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Instinctual Dog Behaviors
Saturday, June 4, 2022


I am approached daily about dog owners wanting to eliminate behaviors in their dogs that are instinctual. That is, a behavior that comes hard wired in the dog when they are born.

Dogs inherit instinctual behavior from the parents and ancestors.  All dogs possess what is called “prey drive,” which can come in different degrees or levels.  This is instinctual behavior passed along from the wolves for survival.  Prey drive occurs when the wolf smells or sees game, then follows either the scent or vision, attacks the game, shakes it, kills it and eats it with the pack.

What makes dogs different from the wolves is that we humans have domesticated dogs from wolves by selecting certain portions of that prey drive and breeding the dogs that possess those specific portions in an effort to use them for human benefit.

For example, our beloved Labrador Retriever has been bred for his scenting or hunting behaviors, then his interest in returning the bird (prey) to his owner (pack).  Other breeds, such as sight hounds, use their eyes to chase the prey for food for their human. Then there are the herding breeds, such as Aussies and Border Collies, that will chase the livestock (prey) to assist the owner in moving the sheep or cattle to a desired location.

When we have mixed breed dogs whose heredity is unknown, we don’t always know which portions of that instinctual prey drive they possess until they mature because there might be “drive conflict” that must settle.

When we select a dog for our family, careful evaluation should be made to select a dog with the appropriate “drive” for our family. For instance, a herding dog that chases small objects and rounds them up may not be the best choice if you have small children. Those dogs may chase and nip children simply because of their instinctual behaviors.

Each dog is an individual, even within a specific breed and may possess more or less instinctual behavior than others. How many Labradors do you know that have no interest in hunting?

When we have a dog with higher amounts of these behaviors, we must understand that this is INSTINCTUAL and may be able to be CONTROLLED with extensive training but can never be eliminated.

Choosing a dog because of his color, hair length, or cute floppy ears is not usually the best way to choose a dog for your family.  Understanding what his potential instinctual behaviors are and if those will fit for your family is truly at the heart of the matter.  If you find yourself with a dog with instinctual behaviors that are difficult to live with, extensive training may be your best choice to influence the control of that drive.

Editor’s Note: Fran Jewell is an IAABC Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and an NADOI certified instructor.

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