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Dog Behaviour - Reactivity, Prey Drive, Predatory Drift & Trigger Stacking

Dogs and How They Behave Sometimes...

When they say a picture is worth a 1000 words i didn't quite understand.... until now! This picture above really sums up what we are talking about, this is a post for the working pet dog or large breed dog owners, that's the dogs bred for working somewhere in history and may still have that gene in them and are now pet dogs in homes.

That's a very broad spectrum i know.... its including all the cross breeds, pedigree's, and large breeds but especially the collies of the world that are now in loving family homes.

This is a post to explain why if you dog knows not to chase your pet rabbit and still does that! Why your dog might lay down when it sees something interesting on a walk, how aggression can seemingly pop out of nowhere in dog on dog play, why your recall may fail and your dog is sniffing and appears to have forgotten you exist and will follow that scent into dangerous situations.

Why Does Your Dog Act Without thinking?!

What we talk about here is the technical science stuff that fuels our understanding of the behaviour that might be the cause of some of the problems we have with our pet dogs. My aim is not to worry you but to empower you… A better understanding of the route cause can help you help your dog.

In the last 20 years studies have shown dogs in a very different light, our understanding has gone from… ‘they are decedents of wolves and live in huarache packs’ to ‘they are their own sub species, emotional and smart animals, bred to be mans best friend.’

Grab yourself a coffee and perhaps a slice of cake (if you want the full experience :-))

Pause for the kettle…..

Predator Motor Patterns -

dogs have a pattern of behaviour, coppinger (1997) outlines it very well

orient > eye stalk > chase > grab bite > kill bite > dissect > consume.

let’s look at this from another angle, when you play tug of war with your dog, they see the item, go towards it, grab it to tug it, they win the game, maybe parade with it then start shaking it about and pulling out it’s insides. That’s their motor pattern in harmless pretend play. Some dogs may enjoy an aspect of this game more then others…. A collie will enjoy seeing the target and chasing it and most likely won’t tear it apart, a Jack russle will love the chase and dismantle best…. A cockapoo will love the chase and find more then anything…. I could go on…..

How do you recognise signs of predatory behaviour?

In some dogs the overall pattern to their behaviour is a major clue as to whether it is predatory or intended as distance increasing behaviour.

Firstly, consider the noise, or lack there of; normally, predatory behaviour is silent, the dog won’t waste energy or risk startling the prey if they want to catch and kill it...

Is the dog stalking other animals? Does he or she get down low and creep towards them, occasionally lying down to watch before rushing at them?

Will the dog cross obstacles like rivers, fences, or dense vegetation to get to other animals or follow a scent?

Do chase games within play, suddenly turn into a more ominous pursuit, causing the (usually smaller) ‘target’ dog to become worried or panicked?

How this turns into Predatory Drift -

Panksepp released many books and studies on his theory of 7 emotional brain systems, the most relevant of the 7 systems here are the SEEKING system and the PLAY system. Please note these are in capital letters because ‘SEEKING’ & ‘PLAY’ are slightly different words from seeking and play as we know them and carry a slightly different meaning.

The SEEKING system is all about needs for life, the drive is very strong and innate, this is referring to when we are cold we look for warmth, hungry - food, life is in danger - safety etc…. The release of hormones can be very strong when the SEEKING system is fulfilled and the need is met. The relief that comes from a successful completion of the SEEKING system can be very strong and almost addictive.

SEEKING behaviour is dopamine driven, that means it’s nothing todo with reward or reinforcement, it simply creates such an internal happy feeling all on its own.

A dog that is in SEEKING mode is externally highly motivated, think of the spaniel running away because it saw a bird fly off, everything about the SEEKING system is supportive of exploration.

The PLAY system is a little more like it sounds, its the drive for social interactions and all the associations that come along with playing with ones kin. It’s important to know according to Panksepp and Biven (2012) brain circuitry of PLAY is evident with dogs that are relaxed and happy. That means PLAY does not happen if there is hunger, thirst, pain, discomfort, or threat (ie SEEKING).

