Understanding the different drives that dogs exhibit
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Understanding the different drives that dogs exhibit

When we talk about dogs and “drives” in terms of their motivations and innate, instinctive responses to things, we’re usually talking about prey drive – the propensity that dogs almost universally possess to purse smaller animals that they view as potential prey.

Dogs can be trained and conditioned to manage their prey drive and even share a home successfully and safely with smaller pets like cats and rabbits in some cases, but this does not come naturally to most dogs, because the prey drive has evolved as a strong motivation in most dog breeds in order to give them the best chances of catching enough food and surviving in the wild.

Even though dogs have been domesticated and lived alongside of people for millennia, they still retain many instincts like prey drive, as well as a number of other so-called drives too, which are less well known by most dog owners.

In this article we will provide a brief introductory outline of the different drives that dogs exhibit, with a short explanation for each of them and why they are present. Read on to learn more about the different drives that dogs can exhibit.

Prey drive

Prey drive is of course the drive that most of us have at least a passing familiarity with, and this is the instinct that dogs have to pursue what they consider to be prey. This drive evolved to ensure that wild dogs and the ancestors of our pet dogs today could get enough food, and because their survival depended upon it, this is probably the strongest drive that modern dogs continue to exhibit today.

Food drive

A dog’s food drive refers to their motivations when it comes to food, and dogs as a whole are of course highly motivated in this regard; most dogs will eat whatever and whenever food is available, and scavenge and beg for other morsels too!

The dog’s food drive can be harnessed in useful ways, such as by using food rewards as training treats, but we also need to take steps to control and manage the dog’s food intake, to prevent them from eating things that might be harmful to them and to keep them at a healthy weight.

Pack and social drive

Dogs are by nature pack animals, and this helped dogs in the wild to form cooperative groups that helped to increase the odds of each member of the pack surviving and thriving, as well as providing vital companionship and social opportunities.

Dogs today still exhibit strong pack and social drives, which is why play with others is so rewarding and something that most dogs are keen to get involved in. Dogs are also highly social with people too, and view their human families as an important part of their own packs.

Defensive and territorial drive

Most dogs establish their own clearly defined territory, which usually encompasses their home and garden and that may be a shared territory with other dogs that share the home.

This is something that dogs in the wild do too, and they will defend their territories against other dogs from outside of the pack and other potential threats as well. How territorial any given dog is can be quite variable, and some breeds are much more territorial than others – but even very small and shy dogs usually define a territory that they will guard or watch over for potential threats, even if they would not be sure what to do if a threat did actually arise!

The defensive drive can also be applied to displaying a level or protectiveness over human family members, other dogs in the pack or even other pets that share the home, and can result in some dogs being very protective of their owners and families and stepping in between them and strangers or visitors.

Herding drive

The herding drive is innate to many dog breeds that have historically been used for working herding roles, such as the Border collie, which is still widely used in such a capacity today.

Dogs of herding breeds don’t usually need to be taught how to herd and round up livestock, although they do need to be taught the relevant commands for when and how to do this (and when not to) and how to do it properly. Even dogs that have never worked in a herding capacity themselves will still often display the herding drive if they come from a traditional herding breed, which may manifest ad rounding up your smaller pets, or even children!

Hunting/tracking drive

Closely connected to the prey drive that we mentioned earlier on is the drive to hunt or track, which is the motivation that keeps hounds that hunt by scent or sight on the trail and committed to finding their target.

This drive has been harnessed very successfully by humans to assist with scenting and trailing for a wide range of applications, like search and rescue, contraband detection, and police work. Again, some breeds and types of dogs display the hunting or tracking instinct more strongly than most others, such as the tenacious Bloodhound, the most talented scenthound of all.

Retrieving drive

Another core drive in dogs that tends to manifest more strongly in some breeds than in others is the drive to retrieve things. Retrieving is different from pursuing and catching prey because the dog’s motivation is to find or collect the item in question and carry it safely back to their handler or home, and many dog breeds such as the Labrador retriever are excellent at doing this.

Dogs that are only really happy when they have a ball or a toy in their mouths and those that will cheerfully chase and bring back a ball or toy that you throw for them tend to exhibit a generally strong drive to retrieve.

Play drive

Play is an important part of life for a well-rounded and happy dog, and dogs are as a whole playful and fun-loving animals that enjoy being silly and having a good time, and they tend to retain these traits for the whole duration of their lives, although older dogs are naturally less playful than pups.

The play drive helps to provide an outlet for fun and entertainment, as well as socialisation as play is usually interactive, and virtually all dogs display some form of interest in play, even though this can be quite different from dog to dog.

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