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Dog Psychology - Behavior Drives In Dogs

by Dale Johnson, DVM

If you are serious about understanding your dog with regards to behaviors exhibited when training your animal, study this page!!!

Behavior Drives are the instincts that make your dog act the way he does. Everything that your dog does is determined by a specific behavior drive. When a dog bites, chases cats, or raises a litter of puppies, they are being driven to do so by their instincts or genetic make-up. A trainer looks for these specific drives or instincts when beginning training. A trainer will manipulate these drives to create the desired behavior, such as playfulness, subordination, defensive behavior, etc.. Every dog has similar drives relating back to their common ancestor, the wolf. Through selective breeding, humans have emphasized certain drives in certain breeds according to the tasks desired. This domestication began in prehistoric times to bring out important survival traits such as speed, good scent ability, good barking/watchdog ability, and so forth. There are five important basic behaviors: play, pack, prey, food, and defensive or fight.

Pack Behavior is social behavior. The dog wants to be part of a group or pack such as with the BEAGLE breed. In order to maintain social order within the pack certain rules of behavior must be observed. Licking, smelling, courting gestures (mounting), warning gestures, and correcting are all part of a harmonious dance dogs do with each other and humans too. After all, we are part of their pack; they actually see us as funny looking dogs. Dogs bond closely with humans and want to be with them. Your dog almost certainly prefers your companionship to that of another dog. If your dog is well trained and you are the leader of his pack, he will always come to be with you rather than another dog.

Every time you work with your dog you are working as a team or pack. Dogs, like wolves, do not survive on their own. They rely on each other to survive. It is part of the group dynamic to hunt together, raise puppies together, live socially together. There is, of course, a hierarchy within the pack and unless you, as the human leader establish dominance over your dog, your dog will assume that role. Pack drive is elicited by petting, praising, smiling, grooming, playing, and working with your dog. Your dog loves to be with you and is unhappy when left alone, so spend time with your dog!

Prey Drive is associated with hunting, chasing, and killing prey for food. You never see a dog chasing a parked car. The object has to move to trigger the behavior: catch, shake, and kill. Prey drive is activated by seeing, smelling, and hearing. The dog will listen, smell the air, stalk or track the victim, chase it down, pounce, bark, shake it, and tear it apart even if it is just an old stuffed teddy bear. Destructive behaviors such as tearing, ripping apart, carrying, eating, digging, and burying are associated with prey drive. Prey drive can be stimulated by the use of hand or object movements, a high pitched tone of voice, throwing a stick or ball, chasing or being chased, or tug of war games.

Defense Drive is ruled by self-preservation and survival. It includes both fight and flight behaviors. This is a complicated drive because the same stimulus can make the dog go into either aggressive or avoidance behaviors. A dog may bark and seem aggressive when it is really afraid. A puppy may crouch and urinate out of fear when you correct him for a negative behavior that you are trying to change (like urinating in the house). A dog will stand with his fur roughed and guard his food or toys. He may dislike being petted or groomed. He may lie in front of doorways challenging the owner to go around. These are fight behaviors. On the other hand, flight behaviors show that the dog is insecure or unsure of himself. He may run away from new situations or hide, trembling to the touch.

When wolves see an opponent they know they cannot beat, they simply put their tails between their legs and run as fast as they can. Their ego is not involved. It is not logical for a dog to hold his position against a stronger threat unless he is cornered and has no choice. You know the old saying, "fighting like a cornered rat"? They can't leave or flee, so they have to fight. That's what fear biting is all about. The dog is afraid, he feels threatened, he can't flee, so he attacks to protect himself. He defends himself for self-preservation. Fight or flight behaviors can be triggered by the same stimulation. The dog either growls and bares his teeth or runs away shaking; these behaviors are both possible reactions to a stimulus.

When training a dog we must recognize which behavior drive stimulates the dog to perform the task desired. Which drive do you use to motivate the dog to do the task willingly? The behavior drive is the nature of the dog. As the trainer/owner, you control, stimulate, or diminish the behavior drives. You have the ability to switch the behavior drives by giving the dog the right cue.

The concept of behavior drives is recognizing the character that each dog has. During the process of domestication humans recognized the different behavior drives that some wolves possessed and genetically exaggerated them or diminished them by selectively breeding for the behaviors they wanted a dog to have for a particular task. Early humans recognized that if they wanted to have a dog to stick around the children, that particular dog could not have a very strong defense or hunting nature because that dog would not tolerate the children touching him all the time. They chose only those dogs that would work best in each situation. Humans furthered selective breeding throughout history, so that now we have designer dogs for every purpose under the sun. Each breed is suitable for the tasks for which that have been designed. So, what kind of designer dog suits your needs?

Should you have a concern regarding the health of your Beagle(s), you should contact your veterinarian. All information on this site is presented solely for educational and informational purposes and should not, at any time, be considered a substitute for seeking or receiving veterinary care for your Beagle(s).