Your Dog’s Predatory Nature

One aspect of dog training I love is the opportunity to work with many different types of dogs.  Every dog has a unique story, but they all have something in common…the remnants of their ancestor’s predatory instinct. 

Wolves and other canids have what is called a Predatory Motor Pattern, which goes as follows: 

  • ORIENT (sniff out the prey)
  • EYE  (get prey to freeze in place)
  • STALK (slowly approach to get closer and gain advantage)
  • CHASE (exhaust prey to collapse)
  • GRAB-BITE (catch prey)
  • KILL-BITE (kill prey)
  • DISSECT (underbelly
  • CONSUME (organs are consumed first because they are most nutritious)

This pattern has been essential to survival for hundreds of thousands of years. Like dominoes, ‘Orient’ naturally triggers the next step in the sequence until prey is caught and ‘Consumed’. If they fail to catch any prey then the process starts again. The success rate for wolves, by the way, is about 15%

Then modern humans came along

Over the past 14 thousand years, humans have been MANipulating this Predatory Motor Pattern to create various types of dogs for multiple types of jobs.  In typical human fashion, we favored some aspects over others. For instance:

  • Hunters wanted a dog to ORIENT > EYE > STALK > CHASE > GRAB-BITE. But stop at KILL-BITE
  • Shepherds wanted a dog to ORIENT > EYE > STALK. But stop at CHASE.
  • People with a rat problem wanted a dog that loved to GRAB-BITE and KILL-BITE all day long.

However, in today’s world

Most folks simply want a companion, a goodwill ambassador to walk beside them calmly through life, and by all means…forgo the KILL BITE!

That said, being a companion and goodwill ambassador in today’s world could be the most challenging job yet because all dogs still have this powerful sequence firmly in their DNA. Just ask any squirrel… they know your dog!

Photo by Marcin Wojna

Drive, Persistence, and Doggedness

Every part of this Predatory Motor Pattern needs energy to fuel the sequence and in dog training, we call that force Drive.

Drive describes a dog’s persistence. Depending on where that drive is focused begets a certain type of dog.  

  • Hounds are more driven to ORIENT(sniffing) and CHASE. 
  • Herding dogs are more driven to EYE and STALK. 
  • Retrievers are more driven to CHASE and GRAB-BITE (softly) 
  • Terriers are all about that KILL BITE, just watch a Yorkie shake a toy to death and dissect for the coveted squeaker.
  • Supermutts could have the entire sequence or any combination thereof.

Humans did not train any particular instinct into or out of the dog. Certain parts of the Predatory Motor Pattern were altered by selectively breeding dogs with heightened drive energy in desired parts of the sequence. The best sniffer/chasers were bred with other good sniffer/chasers and Hounds came into being. The best Eye/Stalkers were bred with other good Eye/Stalkers and Herding Dogs came into being. I really oversimplified this process, but that’s a general concept and for the most part, it was successful!  Right?

Well, we now have a bit of a problem

We now have various types of specialized dogs with massive drive energy flowing through incomplete Predatory Motor Patterns and very few jobs available for which they were specifically designed. If you think that sounds frustrating, you’re right! A dog is happiest when it is living out its purpose and we must provide our dogs with the opportunity to exercise their specific purpose. In short…it’s their mental health.

Now I’m not proposing owners of terriers buy rats for disembowelment fun, but we should consider their needs in regard to how and why we play/train with our dogs. Below are some common games and toys we already use that can satiate each aspect of the Predatory Motor Pattern. Which ones does your dog naturally gravitate toward?

ORIENT: Sniffing new territories. Hide and Seek. Find It games hiding treats or toys.

EYE:  Eye contact exercises with treats and toys as well as incorporating eye contact into your training and playing. Socializating with other dogs and people.

STALK:  Dogs will sometimes play this with other dogs, but we can also incorporate a favorite toy that a dog has to ‘wait’ to pounce on. Flirt Pole. 

CHASE:  Fetch and retrieve, lure sport, frisbee, and Flirt Pole. Dogs will also play chase with other dogs.

GRAB-BITE:  Fetch, tug-o-war, stuffed toys, tennis ball.  Chew toys that offer resistance. Flirt Pole.  (I prefer this to be played in a specific context with the OUT command)

KILLBITE:  Plush toys with squeakers.  Toys that can be shaken and thrashed. (I prefer this to be played in a specific context with the OUT command)

DISSECT:  Toys that can be torn apart to remove the squeaker. Sticks, uncooked bones, antlers, animal part treats, and Kongs. (Monitor your dog if they tend to consume sticks and plastic. Dogs should also be positively conditioned to not be possessive)

CONSUME:  Find it games with treats and Kongs with food.  

