Prey Drive in Dogs

Victoria Schade, CPDT-KA
By Victoria Schade, CPDT-KA. Reviewed by Tiffany Tupler, DVM, CBCC-KA on Oct. 2, 2023
brown border collie running through grass

Sometimes it’s a shock when our furry best friend displays behavior that seems more primal than we’re used to. Stalking birds in the yard, trying to chase down deer, or catching small animals like rabbits or squirrels can remind us that ancestral instincts can live on within our domesticated dogs.

In fact, many of the fun behaviors we appreciate in our pups, like fetching balls, playing tug, and ripping up toys, have their origins in prey drive. It’s a natural behavior that can be thrilling for dogs but stressful for pet parents.

Key Takeaways

  • Prey drive is a dog’s innate desire to chase and capture prey.
  • Any dog can exhibit prey drive behaviors, not just those bred for hunting.
  • Pet parents must manage their dog’s prey drive to prevent accidents that can result from this behavior.

What Is Prey Drive in Dogs?

Prey drive is defined as our dogs’ inherent desire to engage in a chase-capture-kill sequence. While it may seem like an undesirable trait, it’s actually an instinctive pattern of behaviors for finding food. The full sequence includes the following stages:

  • Hunting: This initial step can include scenting the ground and air, tracking, and scanning.

  • Stalking: Once a target is identified, a dog might fix their gaze on it, slow their movements or freeze, assume a low or crouched position, and approach the target.

  • Catch: This is the “kill sequence” that can include chasing, the takedown, and shaking or choking the prey. That said, it’s not normal for domestic dogs to participate in a true “kill” phase.

  • Consumption: At its core, prey drive is about food acquisition, so the full sequence involves eating the prey. Again, domestic dogs shouldn’t participate in this phase of behavior.

Many dogs with strong prey drive may exhibit only parts of this sequence. For example, dogs who were bred to herd, like Border Collies, will engage in an exaggerated version of the stalking phase of the sequence to move sheep along, but won’t escalate to the attack phase. (That would make them very ineffective herders!).

What Dog Breeds Have a Strong Prey Drive?

While any dog can feel the pull to chase after rapidly retreating objects, there are certain breeds specifically selected for their adeptness in stalking and chasing skills. Dogs that exhibit some or all of the prey drive sequence include:

That said, prey drive isn’t limited to dogs that are bred for it. Under the right circumstances, even a lap-sitting Chihuahua might chase down a fence-breaching squirrel. Prey drive in dogs can range from mere hints of the behavioral sequence to an almost uncontrollable compulsion to engage in it.

Signs of Prey Drive in Dogs

Dogs with a high prey drive might engage in the following behaviors:

  • Chasing wildlife, such as squirrels, rabbits, and deer

  • Chasing other pets, including smaller dogs or cats

  • Chasing cars, bikes, and skateboarders

  • Trying to herd people or pets who are moving quickly

  • Digging in rodent holes

  • Obsessively tracking a scent

  • Fixating on birds, both on the ground and in flight

  • Killing small animals

When Is Prey Drive a Problem?

Prey drive becomes problematic when it poses risks to people, other animals, or the dogs themselves. A dog can become so fixated on pursuing prey that they can put themselves at risk by not being aware of their surroundings, such as running into the road in pursuit of an animal.

There’s a “natural high” that goes along with the instinctive predatory sequence, and the more opportunities a dog has to engage in predatory behaviors, the stronger their drive to perform these behaviors will become. Keep in mind that engaging in predatory behavior is fun for the dog. 

Prey drive in dogs can range from mere hints of the behavioral sequence to an almost uncontrollable compulsion to engage in it.

Intense prey drive can also be problematic if it hinders a dog from engaging in everyday activities. Some dogs will perform the stalking portion of the predatory sequence as cars pass by during walks and may spin in place because they’re unable to actually give chase. This behavior can be stressful on both ends of the leash, but it particularly affects the dog, who remains in an adrenaline-charged state of arousal throughout the walk.

How To Manage Prey Drive in Dogs

The first step in addressing a dog’s prey drive is to manage their behavior to prevent the dog from engaging in a potentially dangerous predatory sequence.

Keep Your Dog in a Fenced-In Area

Prevent your dog from dashing after animals by making sure that they’re only let outside in securely fenced areas. Dogs will often become stressed if they can spot prey, so a fence that isn’t see-through is best.

Electric fences or shock collars are not a safe solution for dogs with a high prey drive. Instead, supervise your dog whenever they’re outside and modify the behavior by rewarding calm, non-chasing behaviors.

Use the Right Walking Gear

Managing predatory behavior also involves walking dogs in a quiet area on a fixed-length leash and using a collar or harness that the dog can’t slip out of.

Introduce New Animals Carefully

Pet parents introducing a new animal sibling into a household with a prey-driven dog should carefully supervise any interactions between the animals, whether the new pet is a gerbil, a cat, or a puppy. Avoid leaving them alone together until you’re confident that the new addition won’t unintentionally become a target.

Always Practice Training

Polishing up a pup’s training is another line of defense when addressing their prey drive. Teaching a strong “leave it” cue to stop the sequence before it begins—or using a special “emergency” recall word that’s only used when a dog is on the brink of slipping into predator mode—can help deter a dog from progressing through the full sequence.

Allow the Dog to Safely Practice Prey Drive Behaviors

That said, engaging in some form of predatory behavior is a natural and enjoyable part of doghood, and trying to eliminate them completely can backfire. Mimicking the predatory sequence in controlled scenarios can allow a dog to engage in these satisfying behaviors without putting the pup—or the local wildlife—at risk.

Got a dog that loves the scenting part of the process? Try nose work games at home like “find the toy” and sign up for organized scenting sports that tap into that skill. What about a pup who always has an eye on the horizon? Sign up for lure coursing, which mimics the sensation of chasing down prey. Digging dogs, such as terriers, might enjoy channeling that desire into an organized sport, such as Earthdog.

While dogs with a high prey drive will likely require extra attention to keep them safe and happy, with thoughtful planning and attentive care, they can experience the exhilarating endorphin rush and other forms of satisfaction that the prey drive sequence offers, all without endangering themselves or small animals!

Featured Image: Adobe/Milan


Victoria Schade, CPDT-KA

WRITTEN BY

Victoria Schade, CPDT-KA

Animal Trainer


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