for prey drive, or hunting instinct. That makes sense as dogs come from wolves that are built to be quite effective super predators. However, what I found fascinating and novel in my own limited understanding of the intricacies of prey drive were the five distinct aspects of prey drive that appear to be inherited separately: search, stalk, chase, bite, dissect, and consume. 

The fact that certain dogs have more or less of these particular five pieces of the puzzle that come together to form the dog’s hunting instinct directly correlates to the idea that each of these are inherited separately and can be selected for or against in breeding. The sight-hounds clearly exhibit a superior chase instinct that is combined with their body type to produce swift runners. The Border Collie and its famous stare harken to an ability to tease out the stalking part of prey drive in dogs. The Malinois and other  protection breeds have been perfected the bite portion. The Blood Hound appears to have perfected the searching aspect of the hunt.

If it is possible to deliberately and specifically breed for a certain aspect of the prey drive instinct in the canine, would it then stand to reason that it could also be possible to deliberately and specifically breed against a certain aspect of the hunting instinct? Furthermore, could one breed against all of these instinctive traits in the domesticated dog, further pushing man’s best friend to evolve further away from its wild ancestral roots?

The Dire Wolf Project aims to find out. We do deliberately and systematically crossbreed to working dog breeds on occasions that require the breed to become more genetically diverse as well as to add certain health, temperament, and/or appearance traits that are currently lacking in the breed that are needed in order to move closer to our ultimate goals. But, through each crossbreed that enters the breed, we immediately and actively begin doing to work to breed against the working dog traits that make up the instincts found in the canine species. 

What do you think? Can it be done? Have you ever known a dog of any breed to be completely void of all prey drive instincts? What are your thoughts on if it would be beneficial for a dog to lose most of its prey drive instincts?

Let us know what you think in the comments below.

Jennifer Stoeckl is the co-founder of the Dire Wolf Project, founder of the DireWolf Guardians American Alsatian Dog Training Program, and owner/operator of DireWolf Dogs of Vallecito. She lives in the beautiful inland northwest among the Ponderosa pine forests with her pack of American Alsatian dogs.