If you have an urge to create discord and angst, here’s one way to do it: Go to a dog behavior conference or seminar and boldly state, “I think we should discuss the meaning of the term ‘prey drive,’ and decide whether or not we should continue to use it.” Then, make a dash for the exit before it gets ugly.
To most people in the dog world, the term “prey drive” refers to a dog’s eagerness or desire to work hard, especially if the work involves anything related to chasing and capturing prey. It’s a trait that makes many dogs successful in the world of canine sports. The term is often used by people whose dogs participate in agility or f ly ball as well as by those whose dogs work in search and rescue or law enforcement.
Additionally, it has become increasingly popular when discussing dogs with various behavioral issues, typically issues related to chasing (cars, squirrels, runners, bikes, children) and the resulting difficulty in teaching them to come or to pay attention in general around any of these distractions.
Sometimes “prey drive” is used in a positive sense, as in, “She’s excited about working because she has a high prey drive. I love her enthusiasm and motivation, and the prey drive gives her such great endurance too.” It can also be used in a negative way, as in, “I can never let her off-leash in areas that aren’t fenced in. She has such high prey drive that she’ll chase anything. I can’t trust her to come back or stay out of trouble.”
So, though prey drive is commonly used in the dog world, many people dislike it. From an ethological perspective, it doesn’t make sense. If you ask an ethologist (someone who studies the behavior of animals in their natural environments) who doesn’t happen to be involved in that world — and the vast majority of them aren’t — what they think of the term, they will look at you quizzically and then criticize it on the grounds that it’s nonsensical.
To ethologists, the word “drive” refers to an unknown and variable internal state that explains why an animal’s response to a stimulus is not identical every time the animal is exposed to it. For example, at times, a dog may charge after a tennis ball with gleaming eyes and an over-the-top bouncy enthusiasm, while at other times, that same dog may lazily lope after the ball or even ignore it, though the stimulus (the thrown ball) is the same. What’s different is the dog’s interest in or motivation to chase it. “Drive” is the term used to explain that difference, which ethologists consider to be a difference in internal states, perhaps based on neurological or physiological variables over time.
Fluctuation in an animal’s drive doesn’t just affect predatory behavior. It also influences how eager a dog is to eat, drink and engage in sexual behavior, or any other type of behavior for that matter. Yet, we don’t talk about food drive, water drive or potential-mating-partner drive. We say that a dog is hungry or food-motivated (or a chowhound); that the dog is thirsty; or, in the case of females, that she is sexually receptive. To be fair, the term “sex drive” is used to describe the state of having an interest in mating — referring typically (but not always) to males — but we don’t say female drive or male drive.
Even in the way that many people use it, prey drive lacks precision. Does it mean a drive to run, to chase, to catch something, to bite it, to kill it or any combination of these? Is it all related to predatory behavior, and if so, why is the term “prey drive” used, rather than “predatory drive”?
Words and phrases that express precise concepts are indispensable for communication, and the more specific we can be, the better. However, the inexactness of language can make it a challenge to convey precise meanings. For example, because English is short on words that describe emotional nuance, people say things such as, “Do you like him or do you like him?”