How Your Dog’s Evolutionary Prey Drive Can Power Up Your Play
When they sit on command and love nothing better than curling up on a cosy chair, it’s sometimes easy to forget that our domesticated dogs descend from wolves and wild canines.
But, when we think about the importance of play in the lives of our pet dogs, it’s essential to also consider the experience of their ancestors and the link between play and survival.
Because even thousands of years ago, play came with huge benefits.
‘Wild canine puppies would learn essential life skills from playing with their littermates,’ says our very own Play Expert, Chelsea.
‘This included everything from awareness of their own body to the best techniques for stalking, chasing and grabbing prey.
‘For our dogs’ ancestors, playing as a puppy was intrinsically linked to getting the best chance of survival.’
Benefits of play for modern-day dogs
Of course, for our pet dogs in modern times, play isn’t so much about survival - luckily they have us to ensure they are well fed and taken care of.
But play is still an essential part of your dog’s life, offering significant benefits...
Domestic puppies and dogs still benefit physically from play in the same way their ancestors did. Play teaches puppies about their bodies and, as dogs grow and develop, it can improve their balance and help them become more agile.
As puppies and young dogs, playing with littermates and other dogs can help teach ways of reading other dogs’ body language better. As dogs grow and mature, play can help them avoid conflict with other dogs while out and about as they can recognise the body language of a dog to avoid. This is one of the reasons it's so important that, in the UK, we keep puppies with their litter until they are at least eight weeks old.
It’s proven that interactive play with your dog, such as playing tug, boosts the bond you share. In our recent survey of almost 3,000 dog owners, 80% of owners told us that play with their Tug-E-Nuff toy has had a positive impact on their bond.
Human-dog body language
Play helps you and your dog understand each other’s body language and physical cues (in a similar way to how puppies in the same litter learn from each other). This means play can help you learn the signs that your dog is happy and excited and also the signs that they are nervous or unhappy.
Dogs need a certain amount of confidence to be able to engage with interactive play in the first place (if your dog lacks confidence to engage with play, there are ways to help - such as using a Chaser tug with a longer handle so they can play at more of a distance).
But once your dog is happy and comfortable to engage with interactive play, playing regularly is a fantastic way to build on their confidence and to learn new skills, using play with a favourite Tug-E-Nuff toy as a top-level reward.
Interactive play with a tug toy or food-based toys like The Clam is an ideal way to add variety and enrichment to your dog’s day. It can provide mental stimulation and can help dogs avoid issues like separation anxiety. Of course, it’s also great physical activity - and here at Tug-E-Nuff, we’re big believers that active dogs are happy dogs.
An outlet for natural instincts
Some dogs have a stronger prey drive than others but for those with a more powerful urge to chase and grab, playing an interactive game of tug is the perfect outlet for their instinctive urges. Experts agree that giving your dog a controlled, safe outlet for these urges is perfectly healthy - and a much better alternative than trying to eradicate their urges (which is impossible and troublesome).
If dogs with a strong prey drive are not given an outlet for their urges, behaviour problems can appear. For instance, collies enjoy the stalk and chase part of the prey sequence and they are very sight driven, which is why they work so well herding sheep. However, if sheepdogs from strong working lines don't have that outlet they can often apply this behaviour to the wrong stimulus, so they may car or shadow chase instead. This can easily become obsessive and problematic.
Offering play as a way to satisfy a dog’s prey drive is conducive to all-round well-being, as well as keeping them engaged with and responsive to us.
How frequently should dogs play?
Using play to develop the areas outlined above is important for all dogs, but especially puppies, juvenile dogs and dogs in an ‘only-dog’ household who don’t have frequent opportunities to play with other canines.
Regular play is essential for dog owners who want their dog to get the best from play.
Our recent research showed that nine in 10 dog owners play with their dog at least once a day.
But it’s not all about frequency. To optimise the impact of play with your dog, it’s important to recognise that even domesticated dogs are still inherently predatory and scavenging animals - and to find ways to tap into your dog’s natural instincts and behaviours.
Understanding the evolutionary prey sequence - and using this to influence the way you play with interactive tug toys - is a fantastic way to achieve this.
Chelsea added: ‘Even though your dog has no conscious awareness of how their ancestors played, the prey sequence is inbuilt in them as part of their natural instincts.
‘Understanding the prey sequence of dogs - and replicating it in the way you play - can help you boost your dog’s motivation, increase the satisfaction they get from play, help you communicate and understand each other better and help increase the power of play as a reward.’
