Isn't Encouraging Prey-making urges dangerous?

An excellent question from the web:

“Since we don’t all “work” our dogs enough to let them fully express their natural prey instincts – we don’t all have access to sheep for herding, wild fowl for hunting, or decoys for biting), pet owners of dogs with high prey drives can really have a hard time dealing with it on a daily basis – imagine your dog going nuts on the leash whirling, spinning, vocalizing every time he sees or hears something he thinks is a prey animal and not being able to come back down to earth for another 20 minutes even after that thing is long gone!. These dogs can be very easy work with if you can focus their instincts on a toy that you control – they can be the most enthusiastic and eager to please. No difficulty in motivating these dogs! But it can also be difficult when other things that you can’t control, trigger their prey instincts at inopportune moments!”

This question is understandable from the perspective of behavioral science because if something like a “fixed action pattern” is being “reinforced” won’t it become stronger and more of a feature of the dog’s orientation? Isn’t my dog going to become more and more maniacal about incidental prey, deer, squirrels, etc. that we run across on walks or in the yard if I’m encouraging it to bite things? Revealingly, we can see in the current state of dogdom that the exact opposite is the case. Millions of owners have been successfully educated by behavioral science that they should discourage their dog’s oral urges and prey instinct in order to maximize its domesticated nature. The modern dog owner is now far more worried about teaching their dog not to bite than were previous generations of owners when it was more commonly accepted that not all dogs were friendly or should be expected to be friendly. How often do you hear the expression that’s a “one man dog” these days? The idea that one should teach a dog not-to-bite is seemingly buttressed by the theory of domestication that dogs are denatured from their wild heritage in that they are descended from scavengers that came in from the cold of the village dump, and are now so thoroughly adapted to human culture that their nature is fundamentally different from proto-dog or ancestral wolf. But the paradox has now become that currently there is so much aggression and hyper-reactivity in dogs precisely because their prey-making hardware/software was either, under-exercised or was actively repressed, distracted, and desensitized.

To understand this we need to make a distinction between prey instincts and prey DRIVE. Prey instinct is a fixed action pattern that elicits a hardwired string of reflexes. Drive on the other hand is a state of emotional suspension that is attuned to the energetic parameters of the moment, and can smoothly select from a repertoire of reflexes that FEEL most suitable to the context. Therefore, PREY DRIVE DOESN’T EXCITE PREY INSTINCT, IT CALMS IT.

Being In-Drive is the capacity to feel potential energy and the strength of this feeling enables a dog to self-modify and even limit its actions in order to maintain that state of suspension. Instinct is a sheer downloading, relief-seeking from a build up of tension state of experience. And a feeling of potential energy (rather than any kind of cognitive understanding) allows a dog to hold itself back without building up an emotional charge, in other words, actually feeling rewarded by doing nothing or working to attune itself to its owner if that is called for. An instinct is the collapse of an animal’s emotional capacity into a species-specific repertoire of reflexes whereas when a dog is in drive its feeling of potential energy is the strongest part of its awareness and its feeling of being in suspension with its owner, is its reward so that therefore the incidental prey animal IS NOT potential energy. An owner does not need sheep or birds or anything natural to induce a state of suspension with a dog. They just need to become a complex object of resistance that the dog can overcome by tuning in and attuning to.

So by encouraging a dog’s drive, and since NDT says all drive is related to the hunt/prey, it therefore lowers the dog’s threshold of excitation toward its owner while simultaneously raising the dog’s excitation toward an actual prey animal that hasn’t become integrated as part of the drive expression. Amazingly, the dog becomes more excited by the fake prey as offered by its owner than the real prey that might be encountered naturally. Drive in service to the hunt is emotional alchemy.

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Published March 15, 2010 by Kevin Behan
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2 responses to “Isn't Encouraging Prey-making urges dangerous?”

  1. Anne Arbon says:

    I dont fully understand why this method of training works, but I have a rescue collie,he had 8 homes before he was 7months old, a very high drive dog. But since I have allowed the tug games, and him to win, and push feeding, all of the undesirable behaviour, ie., excessive barking, frantic biting, has all diminished, I am not saying is calm, but it is all contained, and liveable with, he actually sleeps for more than 1 hour. He is a pleasure to live with. Thanks Neil


  2. christine randolph says:

    2 of my dogs chased a deer the other day.

    just the chase was enough or so it seemed.

    the deer was not even scared, he must have somehow figured that he was the kind of calibre deer that will not be intimidated by such silly little pet dogs.

    the reason I am saying this is that after the dogs got tired, the deer did not depart, but seemed to be waiting for more…

    …he was kind of coming up to me to see if maybe i did not want to chase him a bit.

    or maybe people had fed this deer and he is semi tamed and not as afraid around people and dogs as a truly wild deer would be.

    before they got too tired, the dogs were chasing the deer in circles and made it cross my path, maybe, so that I could join in the “fun”…

    my friend’s dog, a lurcher, has proven that she can kill deer and sheep single handedly, without the help of another dog.

    maybe because my friend does not typically work to release her dog’s prey drive, therefore it is too high when a hunting situation arises outdoors ?

    would it not also be true that some dogs are genetically predisposed to be more likely to go for the kill and others will feel too much fear, because they are immature ? or their position in the pack would be that of chaser, not killer ?

    basically my theory would then be that in a wolf pack, it is always the same few wolves doing the killing, and the vast majority of the pack never kills but just chases to see if they can tire out the prey ?

    the other scenario would be that this particular deer was too strong and healthy to be considered as prey, evident in the fact that the dogs got tired while he did not.

    and if the deer does not show sufficient amounts of fear, the dogs will not go for it, correct ?

    with the prey’s fear levels thrown in as another contributing factor, it seems as though humans are not likely to be able to predict predictable whether or not a dog or predator in general will actually go for the kill, even if they are hungry and the prey is well within the range of killability of a particular predator.

    obviously there are people who train their dogs to attack, (Michael Vick) i wonder if they go through a lot of dud dogs that drop out of the program because they just will not attack at a high enough percentage, no matter how much training they receive.

    I think that my third dog is one such dog, maybe even an omega stay at home mom. she rarely ever participates in a hunt and if she does she comes back to me after half a minute, not comfortable with being out there where it could get nasty.

    do dogs and wolves who kill members of their own pack use the prey drive for this

    or should this be considered a behaviour driven by different instincts. the theory seems to be that this happens when an animal “does not fit in, does not play by the rules of the pack”.

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Books about Natural Dog Training by Kevin Behan

In Your Dog Is Your Mirror, dog trainer Kevin Behan proposes a radical new model for understanding canine behavior: a dog’s behavior and emotion, indeed its very cognition, are driven by our emotion. The dog doesn’t respond to what the owner thinks, says, or does; it responds to what the owner feels. And in this way, dogs can actually put people back in touch with their own emotions. Behan demonstrates that dogs and humans are connected more profoundly than has ever been imagined — by heart — and that this approach to dog cognition can help us understand many of dogs’ most inscrutable behaviors. This groundbreaking, provocative book opens the door to a whole new understanding between species, and perhaps a whole new understanding of ourselves.
  Natural Dog Training is about how dogs see the world and what this means in regards to training. The first part of this book presents a new theory for the social behavior of canines, featuring the drive to hunt, not the pack instincts, as seminal to canine behavior. The second part reinterprets how dogs actually learn. The third section presents exercises and handling techniques to put this theory into practice with a puppy. The final section sets forth a training program with a special emphasis on coming when called.
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