How do you know it’s PLAY: • Play signals like a happy play face (no tension, relaxed, possible smile) or play bow. • Larger exaggerated movements like puppy jumping • Changing roles regularly • Bouncy body language • Use of other objects such as the chasing of toys, tug of war grabbing, this is usually mutual. • Body pushing and mouthing at feet or jaws without grabbing.

PLAY facilitates dopamine, and oxytocin, but also involves other opioids and neurotransmitters. When these hormones are released a dog is in the best possible state of mind to learn.

When your dog plays with family dogs in a large group, or extremely familiar dogs you might see plenty of boisterous play, this type of play doesn’t normally happen with dogs that occasionally meet up unless the dogs are not communicating that well, perhaps one is a puppy, play styles miss matched or unsocialised so lacking in some important signal following skills.

It’s also very important to know Coppinger & Coppinger (2001) have discovered dogs have a set prey drive, this prey drive goes in a set pattern that could change slightly through breeding, based on the dogs intended purpose i.e herding dogs and hunting dogs etc... The PREDATORY MOTOR PATTERN (PMP) depends on the type of dog.

When a larger dog plays with a smaller dog or there may be a situation through over-arousal, perhaps the larger dog is getting frustrated with the smaller dog, the smaller dog yelps or runs away, this can cause the larger dog to switch into SEEKING.

At that moment there is a chemical reaction! A dopamine dump into their system and an ‘alert arousal’ without any emotion. Your dog is now not thinking in their right mind or hearing anything you say. Their PREDATORY MOTOR PATTERN has begun!

of course we know dogs (and humans) learn a lot through play and when your playing tug of war with your pup or fetch you will see them practicing parts of their motor pattern, this is harmless learning and will help to channel their original bred perpose (motor pattern) into a productive way.

The typical dog has a predatory motor pattern as follows:

orient > eye-stalk > chase > grab-bite > kill-bite > dissect > consume.

A Boarder Collie's predatory motor pattern will go as follows:

orient > EYE-STALK > chase dissect>consume

The eye-stalk is in capitals because the drive is so strong in boarder collies, grab-bite and kill-bite are faults in the collies sequence. A border collie that bites is considered to be a 'failed' dog in the working community. Collies are bred for a distinct PMP and if ever they don’t for fill that potential the PMP behaviour cannot be taught so the Collie usually ends up in a pet owners care….then think children and groups of dogs at the park, live stock and even cars and bicycle or runners! that is why collies struggle as pets….

The GIF above is a very good example of a collie going through these motions orient>EYE-STALK (see if you can see the eye stalk, paw lift and lip lick as excitement levels lift slightly and he gets ready to run!) and his owner is keeping him there to prevent a chase at the wrong time, it doesn’t matter that this dog is waiting for it’s turn to have ago at agility, that’s why you see so many collies in sports because without it they will struggle to for fill their internal desire to perform their innately charged PMP and receive their well deserved dopamine rush.

If your like me then you can see where we are going with this and also how its very relevant to basic dog training skills. Hopefully I havnt lost you yet.

So now we put these together and what the science and studies conclude, conducted by these scientist and many others, is that when a dog is bred to have these behaviours such as collies, grey hounds, pointers, spaniels or German shepherds and they are innocently playing, with too much of the wrong sort of stimulation they can switch from PLAY into SEEKING which activates the Predatory motor pattern, and that is what we refer to as PREDATORY DRIFT! Also when a dog is faced with a (the right trigger for them.... a smell, bird, running small furry thing, objects moving at a distance) trigger they can go into their PMP (this is important and i will get to that)

When this happens, when they activate their motor patterns it is an instant switch.. it's like a blinding light that comes on that they can't help but stare at with blinkers and ear muffs to the rest of the world....

So, if we look at the German Shepherd Dog, effectively bred for guarding so their predator motor pattern may look like this one: (Coppinger and Coppinger, 2001; Serpell, 2005)

Orient > eye-stalk > CHASE > GRAB-BITE > kill-bite > dissect > consume

What does all this mean for you?

When a dog is in PLAY mode they can switch from PLAY to SEEKING and activate their PREDATOR MOTOR PATTERN. Increased arousal, with an increase in dopamine that supports each part of the PMP, this means each faze of the pattern is activated by the last until the pattern is complete or interrupted.