The evolutionary prey sequence - and how to replicate it
The evolutionary prey sequence has five parts. It’s normal for some dogs to find certain elements of the sequence more interesting than others - the sequence can help you learn what your dog finds especially motivating, which you can then use to boost your training.
This is the first part of the prey sequence. This is all about locating the prey. How dogs do this - either through sight or scent - will typically depend on their breed and background, although every dog is different.
Scenthounds, such as beagles, might be more focused on scent than locating by eye. Whereas sighthounds like whippets and greyhounds are more likely to want to lock eyes on their prey.
How to replicate during play: The way you replicate this part of the prey sequence when you play with your dog depends on whether they prefer to ‘search’ using their eyes or their nose.
For scent hounds, using interactive tug toys that have a unique scent, such as our range of Sheepskin tuggies, and letting them ‘sniff out’ the toy as a first step of playing is a great idea.
For sighthounds and dogs who are more visually motivated, our real fur toys such as the Wondabaa Bungee can still be a great option as they have a large fluffy bite area and a colourful handle which features flecks of blue (the colour dogs tend to see best). Bright toys which create movement, like our Crazy Thing Bungee can also help engage visual dogs.
This is the part of the prey sequence where a dog will typically lock eyes on to its prey and begin to approach. Their movements will be slow and careful as the dog judges the speed and direction of its prey. This element of the prey sequence is particularly engaging for breeds like working sheepdogs, who are bred to stalk sheep.
How to replicate during play: To replicate the stalk element of the prey sequence when you play with your own dog, you need to channel the energy of prey with your Tug-E-Nuff toy! That means wiggling the toy and varying the speed of how you move it.
Try moving it quickly across the floor, then more slowly, then pause, then start again. This is a great way to spark the instinctive prey drive, even in more play-shy dogs.
This is the part of the sequence which is most commonly associated with prey drive. Chasing ‘prey’ provides dogs with a huge adrenaline rush - making chasing self-rewarding.
This is often the preferred part of the prey sequence for sighthounds and herding breeds who have been selectively bred across generations to be more visually and chase driven.
How to replicate during play: It’s easy to replicate this part of the prey sequence. All you need is a Chaser tug (we’ve got a selection that includes sheepskin, rabbit skin and faux fur variations).
These tugs have a long handle which makes them great for dragging along the floor so that your dog can give chase before engaging in a game of tug (which fulfils the next part of the prey sequence…)
This is the part of the prey sequence when it all comes together and the dog gets to grab onto its prey with its mouth, which is designed especially to be able to grip and hold prey. It is during this part of the prey sequence, when emulated in play, that you are most likely to see variation between breeds.
For instance, terriers often like to shake the ‘prey’ (or toy) as this is what they were traditionally bred to do when catching rats. Gundogs - like labradors and spaniels - are bred to be able to hold prey more gently in their mouths, so they often find it rewarding to simply be able to hold their ‘prey’.
How to replicate during play: Observe your dog when they grab on to their tug toy and see what play style they naturally offer without your input - do they seem to prefer to shake or hold the toy? Work with whatever they find most rewarding.
This stage should draw the prey sequence to an end. Once the prey - or toy - is captured, many dogs feel very proud of their ‘win’ and like to put on a parade with the prey/toy in their mouth.
It’s totally normal for dogs to prefer one part of the sequence. It’s a great way to learn what your dog finds most motivating and rewarding, so that you can build on it as part of your training.
How to replicate during play: After a game of tug, occasionally allow your dog to ‘win’ the tug from you and do a lap of honour, if they wish. Then you can call them back to re-engage in a game of tug (good for recall practice too!).
Keep tuggies for supervised play only
What often follows the parade element of the prey sequence is an urge to ‘dissect’ the prey. This is the one part of the sequence you don’t want to replicate when playing!
We always recommend that Tug-E-NUff toys are kept for interactive, supervised play only. They should be put out of your dog’s reach when playtime finishes and any plucking or chewing of the toy should be interrupted.
This helps the toys stand the test of time and maintains their motivational power as a high value reward.
Does playing tug encourage dogs to chase livestock?
With all this talk about the importance of your dog’s prey drive, and how you can tap into it, you might be wondering whether this will encourage your dog to chase livestock. It’s something we get asked from time to time - and the simple answer is no.
When playing tug - even with tuggies made from real sheepskin or rabbit skin - your dog’s main focus is on you, as their playmate. Playing tug gives your dog a safe, controlled outlet for their prey instincts - which actually makes chasing livestock less likely. You can read more about this here.
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