aggression and prey drive
©Dr Karen Dawson BSc BVSc Hons MANZCVS (Behaviour), Pet Behaviour Clinic
Greyhounds belong to the sighthound group, thus a moderate level of prey drive should not be unexpected. Their vision has evolved differently to dogs with flatter faces (brachycephalic breeds), with a visual streak that facilitates better peripheral vision and a propensity to chase fast moving objects. However, every dog is an individual and the potential for a particular behaviour will depend on a combination of genetics, learning and the environment it finds itself in.
Predatory behaviour is normal; without it a dog would soon die of starvation. Depending on the intended target though, it can be a worrying and even an unacceptable behaviour for many owners.
Prey drive is a term loosely used to describe a dog’s motivation to chase. This high internal drive inherent in certain breeds is exploited in many contexts; for example: herding, fly ball, Frisbee, a game of fetch and obviously a greyhound racing with no opportunity to grab the lure at the end of the race.
Predatory aggression describes the motivation to attack or grab with or without the intent to kill or ingest. It generally involves a quiet attack with at least one bite and fierce shaking.
Prey drive/aggression is one of the most misinterpreted aspects of a greyhound’s personality. This is understandable given the huge variation between individual dogs with regards to frequency, intensity and even triggers for the behaviour.
Any breed of dog may exhibit predatory tendencies, but it is usually (and more tolerated) towards contextual prey species such as squirrels, cats or birds. True canine predatory aggression towards other dogs or people/infants is described as being rare in the literature (Overall K.,2013, Manual of Clinical Behavioural Medicine for Dogs and Cats, Elsevier). However, it is evident that a number of greyhounds may exhibit dangerously high levels of predatory aggression towards small/medium sized breeds of dogs. The elimination of the reliance on live/dead baiting in conjunction with enhanced opportunities for socialisation when puppies are young would have a significant impact on reducing the frequency and intensity of this behaviour. This would also greatly improve current adoption rates.
Predatory aggression differs to interdog aggression in that the underlying emotional state is invariably positive. The latter is usually founded in fear and anxiety. Predatory aggression is adrenalin fuelled and involves neurotransmitters such as dopamine. It therefore offers a chemical reward for the dog, increasing internal motivation for the behaviour with each opportunity to practice. For many greyhounds, the opportunity to express this behaviour in an otherwise socially devoid racing kennel environment may enhance its intensity. As already mentioned, behaviour is always a combination of genetics, learning and environment. Genetics tell us what a dog might do, not what it will do. However, using live, bleeding, screaming prey during training is an excellent way to encourage the expression of the right genes, thus encourage predatory aggression. Repeated exposure leads to learning; the dog becomes better at it.
When we make a decision to bring an animal such as a greyhound into our lives, we must understand and accept that prey drive or predatory aggression is at times very much a part of what they are. Therefore we all must take appropriate steps to minimise the risks to other people and their own much loved family pets. For re-homers, this means taking the time to discuss these risks and early warning signs with the novice greyhound adopter.
A greyhound allowed to chase small dogs around the park is a completely different scenario to one that remains under control on a leash. Muzzle free status generally means the dog has only been assessed as being a low risk whilst on a lead. This is reasonable, given otherwise it is a fairly unattainable standard for a significant percentage of the greyhound population. It must be remembered that it is a one off assessment, offering no guarantee of safety in all situations; this remains the responsibility of the owner. Predatory aggression has variable thresholds too. Greyhounds can live harmoniously alongside one small dog, yet may not be reliable around other unfamiliar small dogs. For a variety of reasons, familiar dogs and cats may become targets as well. Greyhound engaging in predatory behaviour are acting on impulse, rather than using the logical, thinking part of their brain. Familiarity and former friendships may well be forgotten in the heat of the moment. However, individual differences aside, as the dog becomes more excited, the higher the risk it will be pushed over threshold. The behaviour is a continuum, and play may turn to prey. This is why off leash environments may be more risky for some greyhounds.
Predatory aggression is dependent on the individual genetics as well as the excitement or mood on the day. For example, a dog that is at an "open day" event may be too anxious about his surroundings to demonstrate predatory aggression, thus appear to ignore other dogs. However this is not an accurate indication that he is “safe” in all situations. This is in my opinion a fundamental flaw with prolonged assessment processes that take the dog out of its familiar environment. Some greyhounds may be living harmoniously amongst cats in foster, yet revert to being unsafe weeks or months after adoption as their self confidence grows and the anxiety of urban living reduces.
There are a percentage of greyhounds that can never be trusted around other animals, and no amount of “socialisation” later in life or counter conditioning is going to change that. Whilst prey drive is a normal dog behaviour that can be managed, it crosses the line and becomes irresponsible when the dog is allowed to be out of control, for example in an off leash park.
Muzzling exemption assessments do not replace the need for owner education. This is in fact more risky than removing the muzzling exemption all together, thus making no false promises of safety being assured. From a public safety perspective, a behavioural assessment prior to adoption is crucial to determine where in the vast spectrum of potential for predatory aggression that an individual dog sits, particularly if adoptive families have other pets and children at home.
Recognizing Prey Drive and Predatory Aggression
Predatory aggression is a diagnosis for which management is the only viable form of treatment.
Due to the nature of prey drive and predatory aggression, signs may be misinterpreted as play. They include, but are not limited to:
- - Dog becoming excited & difficult to distract
- - Shaking, trembling, fixed stare
- - May be unable to take their eyes off the small dog
- - Neck arched, tail up, stiff stance
- - Trying to encourage the small dog to move; the greyhound may be rough with the small dog e.g. placing a paw on it, bunting with its nose over the neck or abdomen
- - The dog may vocalise if it is thwarted from obtaining access to its intended target
If you see any of these signs, please immediately take control & remove your dog from the situation. It is likely to escalate very quickly.