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Why Does My Dog Pounce? Recognizing Instinctual Drives

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."

What inherited traits drive your dog's instincts?

What inherited traits drive your dog's instincts?

What Are the Types of Drives in Dogs?

As you may already know, your dog reacts out of instinct many times. Indeed, part of dog training is based on teaching a dog to control instincts. For instance, many hunting dogs have an inherited strong prey drive that makes them quite excited at the view of small animals. This can be seen when the dog is walked and a squirrel runs by. The dog, therefore, may forget all about its owner and being on the leash, in order to listen to his prey drive which causes him to pull with all its strength.

After a few steps, however, he may feel the collar tighten and the owner complain and may therefore recompose himself. Or in worse cases, he may still attempt to pull, bark and stare at the object triggering his drive.

The instinct of responding to diverse drives has been known for some time, however, Wendy Volhard, in particular, dedicated extensive research on these drives. Basically, it was found that dogs in nature, respond to four distinct drives:

  • Prey Drive
  • Pack Drive
  • Fight Drive
  • Flight Drive

Each dog, therefore, has its own personality and has different drives. Because each dog may have a different drive than another they require different training methods. Some dogs may need very mild corrections while other dogs may require more assertive ones. It all depends on the dog. This explains why what works for one dog may not work on another dog.

Prey Drive

This drive is particularly relevant in hunting breeds. Indeed, humans have worked hard in bringing out this trait. However, most dogs have some prey drive in them because it brings them back to the primordial days when they were hunting to survive. Today, however, dogs do not need to chase that squirrel to survive as most likely a can of food awaits him at home. Dogs affected by strong prey drive usually exhibit the following behaviors:

Appearing excited at the sight of objects, animals or people running

Scenting the air

Barking in high pitched voice when excited

Shaking toys with side to side head movements

Carrying items in mouth

Sniffing the ground


Stalking and chasing

Playing fetch

Staring prey with immobile, tense, body and ears up

Pouncing on toys

Staring prey with one paw lifted off the ground

Pulling on the leash to chase

Stealing food

Ripping apart toys

Wolfing down food

Pack Drive

Dogs have an inherited tendency to live in packs, or, as Pat Miller prefers to call them, "social groups." Indeed, in the wild canines form groups where they reunite, live, hunt and reproduce. Pack drive is often very strong in dog breeds utilized for group teamwork such as hounds hunting together or huskies pulling sleighs together. Signs of a dog motivated by pack drive are the following:

Being Social

Pleasing Owners

Enjoying Being Groomed

Reading Body Language

Following Owners

Roaming Away From Home


Seeking Eye Contact

Playing With Other Dogs

Willingness to Be Near Owner

Playing With People

Fight Drive

These are instincts related to survival and tend to arise around when the dog reaches social maturity at around two years of age.

Barking/Growling at Intruders

Placing Head on Another Dog's Shoulder

Blocking Doorways

Playing Tug of War and Winning

Fighting With Dogs

Reluctance to Be Touched

Growling When His Space Is Invaded

Reluctance to Get Off Beds or Couches

Guarding Food


Hackling of the Shoulder Area

Flight Drive

Dogs use their flight drive instinct when they are insecure. This is seen more in younger dogs especially when they are going through their ''fear'' periods. Following are some indicators of flight drive:

Cowering Head

Lack of Confidence

Fear of Strangers

Submissive Urination

Fearful Biting

Turning Belly up When Reprimanded

Full-Length Body Hackling From Neck to Tail


Dogs Have Both Instincts and Personalities

While each dog generally has its own personality just as people, some dog breeds have developed stronger instincts than others because humans have bred dogs looking for specific instincts. Here are a few examples:

Herding dog breeds such as Australian Shepherds and Border Collies have developed strong prey drives.

Guard dogs such as German Shepherds, Dobermans, and Rottweilers have developed a strong fight instinct in order to be protectors.

While often such drives cannot be totally removed because they are inherited, they can be redirected towards positive outlets. For instance, dogs with strong prey drive may be allowed to release their natural tendency by playing a good game of fetch. Dogs with strong prey drives require diligent work and patience in allowing these dogs to focus and ignore distractions. Dogs with strong pack drives are generally easy to train.

The best dogs overall are the dogs that have a good balance of drives. These dogs have the potential to turn out to be great pets. If your dog was born this way, count your blessings!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.


michael jennings from knoxville, TN on November 21, 2013:

this very institeful, thanks!

jenosuth87 from california on August 23, 2009:

I really did like your hub it is true, dogs really do pay much attention to body language. I try to train my pets without words. It is easier sometimes when puppies are young to use hand signals to train rather than using words when they are hyper. I have a shiba inu puppy and I have trained a few pomeranians, I deal mostly with medium and small breeds though.

mattressguru from TO, ON, CA on August 22, 2009:

Great information! I have a golden retriever myself and when she REALLY wants to meet and play with other dogs. When she sees another dog, she just sits down and i can't budge her lol

gwennies pen on August 21, 2009:

Good dog info...I'd love to own a dog again some day. Enjoyed your hub!