STORY AND PHOTO BY FRAN JEWELL
I am approached daily by dog owners who want to eliminate instinctive behaviors in their dogs. That is, a behavior that is hardwired when the dog is born.
Dogs inherit instinctive behaviors from their parents and ancestors. All dogs possess what is known as a “prey drive,” which can occur in varying degrees or levels. This is an instinctive behavior passed on by wolves for survival. Prey drive occurs when the wolf smells or sees game, then follows either the smell or vision, attacks the game, shakes it, kills it, and eats it with the pack.
What distinguishes dogs from wolves is that we humans have domesticated dogs from wolves by selecting certain parts of that prey drive and breeding the dogs that possess those certain parts to use for the benefit of humans.
For example, our beloved Labrador Retriever was bred for its scent or hunting behavior, then for its interest in returning the bird (prey) to its owner (pack). Other breeds such as B. Greyhounds use their eyes to chase prey for food for their human. Then there are the herding breeds like Aussies and Border Collies that hunt the cattle (prey) to help the owner move the sheep or cattle to a desired location.
When we have mixed breed dogs whose heredity is unknown, we don’t always know what parts of this instinctive prey drive they possess until they are adults because there could be a “drive conflict” that needs to be resolved.
When choosing a dog for our family, careful evaluation should be made to choose a dog with the right “drive” for our family. For example, a herding dog that chases and rounds up small objects may not be the best choice if you have young children. These dogs can chase and pinch children simply because of their instinctive behavior.
Each dog is an individual, even within a specific breed, and may exhibit more or less instinctive behaviors than others. How many labs do you know that have no interest in hunting?
If we have a dog with a higher level of these behaviors we need to understand that these are INSTINCTIVE and may be CONTROLLED through extensive training but can never be eliminated.
Choosing a dog based on their color, hair length, or cute floppy ears is usually not the best way to choose a dog for your family. Understanding what his potential instinctive behaviors are and whether they fit into your family is really the heart of the matter. If you find yourself with a dog having instinctive behaviors that are difficult to live with, extensive training may be your best bet to influence control of those urges.
Editor’s note: Fran Jewell is an IAABC Certified Canine Behavior Consultant and a NADOI Certified Instructor.