“Predatory Drift,” Revisited

I received an email the other day from a reader of my blog entry “Modern Animal Behavior: A Lot Has Changed in the Last Few Decades.”

He said, “I am a volunteer assisting in the training of staff as animal handlers at a dog day-care facility. I am having a difficult time addressing the predatory drift issue, as many young people have learned that some naturally evolved behaviors such as male posturing and threat displays are actually improper, and unnatural behaviors. Would you kindly address this issue in a future blog to help young people understand both the mechanisms underlying what we perceive as ‘predatory drift’, as well as the major misconceptions surrounding it? I am unable to prevent the misperception of posturing, threat displays and the like as pure aggression, due primarily to the fact that most everyone has witnessed or heard of attacks at dog parks on yelping dogs from “aggressive males” preying on what they perceive to be less aggressive, weaker dogs.”

Just to remind you, predatory drift is a concept put forth long ago by Ian Dunbar and championed by Jean Donaldson, for instance, in an article in Dogs in Canada magazine: “predatory drift is the kicking in of predatory reflexes in an interaction that begins as a social interaction.  And, unlike predation, which is predictably elicited in a known quantity by a member of the target group, predatory drift can occur among dogs that had never been predatory before and may never be again.  It kicks in because of specific contextual triggers.”

And so I responded to him, and later, I thought that our conversation (edited a bit and removing identifying information) might be of interest to others as well. So here goes…

It is certainly true that we see true aggression in dogs, and that (very rarely) we see predation, even towards other dogs which are not recognized as “other dogs” due to the massive changes we have produced in their appearance and behavior. A Rottweiler or cattle dog (just to name two of many such breeds), unsupervised with a Yorkie or toy poodle, can sometimes be a very dangerous situation. True or serious aggression, as opposed to anxiety- or submissive-based aggressive displays, is relatively rare but does occur.

My argument in the original blog is that there is no such thing as “predatory drift” in animal behavior: there is no definition of such a mechanism. If you ask a trained, academic, professional animal behaviorist about “predatory drift”, you will receive a blank stare: I know, I’ve tried it.

There is, for instance, play aggression which can, due to hyper-arousal, switch over to true aggression (usually due to either anxiety or dominance aggression). But we don’t call that predatory drift…

There are innate releasers for predatory behavior in a very few breeds: small animal (rat, rabbit, squirrel, small dog, child), moving fast, which can trigger chase behavior, and in rare cases, predatory behavior. But we don’t call this “predatory drift”.

So predatory drift is a created term used by non-animal behaviorists to dump a bunch of actual true mechanisms into one category and give it a single but ill-defined name.

There is no scientific basis to the idea that the yelp of a small dog is an innate releaser for some kind of kill behavior… it IS true that there is an incredible mismatch between some breeds (generally large and small) in their ability to communicate social status, arousal, and intention accurately (due to the selective breeding we have done) and hence, there are many, many incidents of small dogs not being accurately recognized as dogs but more as prey animals. Maulings occur at off-leash dog parks weekly in Seattle, which allows mixing of small and large breeds, and this mix of small and large (or more specifically, more primitive and more derived or genetically-altered) breeds is a real issue.

The yelp is a ‘stop behavior’ signal which is being ignored in high arousal situations… in these incidents, the yelp should immediately halt the behavior but does not, since the predator is over-threshold and/or does not recognize the signal. You hear the yelp frequently, even from big dogs, when rough-and-tumble play goes too far for one participant.

Innate releasers is a fine term for these signals, related to the antiquated “fixed action pattern” concept but still appropriate… innate releasers exist for predation, but only for the appetitive (find and chase) part of the sequence, not for the consummatory (kill and eat) part. By this time in the sequence, the predator has already decided that it is chasing prey (which, as I mention, might be a dog who is not behaving, or looking like, a “dog”).

The use of the non-concept of predatory drift to suggest, as my reader documents, that “threat displays, posturing, and stimulation of larger males must be prevented” is non-science. There is no scientific basis for this. However, you SHOULD be concerned about breed-specific communication abilities and possible ensuing confusion (ie, separating ancestral breeds from modern European, highly-derived/altered breeds), and about assessing and monitoring levels of inhibition. Inhibition issues are also widespread with modern inbreeding and lack of training, and lack of proper early socialization (shelter adoptions), and can lead to dangerous situations: the “stop that” signals, or the “I’m ok being submissive” signals don’t shut off aggressive behavior due to lack of inhibition. This is also an issue in young dogs, as full inhibition does not form until 2 years of age.

These two issues, loss of proper communication ability and lack of inhibition, are the PRIMARY causes of dog-dog aggression, other than the more easily-recognized, and more common, anxiety. But there is no such thing as predatory drift.

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About hafamilyseattle

I am a professor of animal behavior at the University of Washington, specializing in social behavior with a focus on primates, killer whales, crows, and companion animals (dogs and cats). For fun, I love to fish saltwater (spinning, fly), snorkel, and travel with my wife Renee and son Andrew.
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