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Prey, Defense & Fight

Updated: Jul 11

Protection dog trainers talk a lot about prey and defense as "drives" in a dog. Most know about fight drive and will say that it's an extension of either prey or defense, or a combination of the two. I disagree.

I think the fight drive, or as I prefer to call it, fighting tenacity, is distinct enough to be considered a "drive" or instinct on its own separate (but connected) to prey and defense.

If you observe wolves in nature, or even our domestic dogs in their natural behavior, you will notice a clear difference in the body language of the dog, depending on what drive he is in.

When in prey drive the dog's body language is forward and "in pursuit" of the prey. The biting behavior will show a relatively full grip and often times is accompanied by pulling behavior. The predator is trying to stop the prey and pull it down to the ground.

Defense can be observed when a canine is protecting something of value. The body language is tense, pulled back with hackles up and teeth out. Clearly the more stressed state compared with prey drive. The grip will typically be shallow with the sole purpose of making the threat go away.

Fight drive I observe as separate from the above, particularly when two dogs are fighting for rank. One of the two will be in defense, trying to defend itself from the aggressor. But the dog initiating the conflict is NOT in defense, nor is he in prey. The body posture is forward and confident. The biting /fighting style is dominant, trying to overpower the opponent in a very forward & assertive way, often times grabbing with the paws. The grip is relatively full compared with a dog in defense, coupled with intense thrashing of the head with the clear intent to cause pain and to force compliance/submission as a result.

The difference between a dog in defense and a dog in fight is that the defending dog fights because he has to. The fight drive dog fights because he wants to. It makes him feel powerful. He enjoys the challenge and the competition.

The difference between prey and fight is that fight drive holds much more active aggression. Prey drive requires the victim to be running, moving away from the predator or trying to escape for it to be triggered. Fight drive requires opposition/ challenge/ competition for it to be triggered.

Pure prey dogs are not real protection dogs. (By the very definition of the word, to protect means to defend.) The dog must also have a strong defense. But defense alone is not enough. We need true fighting tenacity if the dog is going to be successful in his role as a protection dog. This should be the default mode, with prey and defense serving only as the "triggers" or "gateway drives".

For instance; A police dog may be triggered into action via prey drive. If a suspect is in pursuit the prey drive will cause the dog to chase. But the minute the dog catches the suspect he must be able to switch into fight mode, especially if it's the kind of suspect who tries to fight the dog off.

Similarly, a protection dog will be triggered into action via its defensive instincts, but when pushed/pressured the dog must be able to switch to fight mode, as defense alone is not strong enough to carry the dog through the fight & he will quit the minute an easy way out presents itself. He will not have the resolve or tenacity to drive the attacker off and "finish the job".

Nerve strength plays a crucial role and is the glue that holds everything together. Without good nerves, neither the prey nor the defense dog will hold up under pressure. But the point of this post is merely to point out the observable differences between prey, defense and fight and why I think fight drive is so important. If we do not consider it as a distinct and separate drive/instinct, we will lose it through improper prey focused breeding.

Old school breeders & trainers understood this difference. This is why Von Stephanitz emphasized;

"The most striking features of the correctly bred German Shepherd is firmness of nerves, attentiveness, unshockability, tractability, watchfulness, reliability and incorruptibility together with courage, fighting tenacity and hardness."

Fighting tenacity! He said nothing about prey drive and nothing about defense, because none of these matter if the dog does not have true fighting tenacity!

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