Have you ever heard of "predatory drift?" No? Well you are not alone. Predatory drift is where dogs exhibit predatory behavior against other dogs. Usually big dogs against small dogs. But usually the vast majority of dogs do not display predatory drift behavior toward other dogs. But under the right circumstances, this behavior can be sparked in dogs who have never shown signs of it before.
During playtime at a dog park certain prey-like behavior from another dog can cause this play to morph into predatory behavior. This is what pet parents mean when they talk about predatory drift. This occurs most often at the dog park when two dogs of distinctly different sizes are interacting, or when two or more dogs gang up on a single dog.
Even though the risk of predatory drift at the dog park is rare you should always be cautious and supervise your dog's interaction with larger dogs very carefully.
Dog Play Can Turn Dangerous
You might not think of the domestic dog, who shares our living spaces and affection, as a predator, you have to remember that they are descendants of the wolf and this predatory instinct is very deep inside of them. This is the same instinct that wolves used when they hunted for their meals.
For the domestic dog the predatory drift behavior usually appears through play. Some dogs still have a high instinct to hunt and sometimes chase, kill, and eat small animals around their neighborhoods. Sometimes the small animal is a dog that is much smaller than it is.
When a larger dog is interacting with a smaller dog through play the situation can turn dangerous if the smaller dog begins to act like prey. This behavior usually involves the smaller dog yelping, struggling or even attempting to flee. If you see such behavior from the smaller dog you should immediately separate the two dogs. And do so as quickly as possible as it only takes a second for the larger dog to kill the smaller dog.
Will Bigger Dogs Gang Up On My Small Dog at the Dog Park?
The bigger the size of the big dog over the little dog means that there is a greater risk of predatory drift. Big dogs often think that little dogs are toys. This can be incredibly dangerous to the smaller dog. The grab-and-shake that most pet parents have seen their dogs do when grabbing a toy or a chew can also occur in a predatory situation, with the grab-and-shake having the potential to break a small dog’s neck.
Another trigger for predatory drift is when the smaller dog attempts to run away from the larger dog. The larger dog may chase after the smaller dog but if the smaller dog continues to run the larger dog may shift into predatory mode. A well socialized dog will stop the chase when it catches the smaller dog and return to play mode. But in certain situations the bigger dog may do a full take-down and kill will occur, even if the dog has never shown that particular behavior before.
Another dangerous situation of predatory drift occurs when multiple dogs gang up on a single dog. This can occur when two dogs chase after a single dog, or when two or more dogs gang up on a dog that is panicking, yelping or struggling during an altercation or what started out as play.
How to Keep Your Dog Safe at the Dog Park
Usually many dogs of varying sizes can get along perfectly well. The risk usually comes at the dog park when you let your small dog play with the bigger dogs.
Dog parks bring two risks. One is the predatory drift behavior and the other is that of the physical ability of larger dogs to seriously injure or kill a small dog.
Usually the best dog parks have separate areas for small and big dogs because of the potential for predatory drift behavior. But as a pet parent it is ultimately up to you to be aware that by putting your smaller dog in with the bigger dogs that you are putting your dog at risk. For this reason it is highly recommended that you use the appropriate sized area for your dog.
It is also up to the pet parent to properly supervise your dog, especially if it is playing with larger dogs. Your job is to keep your dog from getting overstimulated in play with multiple dogs. Whenever you see two or more dogs chasing your dog you should interrupt the chase if you see any of the dogs becoming overstimulated.
Some dogs really like to be chased and some really like to do the chasing. But the play should be mutual between all dogs. There should be some back-and-forth roles reversals during the play. If not it is probably also a good time to interrupt the play. Safe play should include signs of play bows, bouncy and inefficient movements, and relaxed and soft-looking body posture from all of the dogs involved, to signal that the interactions are all being done in play.
While the risk of predatory drift occurring at the dog park is extremely rare, sticking to the size-recommended play area is a simple way to help protect your pooch from incident. In the situation of multiple dog gang-ups, it’s equally important that all pet parents stay focused on supervising their dogs' interactions the entire time they are at the dog park. Scan for mutual play among all dogs and be ready to interrupt, redirect or possibly leave if play gets too aroused or if multiple dogs gang up on a single dog. And of course, dogs who exhibit predatory behavior toward other dogs do not make good candidates for the dog park, since predatory behavior often has very few warning signs and can have devastating consequences.