Your dog may like to play specific games over others and that is OK!  Most likely they have a partial Predatory Motor Pattern.  My dog Belle for instance loves to ORIENT (sniff), CHASE (frisbee and balls), and DISSECT (remove squeakers from plush toys).  She is a hound mix and chasing squirrels and rabbits is her nature. 

People who enjoy dog sports, agility, and protection dog competitions, are more likely to prefer a higher drive dog for better performance.  I am the opposite, I typically want to use up drive energy as soon as I see it build, which I feel makes for a calmer, everyday dog.

A dog’s Predatory Motor Pattern cannot be trained out of a dog, nor should we try. It is literally what makes a dog a dog. I seek to reduce the energy that fuels the Predatory Motor Pattern by providing mentally stimulating situations to exhaust drive energy as efficiently as possible.

A tired dog is a happy dog and that makes for a happy human.

Why do we train our dogs?

Everyone knows they should train their dog, but for what purpose?  While there are countless sources from books, videos, classes, and personal trainers that will tell you HOW TO train your dog, I feel we should pause and ask the important question, “Why do we train our dogs?”   Once we understand the WHY, we can set proper expectations and reach those goals with greater efficiency. First let’s break down 3 intrinsic traits of dogs, explain what we have done with those traits over the millennia, and see how our relationship with dogs dramatically changed, relatively overnight.

Photo by John Tuesday


Before obedience training became a concept after World War II,  dogs were simply bred and refined for their natural instincts.  Retrievers with strong retrieving instincts were bred to other strong retrievers.  Herding dogs with the strongest herding instinct were bred with other strong herders.  Hounds with strong instincts to track were bred to others with those qualities. You cannot train instinct into a dog, they either have it or they do not. Over the millennia we selected specific, naturally occurring, qualities in dogs that served us best and worked to enhance them. Some commands were used with certain types of dogs like the herding dog, but the commands were applied to the natural instinctive behavior already within them.


We also preferred a certain amount of independence in a dog that would do a job regardless of the owner being around.  For instance, the terrier of the past should wake up every morning eager to hunt rats regardless of his owner being on the scene. Hounds were released into the woods to corner or run something up a tree, make a ton of noise in the process and continue to make that noise until the hunter later found them and the quarry they tracked. Flock protectors were bred to live with sheep in the mountains for weeks and months on end without human interaction. They even had to find their own food!  None of these qualities were trained into existence.  The raw characteristic had to be there first. 


 Persistence was another natural trait that humans needed in their dogs. A dog was supposed to work like… well…a dog.  No hunter wanted a dog that gave up and went home.  No farmer wanted a dog that got tired of chasing sheep and decided to take a nap under the front porch.  They wanted a dog that was obsessed with the challenge laid before it. Once again this is not a quality that could be trained, a dog either had a superior drive or they did not.

Photo by Jamie Street

So then what are we training for?

Practically everyone I work with wants a personal relationship with their dog and that is fantastic!  They do not want a furry employee. They want a sidekick to go through life with them, not something to dominate.  When I get a call it is usually for either behavioral issues or a puppy that is proving to be a handful. My approach to teaching is to not only focus on HOW to train but also balance that teaching with WHY we need to train and it is usually not for the reasons most people think.  

For quite some time the purpose of basic obedience training has been to blunt instinct, independence and persistence so the dog is able to fit into our modern lifestyles, which is going 180 degrees from the direction most dogs were originally bred for. Many types of dogs were bred for outdoor work and now we want them to be indoor dogs.  People now want relationships and companionship, not hardcore instincts, independence mixed with an insatiable drive.  And with that abrupt change comes a new set of challenges. Dogs are extremely adaptable, but we must keep in mind that the above intrinsic aspects are still very much in their DNA and one could argue we are trying to train dogs to a more sophisticated level of domestication. 

I train for the connection. Whether it be a simple SIT to a more difficult LONG-DOWN-STAY, reinforcing our connection should be the prime objective in our training.  In other words, the objective of training your dog to sit is not the sit itself, but the reinforcement of your bond.  If your objective for SIT is purely for the sit..then you will have no fun in that and neither will your dog.  If your objective is the excitement and novelty of understanding each other then you will feel much more celebratory and want to continue doing more and your dog will be more engaged as well.

