Are Dogs Ruled by Their Drives and Instincts?

It’s not uncommon to hear people talk about instincts and drives in animals. So you might hear statements like “Pit bulls are just instinctively aggressive” or “If you want a dog to really learn something well, you have to switch him out of prey drive and into pack drive.”

The idea is that animals are ruled by their instincts and drives which guides and determines their behavior.  Many, many years ago, people thought that one of the main differences between people and animals was that people were rational and guided by thought and experience while the “dumb animals” were ruled by their instincts. As we’ve learned more about behavior in people and animals we know that this dichotomy simply isn’t true, and many animals are capable of learning from their experiences.

The terms instinct and drive have scientific definitions that differed from everyday use.  Over time these words have largely fallen out of use in the scientific community because they haven’t really added to our understanding of behavior.

Some dog owners and pet professionals have promoted the so-called Drive Theory of dog behavior.  In this theory, dogs have a handful of “drives” that motivate their behavior.  These drives are viewed as personality traits that dogs are born with.  Dogs are said to vary in the amount or intensity of these drives. Hunting dogs are expected to have more prey drive than sled dogs.

Do dogs really have prey drives, pack drives and defensive drives?  There have been a few studies of dog personality and temperament that have investigated which behaviors in dogs seem to cluster together.  These studies have not substantiated that the behaviors purported to be related under the labels of “prey drive, pack drive, or defensive drive” really are.

These studies have uncovered other sorts of behavioral traits in dogs but which traits are identified depend on how the research was conducted.  A study by Goodloe and Borchelt (1998) did find a factor for predation that involved chasing and killing small animals.  But it wasn’t related to behaviors such as chasing balls, chasing children or burying things as “prey drive” proponents claim.  Other studies have identified additional temperament traits in dogs.  So what does it all mean?

First of all, personality traits aren’t causes of behavior.  Second, the causes of behavior are complex and overly simplistic notions of “drives” don’t really help us explain dog behavior or make predictions about it.  We’ve provided members of our Behavior Education Network with forms and templates for use with clients to help identify what is motivating the behavior of their pets.


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