Dealing with the Prey Drive

My dog, Nova, has a high prey drive, which is a nice way of saying she likes to chase fuzzy things (very good for a wolf, less good for a house pet).

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It’s a little different from being an aggressive dog. Aggressive dogs are typically afraid and defensive, so they are acting from a place of fear. You don’t necessarily know what will trigger an aggressive dog, and they can be dangerous to people.

Nova LOVES people. She is not afraid or aggressive. She does not bark or growl. If you met Nova, she would probably lick and shed on you. She would roll over on her belly and invite you to rub it. She’s a great pet.

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But that prey drive is still a problem.

This article by Joan Klucha offers a great description about the difference between aggression and prey drive:

Prey drive is a dog’s instinctual need to chase and catch things. This is a fairly common behaviour to witness. A dog that loves to play fetch, chase squirrels or cats has a strong prey drive. A dog that lifts its head to watch a ball roll by does not have a big prey drive…

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Klucha goes on to describe something called ‘predatory drift’:

Predatory drift is a glitch in the system, so to speak, and I want to stress that it is not aggression, although it often gets labelled as such by those unfamiliar with it. Predatory drift is when a dog gets aroused by the high-pitched sounds, the energetic struggles or the frenetic behaviour of an animal or even a person in distress and becomes predatory towards it. The dog focuses with great intent on the object of its arousal.

Predation sounds like a pretty scary word and can create fears about aggression, but it is not the same. Predatory drift is just that – a drift from prey drive to predatory. It becomes dangerous when the object of predation is small. Dogs may have lost the kill sequence of the predatory act, but a great size and strength difference can result in death very easily. This is not an act of aggression, but the expression of a latent aspect of the prey drive.

This information is useful to me. I have struggled for years to understand how my happy-go-lucky dog can suddenly and without any apparent malice chase and injure a cute fuzzy creature.

Back story that you may prefer to skip…


About a month after we adopted Nova, my grandparents were snow birding in Plant City, Florida – a few hours from my home on the East Coast of Central Florida. We were still dealing with Nova’s separation anxiety, so we decided to bring her with us on the road trip. The first day of our visit went well. Nova enjoyed the orange park where my grandparents were staying. The weather was beautiful. Strawberries were in season.

The second day of our visit, we went to church with my grandparents. Nova was despondent while we were gone (it was a cool day, so we left her locked in her crate just outside the RV). The RV park was full of friendly senior citizens who kept an eye on the dog. So, when we got back, my husband, grandfather (who was being a very good sport about us bringing the dog, since he was allergic to them), and Nova were outside the RV. Nova was leashed but out of her crate. About that time, a neighbor of my grandparent’s let his cat, Fluffy, out of his RV to “get some outside time.”

Nova saw Fluffy and her prey drive was activated. Fluffy was stupidly brave and came towards Nova and hissed. Nova (in the first of many impressive displays of agility and intelligence) slipped out of her collar and darted after Fluffy.

Fluffy quickly realized her mistake and dashed under her owner’s RV.

Nova followed Fluffy. Daniel followed Nova.

Daniel pounced on Nova, and tried to wrestle her back into her leash. At this point, my grandfather poked his head into their RV and told me he thought Daniel might need some help with the dog, I stepped out just in time to see Nova wriggle free and follow Fluffy under her owner’s RV.

This whole incident lasted for about 30 awful seconds.

Nova had bitten and shaken Fluffy for about 5 seconds before Daniel could catch her and release the cat. Fluffy’s owner took her inside, and I pulled out my phone to try to find a local vet that would be open on a Sunday. One had an emergency line, and agreed to meet us at his office. My grandfather, Fluffy’s owner, Fluffy and I drove to the office.

Fluffy was in shock and had several puncture wounds. The vet was concerned that she might have a punctured lung. But mercifully, as her name suggested, Fluffy was a very fluffy cat, and her hair protected her from the worst of Nova’s attack. And as the Kulcha’s article describes, Nova wasn’t really trying to kill Fluffy, she was bigger and caught her. Dangerous, but not malicious.

I know that money isn’t everything. I also know that many people can’t put a monetary value on the relationship they have with their pet. We ended up spending about $1200 to save Fluffy’s life. She went on to have several more healthy years.


Outdoor cats are vulnerable to many threats: birds, raccoons, cars…there are plenty of ways that a cat can meet pain, suffering and even death in the great outdoors. But…it feels pretty awful when your pet causes suffering to another animal, and by extension, the people who love that creature.

At this point we were faced with a decision. Nova had been returned to the Humane Society twice. I felt pretty confident that if we brought her back, she would be put to sleep. And that didn’t feel fair. She’d made so much progress in the last month, did she deserve to die because we didn’t realize how dangerous she was around cats?

Did she deserve a second chance?

I have never felt that Nova was dangerous to my kids or other humans. If she ever did anything to make me think she would hurt a person, I would not feel guilty or ambivalent about re-homing her or even putting her down.

The internet is full of tips for dogs like Nova. Kayla from Journey Dog Training shares some tips in her article “How to Control Dogs with High Prey Drive”.

She recommends: Leashed walks only, supervision when in a yard, and no free access to prey animals.

I hadn’t read that before working on this blog post, but that is what we’ve come to with Nova.

Nova doesn’t get to be around fuzzy things. Kayla suggests de-sensitizing the dog’s prey drive using a beanie baby on a string in the pain-staking step-by-step manner that we addressed her separation anxiety. And…it’s a good idea that I might try.

So, now that I’ve traumatized you with this terrible story about my dog…what is the lesson here?

 

For me it’s this: Some problems can’t be solved, but they can be managed.

Normally, I like to think of myself as a problem solver. I like to hear the final chord of a song, read the final chapter of a book, and see people cross finish lines. But…with Nova, I don’t think I’ll get it. We have organized our lives in many ways around Nova’s safety. We moved out of a neighborhood with a large population of stray cats to one with out that issue. When we were able to buy a house two of our main buying criteria were things to make life with Nova easier:

  1. No stray cats
  2. A yard with a privacy fence (Nova can climb chain link fences)
  3. A neighborhood with a safe sidewalk so we could give Nova enough exercise to not be crazy.

And what’s crazy to me about this is that when we bought our house, we had a small child and a lot of other things we could have been considering, but the major buying criteria for us was as a way to improve life with our dog.

I think the other lesson is that I have sat on this post for a few weeks. I am only sharing it after seeing an adorable twitter post about a dog that was arrested after it got out and attacked a deer and the story of a friend on Facebook who brought a new dog home only to discover it was not cat-friendly.

It makes me wonder. Am I the only one with a terrible dog who I also love? How do other people with poorly behaved (okay…dangerously behaved) dogs deal? Do you give them up? Do you have a dog that has been retrained? Do you just lock them up? I’m so curious.

Nova has made me think a lot about love and duty. And perhaps I will share some more about that in my next post.

In the meant time, if your dog has a high prey drive and has…done terrible things, I don’t blame you for keeping your dog (or getting rid of your dog). I don’t really know what the right thing is. I guess, I’m still learning this lesson from Nova.

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1 Comment

  1. Very informative – and good for you for making those accommodations for Nova! I know quite a few people who wouldn’t be willing to make that kind of effort or who would write the dog off as being too difficult to train or control. I think you did the right thing.

    Like

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