Prey Drive


Permission to print by
C.J. Walton

In the conventional view of hunting behaviour prey drive and desire are two slightly different things.  They could also be perceived as different aspects of the dog’s personality.

Prey drive or sharpness is defined loosely as agonistic (attack) behaviours directed to an animal of a different species.  It essentially is the dog’s interest in finding game and either pointing, flushing or retrieving it.  Sharpness is inherent in many hunting dog lines but appears to be modified somewhat in some of the pointing breeds.  This is exemplified by the dogs that readily seek out and point game birds but have no interest in retrieving or catching them.  The sharpness is interaction of innate behaviours and experience that gives the dog the impetus to make that three hundred meter cold water retrieve of a crippled goose or rundown and kill a fox.

Sharpness is not aggression since aggression must by definition be limited to agonistic (attack displays or behaviours) directed at other animals of the same species.  The social nature of domesticated dogs is such that aggression can also be directed at a human since domestic dogs accept humans as being of the same species.
It is possible to have dogs that are both sharp and aggressive.  You will also find dogs that are aggressive but have no sharpness, these are the dogs that have no interest in hunting game but will eagerly confront and attack a strange dog.  And there are a number of dogs that are sharp but non-aggressive.  These dogs are often thought of as “soft” but that term references only the dog’s social position with respect to other dogs and humans, soft dogs can be extremely “aggressive” in pursuit of game and can also have a great deal of desire.

Desire is an amorphous concept but in general it is that aspect of the dog’s personality that makes an interesting and eager working companion.  This is the dog that wants to work with you and is eager to hunt for you or to retrieve or to do anything else that you encourage it to do.  Desire is the tough one since if the dog doesn’t have an innate desire to work with a human it cannot really perform well at any learned or trained task.  These dogs would stare at a bird and then flop down and take a nap.  Dogs lacking in desire can be great house pet but useless as working gun dogs because they have no interest and desire cannot be taught or trained although it can sometimes be awakened by the correct stimuli.  You can build a retriever without needing sharpness if the dog has a great desire to work…the converse is not true and without desire the dog is worthless.

The one redeemable aspect of some dogs is that sharpness can often be used to stimulate a desire to work.  The indifferent pup that doesn’t want to enter the water or to retrieve something can sometimes be induced to develop an interest by using a bird or other game to stimulate the dog.  This is, essentially, using the dog’s sharpness or prey drive to get it interested in participating in some activity (such as entering the water and swimming or making a long retrieve).  If the dog’s prey drive does not stimulate an interest in working the animal cannot be trained as a hunting dog.  This condition is relatively rare in working hunting dog breeds (although may appear in lines bred for beauty rather than performance).  In short, a dog’s desire to work is simply an interest in doing things, if a dog is disinterested and cannot be stimulated to participate it cannot be trained to do much of anything.


Both prey drive and desire require exposure to game and to working with a human companion to develop normally.  These are innate aspects of behaviour that have to be “triggered” to appear, something like pointing.
Dogs reared in isolation (kennel syndrome) for a significant part of their early life often have little or no desire to participate in any activities and these dogs generally cannot be recovered…there is a definite limit to how long either prey drive or desire can be ignored before the traits are completely lost.  Usually prey drive will survive early sensory deprivation by isolation much longer than will a desire to work.

Prey drive is that awakening behaviour in young dogs that makes it excited by the scent or sight of a bird.  It doesn’t always appear fully developed at one single stimulus but it can be manifested and developed rather quickly once the dog is exposed to game bird sights and scents without a lot of interference from the trainer.

Sharpness, desire and cooperation are all behavioural components that must be blended to produce a great all around gun dog.  Some dogs can achieve success in a particular area if they lack on of these basic personality components but all three are required for the true working gun dog.