Understanding Prey Drive

Understanding prey drive in greyhounds

Greyhounds have been specifically bred and trained to chase using their sight. Lack of appropriate early socialisation, particularly around other dog breeds means that some greyhounds are at serious risk of taking things too far in some situations. It is therefore vitally important to understand prey drive so that we can ensure our greyhounds are safe, as well as other animals in their vicinity.

To ensure survival, all animals have a part of their brain dedicated to predation. However, the combination of genetics with a general lack of experience with other breeds means that some greyhounds are unable to distinguish other breeds as “dogs”; viewing them instead as a form of prey.

What is prey drive?

Prey drive is one of the most poorly understood aspects of a greyhound’s personality.

Put simply, prey drive is the catching and killing of another animal for consumption. In this way it differs to aggression, which is utilised for intimidation or as a threat.

Prey drive is fun for dogs, whereas aggression is not.

Prey drive is adrenalin fuelled and therefore offers a chemical reward for the dog. They are reacting on impulse, rather than using the logical, thinking part of their brain, so familiarity and former friendships are often forgotten in the heat of the moment.

For many greyhounds, the opportunity to express this behaviour in an otherwise socially devoid racing kennel environment may enhance its intensity.

Assessment of prey drive risk

When we make a decision to bring an animal such as a greyhound into our lives, we must understand and accept that prey drive is at times very much a part of who they are. Therefore we all must take appropriate steps to minimise the risks to other people and their own much loved family pets.

For re-homers, this means taking the time to discuss these risks with the novice greyhound adopter.

Prey drive in moderation should not be considered a flaw in their personality. It remains prevalent in a significant number of greyhounds, even after being granted a muzzle free exemption.

A greyhound allowed to chase small dogs around the park is a completely different scenario to one that remains under control on a leash.

Muzzle free status generally means the dog has only been assessed as being a low risk whilst on a lead. Fair enough, given otherwise it is a fairly unattainable standard for a significant percentage of the greyhound population. It must be remembered that it is a one-off assessment, offering no guarantee of safety in all situations; this remains the responsibility of the owner.

Prey drive thresholds

Prey drive has variable thresholds too.

Greyhounds can live harmoniously alongside one small dog, yet may not be reliable around other unfamiliar small dogs. Why? Because prey drive is an inherited, instinctive and hard-wired genetic trait over which the dog has little or no control.

It is dependent on the individual dog’s level of prey drive and its excitement or mood on the day. For example, a dog that is at an “open day” event may be too anxious about his surroundings to demonstrate prey drive, thus appear to ignore other dogs.

However, this is not an accurate indication that he is “safe” in all situations.

This is, in my opinion, a fundamental flaw with prolonged assessment processes that take the dog out of its familiar environment. Some greyhounds may be living harmoniously amongst cats in foster, yet revert to being unsafe weeks or months after adoption as their self-confidence grows and the anxiety of urban living reduces.

There are a percentage of greyhounds that can never be trusted around other animals, and no amount of socialisation or counter conditioning is going to change that.

Whilst prey drive is a normal dog behaviour, it crosses the line when the dog is allowed to be out of control, for example in an off-leash park.

Having assessed hundreds of greyhounds, I can verify that the significance of prey drive should not be underestimated. To do so is irresponsible, putting our greyhounds, other people and their pets at unnecessary risk. It also serves to undermine the collective adoption effort.

Muzzling exemption assessments do not replace the need for owner education. This is, in fact, riskier than removing the muzzling exemption altogether, the latter making no false promises of safety being assured.

From a public safety perspective, a behavioural assessment prior to adoption is crucial to determine where in the spectrum of prey drive a greyhound sits, particularly if adoptive families have other pets and children at home.

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Recognizing Prey Drive

Being essentially a hunting dog, a moderate level of prey drive is not unexpected in greyhounds.

It is, of course a behaviour that is not unique to greyhounds. Certainly, modification of current training techniques and enhanced opportunities for socialisation when puppies are young would have a significant impact on reducing the intensity of this behaviour.

Once again, this remains true for all breeds.

There is no correlation between racing ability, racing history and safety around other animals.

Due to the nature of prey drive, signs may be misinterpreted as play. They include, but are not limited to:

  • – Dog becoming excited & difficult to distract
  • – Shaking, trembling, fixed stare
  • – May be unable to take their eyes off the small dog
  • – Neck arched, tail up, stiff stance
  • – Trying to encourage the small dog to move; the greyhound may be rough with the small dog e.g. placing a paw on it, bunting with its nose over the neck or abdomen, vocalising

If you see any of these signs, please immediately take control & remove your dog from the situation. It is likely to escalate very quickly.

As mentioned, whilst prey drive is not unique to greyhounds, perplexingly they are the only breed to be muzzled by default in some areas of Australia.

Do you own a greyhound that is susceptible to prey drive? How do you cope with this when you are out and about? Tell us below.

Karen Dawson - Pet Behaviour Clinic

©Dr Karen Dawson BVSc Hons BSc, Pet Behaviour Clinic