Instinct, Drive and Other Causes of Dog Attacks

There was a news article* a few months back about a 4 year old girl killed by the family’s Rottweilers.  It was a truly sad situation and our hearts go out to the parents and family of this young child.  Dogs kill between 10 and 20 people a year in the U.S. and most of them are children.  What got our attention in this news story was the variety of explanations that were given to explain the behavior.  The article title was “Astoria-area mauling death shows how instincts can change dogs from friendly to ferocious”.

No one knows how the death occurred.  The little girl was in the back yard alone with the dogs, the mom looks out and sees the girl on the ground and one of the dogs nearby.  But there is no shortage of theories.  The author of the article favors one that states it was “predatory instinct”, which virtually every dog has, the author claims, but is more dangerous with big, powerful breeds.

The director of an animal assisted therapy program says it was “prey drive”, and the little girl must have squealed and run or done something else to trigger it. The dog then reacted as if the girl was an injured rabbit.

A trainer from a local humane society thinks it wasn’t the girl’s behavior but something in the environment – a squirrel or the other dog, or something that the dog smelled or saw that triggered the attack.  She stated that “It’s why dogs chase balls, kids on bicycles. It’s just something that dogs do.”  She then went on to speculate that it wasn’t the dog’s breed that was responsible but the breeding and training.

So what was it that caused the dog to attack the little girl?  Was it instinct, prey drive, something the dog saw or smelled, the way the dog was bred or the way it was trained?  We’ll never know for sure, but most of the speculating reveals a real lack of knowledge of current science.

The notions of instinct and drive were abandoned almost 50 years ago, because they were too vague and didn’t really explain anything. Genetics, breeding, training and early experience and even events in the environment at the time of the attack are all possible influences on behavior, but no one of them is the “cause.”

Aggressive behavior, like most behavior, is complex and influenced by many things.  Looking for a simple motive or cause is overly simplistic and leads to inappropriate actions such as banning or restricting breeds that supposedly have inherent dangerous tendencies. The best evidence available shows that that breed bans don’t effectively decrease dog bites in communities that have them.

The best advice in the article came from the scientifically trained veterinary behaviorist who was contacted for comment.  She pointed out that all dogs come with risks and if a risky situation is identified for a dog, the dog shouldn’t be put into that situation.

Unscientific information, such as the theorizing seen in this article, is not helpful in explaining the aggressive behavior or suggesting actions to prevent further dog attacks.

For a more comprehensive course the current theories of dog behavior, take our On-Demand webinar, “Shining the Light of Science on Canine Behavior,” available HERE at

*Read the orginal article at


  • Al goldberg

    Reply Reply

    I find your blogs and articles to be very informative. Please keep them comming

    • abasuzanne

      Reply Reply

      Thanks for the compliment!

  • Silvana

    Reply Reply

    So, what I understood from your text is that aggressive dogs cannot be “trained” but “managed”? In other words, you cannot change the dogs behavior, but you can avoid situations that may cause that behavior. Am I correct?

    • abasuzanne

      Reply Reply

      Hi Silvana – thanks for your comment. No, that’s not exactly what we are saying. It is possible to change behavior, including a dog’s aggressive response to a stimulus. However the permanence of that change is unknown. One must always be prepared for the dog “reverting” back to aggression. That’s true for any behavior – we housetrain dogs all the time, but that doesn’t mean at some point the dog may not relieve himself in the house again for any number of reasons. If/when that happens, it’s not such a big deal if it’s urinating in the house. It can be a VERY big deal if the behavior is aggression.

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