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Prey vs Defense - Which drive should you train in?

Updated: Aug 3

This blog post is a response to an article by Ed Frawley that was posted on a Protection dog group on facebook. Here is the link to the article in question;

I would like to start by saying; I am not a police dog trainer. My training is focussed on training dogs for personal protection because that is where I feel I am delivering the most value. And this, I feel, is the first important distinction that needs to be made;

A police dog's job is offensive in nature. He needs to hunt for and apprehend a suspect. Naturally prey based training will work for this. But a protection dog's job is defensive in nature. By the very definition of the word; to protect is to defend, and the dog must be able to work in a defensive state of mind.

I have been doing sports, or prey based training for the past 10 years. This is the training and coaching I received from my mentors. I've recently decided to make the shift to more defensive type work and personally I find the results I am getting from the dogs so far to be much more satisfying.

The problem with prey based training, and the reason I decided to switch, is multifold. First off, you have the equipment fixation issue. Especially with dogs that are very strong in prey drive. Even with many civil drills, equipment shedding, muzzle work, etc.... the equipment fixation persists. But the bigger and more important issue is the mental state created in the dog through prey based training.

Many dogs will simply "get stuck in prey". It's like they have created a mental compartment in their heads, and even if you push them in defense they will simply stay in that mental space, because that is where they feel safe and comfortable. This is (mental) avoidance. For any combat dog that will be expected to fight, we want to create mental toughness, mental resilience and tenacity in the fighting. This is not done by avoiding the conflict, stress and pressure. It can only be achieved by working through it!

This is one type of dog. Then you have the second type of dog who naturally carry more defense and aggression. Trainers will open the aggression and direct it onto the equipment. This is what we call "channeling". The trainer will then say; "look the dog can work in defense and the grip looks good so the dog is stable". But again you have created an issue;

By channeling onto the equipment you are essentially teaching the dog the way out of the defensive confrontation, is the equipment. And again the equipment becomes the "safe space"...the coping mechanism. You are not teaching the dog to fight through the stress and pressure, you are teaching him to escape it, by channeling into equipment.

With the above two examples it is clear that prey based training does very little to prepare the dog (mentally) for a real fight. Many trainers will argue that skills and techniques need to be taught in prey; "First you have to teach the dog how to bite". Maybe, but you have to ask if those skills & technicalities are worth the by-products (explained above) created by this approach? Is mental resilience not more important than technique?

Also, some civil trainers will argue that you do not need to teach a dog how to bite (technically), because they already know how since it is instinctive and natural. I am inclined to agree with this to an extent. Most dogs when placed under stress & pressure will fall back on their instincts & what comes naturally, regardless of what has been taught in training. This is why you never see perfect targets, grips or outs in a real life street situation. Besides, you can always work on & refine the technical skills at a later stage once the defense, civil aggression and good fighting tenacity has been established as the default for the dog.

The second argument from prey based trainers is that defense trained dogs are sharp, reactive, fearful & unstable. I can only say that this has not been my experience. Firstly, you want some sharpness. Not too much, but some is good. The important thing here is that the owner needs to be in control. The dog is trained to respond only on the owners command and not on it's own. This immediately eliminates reactivity because the dog knows to take guidance from the handler and therefor does not carry the stress from having to make decisions on his own. Reactivity & instability is firstly a genetic issue, and secondly a dog/owner relationship issue. But it is not a training issue.

And fear? Yes there is an element of that involved, especially in the beginning. But that is also kind of the point. In any real life situation there will be feelings of fear. Is it not wiser to teach the dog how to handle this feeling and fight through it? You prepare the dog for a real attack by subjecting him to this feeling, triggering defense and purposely creating stress and pressure, all in small and manageable doses. Then you teach him that he can work/ fight through it and be successful. You incrementally and slowly increase the pressure and stress, each time making sure that the dog is successful. This is what builds confidence, and this is how the dog becomes mentally stronger. After some time the dog learns to enjoy the challenge of the fight. The stress is still there, but now they know how to deal with it because they have developed some mental toughness. The goal is not just to prepare the dog physically, but rather it is the mental preparation that holds the most value!

(It is important to note there is a BIG difference between a defense trained dog, and a fear biter. These are not the same thing at all. Some people seem to have difficulty understanding the difference.)

To me it makes sense that this approach will do much more to prepare the dog for a real fight than prey based work. With prey work, yes the dog's skill and technique may seem better, but his mind is not strong enough to handle real stress. Many of these dogs will simply get stuck in prey and you only have to hope the prey drive will carry them through. Many others who are genetically stronger will naturally flip into fight mode when the defense is triggered, not because they have been trained or prepared for it, but because it is instinctive and they are equipped with stronger genetics that enable them to do this. But I would argue that these dogs do so in spite of the training, and not because of it.

(PS. Defense based training can only be successful if the trainer knows what he/she is doing. If you don't know how to do it correctly it is best to stick with prey based training, since incorrect defensive work can mess a dog up real quick.)


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