Case in point, being trained for a job is not much fun no matter how you slice it. You perform the task and get an unenthusiastic “Good… you got it. Let’s move on…” But playing the game Charades is much more engaging and exciting.  Why is that?  It’s a team effort and the reward is not in getting the answer right but in the excitement of overcoming obstacles in communication. Once you figure that part out, your team is unstoppable.  Another fun point about Charades, the responsibility for the spectator to figure out the answer falls mostly on the person conveying the clues.  The spectator is already very engaged in figuring it out, but it is up to the person providing the clues to figure out the best approach and encourage the spectator, as they are getting it, with proper timing. The same is true with dog training, the dog is fully engaged and it is up to us to encourage the dog as they reach the desired end result. The simple objective of playing Charades is of course to win, but the real objective from the beginning is bonding as a group and having fun, and that is the objective for training our dogs in today’s world.  It is not training dogs for a job, but rather learning to communicate and strengthen your connection. While the act of sitting, staying, waiting, or leaving something is important for a dog to learn, the act itself is secondary to the main objective which is to reinforce your connection with your dog.  Otherwise, what is the point? 

Like any game played successfully, the accomplishment should inspire us to play again or increase the level of difficulty.  The hard part for many dog owners is staying consistent in their training exercises. However, when we put things in the context of strengthening our connection, we begin to see an array of benefits that inspire us to continue the exploration with our dog.  When we start to see things in those terms it becomes a lot less human-commanding-dog and dog-obeys, to human and dog communicating with each other, period.  Which I think is pretty dang neat. 

Photo by Jamie Street

Incorporate Training Into Your Everyday Life

There’s an assumption floating around that we have to be formal and rigid with training and that there needs to be a certain set and setting for it to occur. While that may be the case for the actual learning of a specific command, the real training occurs outside of your home and back yard, in the real world. The real world is random, chaotic, and likes to throw wing dings into your plans. It is where we “proof” our training to help us and our dogs filter all the distractions which are more novel and potent at the moment than our influence. In these videos we see examples of using the “PLACE” command.

Belle and I often hike in the woods, and it is easy for me to become absorbed in the hike while she gets lost in the wild scent of nature. However, it is precisely in these instances that we have a great opportunity to develop our connection, in that setting, through training.

In the first video, Belle and I are practicing “Place” on some cut logs from a fallen tree, which lays across an abandoned road. After making sure the logs were secure and could not roll, we practiced in the location. Belle is pretty athletic and loves to jump on logs all the time without being asked, however, on this occasion we did it with intention and timing. By doing this we are associating fun and excitement with a command. Also notice that no purchase of special equipment is needed to perform this activity.

As with all training, we want our dogs to “WANT” to perform what is asked. Training should be an engaging, bonding, and a character-building exercise for you both as a team!

You don’t have to make special hikes to the woods in order to perform this command, you can use manhole covers, picnic tables in a park,(as seen in the videos below), or an old tree stump. In your home, you can use a cushion or even the living room couch if you allow your dog on the furniture. And, in case you are wondering, YES, I let Belle sit where ever she wants. That’s how we roll in our home!

Being non-reactive to wildlife

Clouds are rolling in the distance and a whispering breeze smells of rain. A young male deer is relaxing downwind from Belle, but I doubt we would stir him if he caught our scent. These deer live in an urban paradise of slow traffic and well-manicured gardens, full of food, tended by gardeners who mumble about them under their breath. Belle definitely smells him though and if she were to chase after him he would most certainly leap away with his tail in the air. I told Belle to down and wait. Allowing a moment of calm to happen then called her towards me so we could walk on. At first, I was speaking a bit too quiet for Belle to hear me clearly, but once she did, she calmly gets up and walks away then gives me a look for confirmation. I give her a pat on the side for a job well done. Hounds were bred for endless chases and it takes work to blunt this drive, but it can be done. I am not a hunter by any means. If I shoot anything, it’s with a camera. But if I were to hunt, I would not aim for this result. Hounds were developed for massive energy to exhaust their quarry, run it up a tree, and tell the hunter where they are with endless loud bays that can be heard for miles.. However, more hounds are finding their way to suburban neighborhoods and cities and will never be on a hunt, So we must help condition them to be less reactive to this innate drive, for their safety and the owner’s sanity.

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