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Prey Drive: Fact or Fiction?

Some people feel that the word “drive” doesn’t actually explain an animal’s behavior. In one sense, it’s an oversimplification to say that an animal is behaving a certain way because of an internal state or a change in that internal state. We know that an animal’s motivation changes over time and that different members of the same species behave differently in the presence of identical stimuli, but we don’t often know why. So, the term is more descriptive and less explanatory than it purports to be. A label such as “prey drive” is essentially a shorthand way to describe what we don’t understand since we don’t have complete knowledge of dogs’ internal states and their effect on behavior.

Another problem with prey drive is that it is often used in an attempt to explain a dog’s unwanted behavior toward other dogs and even people,neither of which are normally objects of canine predatory focus. We’ve all heard people dismiss a dog’s inappropriate, undesirable and sometimes even aggressive behavior with the comment that the dog has a high prey drive. It sounds so much nicer than saying that the dog has little impulse control, a far-from-ideal temperament or has not been the beneficiary of sufficient training.

Criticisms of the phrase may be a predictable result of the fact that often, when terms are appropriated from other fields, they are used in a slightly different way. The current meaning of terms in our field may not match their original use, which can cause confusion and thus, a tendency to consider that the way the terms are being used is “wrong.”

Overall, the terminology employed to describe canine behavior is messy, perhaps in part because dog behavior encompasses a number of disciplines, among them ethology, evolution, physiology, neurobiology, sociology, psychology, learning theory and animal husbandry.

For example, the words “operant conditioning” can mean something different to those involved in the dog world than they do to those who study learning theory. Many dog trainers use the phrase with its original meaning in mind: the modification of behavior through the use of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment. Others use it as a synonym for positive reinforcement alone; when these people say they train using operant conditioning, they mean that they use positive reinforcement. However, in the field of learning theory, positive reinforcement is only one part of operant conditioning. Similarly, the concept of drive, which comes from the academic discipline of ethology, has come to mean something different, though related, in the world of dogs.

It’s wise to acknowledge that terms have to be considered in context. Would it be better if no such confusion ever arose and multiple meanings didn’t exist? Sure, there would be advantages, but the reality is that languages change, as do fields of study and their associated terminology.

Cultures vary in the way they accept and integrate shifting meanings in the language used to describe the world around them. On one extreme, the French are well known for their strong national pride in the stability of their language, and the great importance they place on maintaining le bon usage (the correct usage) and resisting change, particularly Anglicisms. At the other extreme is the surfer culture with its enthusiastic proliferation of new words and phrases such as “tubular,” “hang ten,” “in the soup” and “goofy footed.” Americans generally accept new words and phrases easily, accounting for the rapid spread of “going postal,” “cougar,” “to be plutoed” and, most recently, “Tebowing.”

So where does the dog community stand collectively in our tolerance for changes in language, new terminology and the appropriation of terms from other fields into our own lexicon?

Many people love new terms. They enjoy referring to “predatory drift” and “reactivity” (the term “aggression” used to suffice), and they happily accept “prey drive.” Others would greatly prefer to hear that a dog is enthusiastic about agility or fly ball, or that the dog is motivated to run the course, take the jumps or retrieve a ball.

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Submitted by Russell Hartste... | June 24 2012 |

This article is very well written and had me chuckling throughout. With the downfall of precise nature of the human language, and the ascent of the urban dictionary, many times I feel it is a monumental challenge to change people’s bad habits. Owning Miami dog training It is far easier to change dogs behaviors than humans :) Ahh, the prosodic of speech… how important it all is. I thought for a second I was reading Roger Abrantes, haha. You are both wonderful. Russell Hartstein CPDT-KA

Submitted by Lee Charles Kelley | December 5 2012 |

Hi Dr. London,

I wanted to write a piece on the importance of using a dog's prey drive in training for my blog at PsychologyToday.com, and was hoping I might be able to get a look at your article on using play to help dogs with aggression issues. I sent you an email but never heard back. (Perhaps I was using the wrong email address?)

At any rate, there are a number of things I'd like to address about the prey drive, what is, why "an animal’s response to a stimulus is not identical every time the animal is exposed to it," etc.

On that last point, drives are different from instincts. They're more fluid and flexible. That's why an animal is able to exhibit many different responses to prey objects. Think of it this way, instincts are controlled or processed by the reptilian complex while drives operate more through the limbic system. (That's only part of the story, but it's a start...)

At any rate, I'm still hoping you'll send me a copy of that piece on play and aggression.

In the meantime, I just published this post at PsychologyToday.com, titled, "Is the Urge to Bite the Key to Canine Intelligence?", and which includes a link to your article here on prey drive.


Thanks for a great article!

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