Predatory Drift

We’ve been having a great discussion on one of the lists I belong to, so I thought I’d write an article on it, as there is a great deal of misunderstanding about this particular behavior.  There’s a behavior the dog training industry (Dr. Ian Dunbar, originally) has labeled “predatory drift.” First, be aware that, to my knowledge, there has been no formal study done on this behavior; however, it is something that is fairly common. If you intend to become a dog trainer, or if you are a certified professional dog trainer, this is a phenomenon you should be aware of!

First, a little science and terminology. Every behavior an animal exhibits is genetic – i.e., they have the genetics that allow that behavior to happen. Pigs are genetically designed to root; dogs are genetically designed to leave urine markers; fish are genetically designed to separate air from water so they can live in water; etc.

Genetic traits are loosely divided into three categories: reflexes, action patterns and behavior traits. Reflexes are more uniform in nature and the least subject to modification; action patterns are more variable in nature and more subject to modification than reflexes, but less than behavior traits; behavior traits are extremely variable from individual-to-individual, and the most easily modified. Always remember that ALL behavior can be modified – it’s just easier to modify some than others!

Predatory drift is an action pattern. It is a food gathering behavior, which in certain animals is called predation. Let’s be very clear here that predatory drift is NOT aggression! It is predation. Most play behavior revolves around normal hunting behaviors – stalking, chasing, etc. Predatory drift often begins as normal play, and something triggers the larger dog and he drifts over into predation.

The reason predatory drift is so dangerous is because it often happens between dogs that have a great size difference. Even though many dogs have lost the “kill” piece of the predatory sequence, that size difference can result in death almost instantly.

Some trainers believe you can pinpoint dogs that are prone to predatory drift, but I’m not sure I agree with this. Certainly there are dogs that are more predatory than others, but this is really a different situation; predatory dogs can be screened based on prior behavior. Predatory drift can happen with any dog – dogs that have never shown any predatory inclinations or aggression to other dogs and even dogs that have been good buddies for a long time. And, it happens in an instant and is generally not preventable.

Things that typically trigger predatory drift are running dogs, injured or struggling dogs, squealing dogs, dogs being ganged up on, and any situation where there’s a big size differential. Because of the risk to small dogs, dog parks and day cares are increasingly setting up play areas specifically for small dogs. If you are an owner of a small dog, it’s important to be aware of this behavior and take steps to protect your dog from potential injury or death; if you have a career in dog training, make a point to educate your owners and take precautions in your business.

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