Dog’s Eye View: Predatory drift

Laura Tyler/For the Steamboat Today

Reports about regional wild game attacks on humans and dogs this past summer brings up some interesting points. We live in a perfect habitat for wildlife encounters, and as human population grows, we realize that co-habitating is becoming increasingly problematic.

We can argue who was here first all day long, but in the end it boils down to our shrinking wildlife habitat and increasing human population. The fact that most of us have added canines to our families increases the conflict between us and the wildlife our area is known for. When our family dog becomes a predator in the environment, he can become a dangerous liability.

Several years ago, the phrase “predatory drift” was coined by some leaders in the field of dog training and behavior. And we trainers often find ourselves arguing about the definition we should use to describe this shift in behavior.

So, just for the opportunity to open this dialog, I’ll give it a go. Predatory drift, in my opinion, is when our domesticated canine family members show a behavior that overrides our relationship and the rules of our domesticated society. They no longer can respond to our calls to come back or stop what they are doing. They are in the mindset of a predator. I’ve described this shift in a previous article called “Locate, Lock and Launch.” Keep in mind that this definition is fluid. I think that circumstances can change this characterization depending on contributing factors.

Remember we have genetically manipulated dogs for thousands of years. As an example, we’ve bred herding dogs to orient, eye, stalk and chase. These would be classified as “breed typical motor patterns.”

We’ve bred these dogs to minimize or extinguish, grab bite or kill bite. Herding dogs that cross the line are not acceptable for the work they were bred to do. The original complete motor patterns are still there but they are minimized through specific breed selection and temperament.

When our domesticated companion dog switches from hiking buddy to running down any type of wildlife, he has drifted over the line. He has shifted from companion dog to predator. I have seen this “drift” in my own rat terrier when we are out hiking in lizard country. She would fall over from heat stroke rather than give up on getting a lizard out from under a rock. Granted, this is predation on a very small scale but behavior is behavior and yes, size matters. Without my intervention in giving her a reality check and removing her from the area, she might dig herself all the way to Australia.

Anytime we let our dogs loose on the trail, we are rolling the dice. Will we encounter wildlife? Can you keep your dog in sight? Is your dog checking in frequently? Are you communicating with your dog? How reliable is your recall? Can you call her back and away from trouble such as skunks, porcupine, bears, coyotes, deer or moose? The only surefire way to prevent this is by keeping your dog in sight and on leash.

Some experts would argue that once your dog crosses that “line,” the shift becomes easier every time it happens.

Does that mean that our long-standing domestication, smart human manipulation of temperament and genetics might eventually fail? I certainly don’t have a “one size fits all” answer to that.

My affection and fondness for my little dog leads me to consider that I am not willing to take that chance. I prefer to nourish the companionship our relationship is built upon. And so, we are the guardians and teachers for our own companion dogs. The buck stops here, no pun intended!

Laura Tyler is a certified professional dog trainer with 25+ years of experience and has earned associate certification through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She owns Total Teamwork Training LLC here in Northwest Colorado.

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