PLAY circuitry is switched off and SEEKING is switched on.

There are often the signals of this change in body language such as: • Lip-licking • Intense staring, fixed on target, in any position, sit, stand, down or moving. • Fixed mouth • Forward movement of the body • Paw lift • Stiff tail • Ears are forward and stiff • Stillness • Mouth and face are usually stiff although the tongue may be out. • It may involve a down watch behaviour in preparation for the chase.

If the dog exhibiting these behaviours is not interrupted then they will likely go on to the next action in their PMP.

When the switch happens, a dog in SEEKING is NOT thinking emotionally or even acting with much conscious thought at all, it is aroused but NOT emotional. This is where a dog does not recall...and just focuses on the “prey” (another dog, a car, child, bird, robber etc…), a lovely example of this is when a spaniel or cockapoo seems to be ignoring you with their nose to the floor, tail in the air following a scent..... or a GSD pinning a terrier.... or charging at the posty…. your attempts to control your dog are literally falling on deaf ears! The dog you love and cherish has just reminded you that they are an animal at the end of the day and this drive can be nearly impossible for them to ignore!

Once a dog does this and god forbid causes injury through this process, CARE will need to be taken in future when exposed to a similar trigger again! The drive will return quickly and the dog will want that same rush of dopamine again, like an addict, and there ability to listen to you diminishes quickly.

Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.

Be sure to observe your large dogs around smaller dogs and your collies, spaniels, GSD's or grey hounds around other animals and in highly stimulated areas etc... and don’t let them self reward in this way where ever possible. It is vital that you as an owner are aware of this switch to look out for the change that CAN happen occasionally. If you know about your breeds history you can help them channel their PMP in a positive way through training and play.

Of course not all unwanted sniffing/hunting or dog aggression is due to this, at times they can simply just be becuase it’s enjoyable or your dogs nervous and are warning away that scary approaching dog (that might not be that scary) or perhaps they are in pain, havnt understood your boundarie, trying to play or have just had a bad day (trigger stacking).

Trigger stacking is just like if we have had a bad day at work, terrible traffic on the way home and a diversion taking you out 20mins and over a pot hole that damaged your car and then you walk in the house to your husband who just burnt the dinner and broke a plate….. you would most likely explode at your husband…. with dogs…. the triggers may be things that we don’t notice and it‘s alittle more about energy levels…. Raising excitement and sensations etc…,

How We Can Have A Say

• You may want to consider positively introducing a muzzle. A well fitted basket Muzzle that is introduced using reward-based learning is best.

• Use a harness and a long line lead for control in a situation where your recall might fail.

• Practice ‘recall‘ and ‘leave it’ and proof it! I cannot stress this enough, do not let your dog self reward.

• Avoid leaving your dog alone with other dogs, animals or children without supervision, always have a 3rd eye on them. Use a crate or another room for the dog to relax and rest in when the adults are not present.

• Work to interrupt the PMP before it escalates, you can seek the help of a POSITIVE REWARD BASED TRAINER (RBT) and don’t delay, most good behaviourists and trainers have waiting lists and get booked up, getting this under control from the onset can help in the road to better understanding and control. This behaviour cannot be fixed or cured but can be managed and helped.

(see Cooper et al, 2014 who found POSITIVE REWARD BASED TRAINING more effective than punishment-based methods)

So what I’m basically saying is…. It’s my job to find all the latest evidence out there and give that to you in understandable ways so you can make informed choices about how to parent your dog. I hope you have found this interesting and it can open your eyes to some of the ways your dog may behave and why.

Think smart and be a responsible dog owner.


Coppinger, R. and Coppinger, L. (2001) Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution. New York, USA: Scribner.

Cooper, J.J., Cracknell, N., Hardiman, J., Wright, H. and Mills, D. (2014) ‘The Welfare Consequences and Efficacy of Training Pet Dogs with Remote Electronic Training Collars in Comparison to Reward Based Training.’ PloS One 9 e102722 https://doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102722

Serpell, J. (ed) (2005) The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behavior, and Interaction with People. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Panksepp, J. (2004) Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, USA; Oxford University Press

Panksepp, J. and Biven, L. (2012) The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotion. USA: W.W. Norton and Co.

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