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Predatory Drift - What is it? How to avoid it!

By Emily Scott, Certified Dog Behavior Consultant  |  November 1, 2019

A new client called me this week in a desperate panic.  She has a 50 lb. German shepherd mix, neutered male named ‘Shep’ that is 4 years old.  She has been taking Shep to the local dog park since he was a young puppy.  She reported he was always great with other dogs, playful and friendly with all breeds and temperaments.  Her daughter has a small Maltese female that Shep regularly lives and plays with, without any problems.  Sadly, last week Shep suddenly, and for no apparent reason, chased and attacked and killed a small poodle at the dog park.  The client is horrified and feels very remorseful and guilty.  She is absolutely shocked and surprised at Shep’s ‘spontaneous aggression’ and wanted immediate assistance.  She was afraid he would never be able to be trusted around other dogs.  I explained to Shep’s owner that Shep displayed Predatory Drift behavior, which is a different phenomenon than aggression.


Predatory drift originates from a dog’s ancient instinct to hunt and kill prey.  It is a hard-wired behavior that can be triggered in any dog.   Once the trigger starts, the behavior continues to its end, often with disastrous consequences to the victim dog.  It is prey drive, in pure form and should not be confused with aggression.


It is important to note that selective breeding has modified the predatory sequence so some breeds may ‘herd’ and ‘stalk’ but don’t follow through with an actual attack. There are some breeds that may enjoy the chase, but once they ‘catch’ their prey, they have no idea what to do with it!  Other breeds, such as rat terriers, have been bred to hunt, attack and kill small vermin with stealth efficiency. These dogs are called ‘Finishers’.


Predatory drift commonly starts with play but then escalates to more predatory behavior, like stalking, chasing and biting.  It also most commonly occurs when large dogs are playing with small dogs.  They may seem to play well to start, but then the play escalates and the predatory instinct kicks in and the large dog ‘goes in for the kill’.  Sadly, the smaller dog is often mauled or killed.


The challenge with preventing predatory drift is that the behavior is often spontaneous and the dog may have never had any history of aggression until that moment.  How do you prevent something you’ve never seen before?  Here are some important tips to prevent predatory drift in your pet dog:

  1. Acknowledge the idea that any dog has the potential to display predatory drift behavior, even your dog.
  2. Avoid having large dogs play with little dogs. There is a good reason doggy day care centers and dog parks have segregated play based on size.  Even if the large and small dog live together, there is potential for this behavior to occur so every precaution should be taken to manage and protect the smaller dog.
  3. Be aware that predatory drift is often triggered by a dog running, squealing or whining in fear. Think about it…they are acting like ‘prey’!
  4. Predatory drift can also occur when 2 dogs ‘gang up’ on a 3rd Monitor play between multiple dogs very closely and intervene when play escalates to more aggressive or predatory behavior like stalking, intense chasing etc.
  5. Dogs with a history of being ‘finishers’, should be very closely monitored and managed. Further, dogs that are not known ‘finishers’ but have strong predilection toward targeting and chasing small dogs, should be closely managed.   The risk is way too high for this type of dog to trigger into predatory drift and severely injure another dog.
  6. Be aware, be cautious and keep your dog safe! He is still just a dog!


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