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Understanding Your Dog: Drives and Instincts

Gold Coast Dog Trainer

At Found by the Hound we often talk about “Drives and Instincts” fueling your dog to behave in different ways. Each dog is unique, they are an individual and what drives one dog, may not resonate with the dog next to them. What drives a dog is part of their genetic and phycological makeup and a very important element that we as the owner need to identify in order to either manage it or work with it.

It is important to understand the drives motivating your dog's behaviour. Dogs are born with their natural drives and instincts. They can be developed, meaning they can be made stronger, but conversely, are difficult if not impossible, to eliminate.

- Prey Drive

- Predatory Instinct

- Guarding Instinct

- Defence

- Food Drive

Let’s put it into a picture; Out in the wild a bird flies or a rabbit runs, triggered by movement the dog kicks into Prey Drive and chases after it. Predatory Instinct takes over and he dog does a grab, shake, bite, kill. Once the animal is dead the dog may Guard over it and back any other dog away with Defence and then he eats it … Food Drive. These are all natural.

You will see your dog display many of these natural drives and instincts on a day to day basis – chasing the wheels of a bicycle or skateboard (prey drive); grabbing a soft toy and shaking it (predatory instinct); guarding over a delicious bone; barking at someone coming near the house (Defence).

So let’s break down the most common forms of Drives and instincts found in dogs today.


A dog's food drive is a measurement of its desire to eat. Different breeds of dogs will have different levels of food drive, and even within a breed you will find individual dogs with different levels. Labradors and Beagles for example, typically possess a higher food drive but of course some will not.

A dog that has a high food drive will eat well past capacity. These dogs will typically do anything for food and when food is around it becomes their primary focus forgetting everything else happening around them. If you can identify high food drive in your dog, it’s important that your dog does not have access to other bowls and even if he appears to still be hungry, only feed him the recommended amount (if you are unsure, contact your local vet).

Submitting to your dog’s desire can result in rapid weight gain or obesity. A balanced diet is essential (as well as will power to not overfeed, even when you get puppy-dog-eyes).

A benefit of owning a dog with high food drive is that it can be significantly easier to train them. Dogs who are motivated by food will do almost anything for a treat meaning you can use this to your advantage during training and often see quick results.

For more information about how to train a dog with low food drive, contact the team at Found by the Hound for our recommendations.


It is important to note that dogs are predators and will all possess some level of prey drive. Although today they are domesticated, this instinct can still be prevalent in many dogs, some more so than others. As the owners you may have identified behavioural traits in your dog that suggest your dog is prey driven. Fixating and obsessing over anything that is moving is common for dogs that have high prey drive. They will focus on a leaf blowing past, an ant crawling on the ground, a shadow and any fast-moving object in general.

Whilst prey drive is a dog being triggered by movement. It often leads to predatory sequence. This is the act of a dog going into hunting drive. Stalking, chasing, biting and doing a shake and kill are the stages of predatory sequence.

Prey drive is not due to a dog being aggressive, rather being driven to chase moving items.

Hunting, Herding, Sight hounds and guardian breeds can typically have a higher prey drive than most making them excellent working dogs. But prey drive can be seen in high levels in terriers and smaller dogs too.

As “drives” can be developed over time, it is important that you understand what builds prey drive so that those in your home can avoid or implement certain things. Here is a quick list;

- Don’t encourage games of chase (especially with small children). Whilst this is fun for you, it can mean something else entirely for your dog

- Use a lead to help teach a dog to control its prey drive. Dogs need to learn impulse control. This must be done very carefully because if the lead is used incorrectly it could have the reverse effect by building frustration and build the drive

- Speak to a professional about how to manage and teach your dog impulse control

- Engage your dog in a game of “fetch” which involves chasing, catching and retrieving. This can provide a healthy outlet for his instincts.


Play drive is your dogs will and want to engage in fun activities with you and/or other dogs. Dogs that have high play drive would rather play and will forgo food and other motivators in the name of having fun and playing.

Dogs with high play drive typically love playing fetch with you and will keep bringing the ball back and dropping it for you just so you will play.

This drive is very sought after in the dog training world as they are great to train for many different things. Play becomes their rewards and they are often used in many working roles for dogs throughout the world, including sniffer dogs and assistance dogs.


A dog with a high defence will have distinct personal space. The instinct to maintain a self-perceived personal bubble. They will often allow people or dogs that they feel comfortable with into their personal space, but any unknown person or dog will often be met with undesirable behaviours such as avoiding the person, barking at them, growling, baring teeth and potentially biting if warnings are not listened too.

Defensive dogs are often labelled unfriendly or shy but an actual fact these dogs just want space. As owners it is up to us to protect our dogs. If a child was uncomfortable with physical contact from a stranger would you force your child to allow strangers to touch them? The answer is no. Therefore, it is important to let people know to stay out of your dog’s personal space so they are not pushed into feeling uncomfortable.

For training methods to help understand and manage a defensive dog, contact the team at Found by the Hound.


A guard dog is derived from being a dog with a higher guard drive. People often mix defence and guarding up. Guarding instinct is where your dog will protect over something, they think is valuable.

Valuable items can vary from dog to dog. They can include;






-places of comfort

-places of elevation (i.e. your lap, the sofa)

This is not a limited list as some dogs will find a particular object important and guarding will be displayed.

Guarding is often labelled as “food aggression”. Dogs behaving aggressively over their food is more often than not due to a dogs naturally high guarding drive. Many owners who own a dog with high guarding, may notice their puppy guarding in some cases as young as 8 weeks old growling when they have a toy or bone and people will be highly concerned about their dogs’ aggression. This is guarding and a true indication to the fact it is an instinct and not a learned behaviour that owners have created.

Owners may not have created this behaviour but if handled incorrectly this can often become much worse over time. As puppies develop more confidence and owners are mismanaging the behaviour the behaviour can quickly get out of control and result in someone getting bitten.

If you require some help understanding and learning about your dog’s natural guarding drive please contact us a Found By The Hound.


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