The Golden Retriever Prey Drive: Is It High or Low?


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The Golden Retriever is a gentle and affectionate dog that is typically not prone to aggression or biting, including when it comes to other pets and animals. Most people would assume then that the Golden Retriever would have a low prey drive. But, is that really the case?

Specifically, do Golden Retrievers have a high or low prey drive?

Golden Retrievers, to varying degrees, still possess a high prey drive in the search, stalk, chase, and bite-hold instincts retained from the ancestral wolf. Furthermore, mid-19th century hunters selectively bred Golden Retrievers for specific traits, enhancing certain instinctual drives and softening others.

So, Golden Retrievers have a high prey drive in certain areas. That is surprising to many people because of the dog’s gentle nature. But, that comes from a simplistic understanding of prey drive. 

Most people envision a violent and aggressive takedown of an animal by a lion or wolf when they think of prey drive. However, there are many elements to such a drive. 

In the ensuing discussion, we’ll look at the prey drive, the elements of the prey drive, and what the Golden Retriever has retained from this evolutionary genetic drive. 

We’ll also see that the prey drive is not bad and can be used for the dog’s benefit (and ours). 

The Canine Prey Drive

So, what exactly is a prey drive? The prey drive is an instinctual drive in carnivores to search for, chase, and capture prey. 

Prey drive can be seen in the traditional “food” sense, such as a wolf hunting, biting, killing, and consuming a caribou. However, in dogs, that drive through domestication and evolution has largely softened.

While all dogs possess the drive, it is in varying degrees. The degree can depend on the breed, the individual dog, the dog’s parentage, training, and the environment it lives in.

Most pet owners will witness the drive during the course of their dog’s life, no matter how latent those instinctual drives have become.

For example, the prey drive is mainly seen when chasing a ball, a squirrel, a cat, or even a car. If your dog is a chaser, it has retained elements of a prey drive. 

Now in dogs, even if they tend to chase small furry animals, chances are they will not kill them owed largely to domestication, although some might if the prey drive is especially strong in the breed or individual dog. 

In canines, that drive has evolved from the ancestral wolf. However, throughout thousands of years of evolution and domestication by humans, the prey drive in dogs has become somewhat latent or softened. 

In the wolf (and other carnivores), the prey drive typically encompasses seven elements in the wild: 

  • Search 
  • Stalk
  • Chase
  • Bite Hold
  • Bite Kill
  • Dissect
  • Consume

The latter two, dissect and consume, would be more often seen in wild dogs. However, a dog may still dissect and consume an animal if they kill it or find it is dead. For example, our Sheltie found a dead bird in the backyard years ago and proceeded to pluck the feathers and consumed a bit of it before we could dispose of it.

Let’s explore each of these in detail and how they apply to a Golden Retriever. 

The Golden Retrievers Prey Drive

While the Golden Retriever does retain some elements of a prey drive, it’s important to note that the prey drive can differ from breed to breed and from dog to dog within a breed. For example, a Husky might have a stronger prey drive than a Papillon. 

Similarly, one Golden Retriever might be a 9/10 on search, stalk, chase, and another Golden Retriever is a 6/10. 

However, as we’ll see in the following sections, Golden Retrievers tend to be higher on some elements of the prey drive than others. 

Most canines retain some elements of a prey drive leftover from the ancestral wolf

Search

Search is simply the dog’s drive to use its sight, nose, or ears to find prey (search = see, hear, smell). It must first find potential game before the other instinctual drives kick in when hunting. 

Most Golden Retrievers are very high in this element. The Golden Retriever has a keen sense of smell. It’s why Golden Retrievers make such good tracking and search and rescue dogs (among other traits). 

I wrote a series of articles on the Golden Retrievers’ sense of smell and why they’re good trackers and search and rescue. Check those out here:

Golden Retrievers are hunting dogs. A requisite for that job is to use their senses to search for downed waterfowl or to search for birds to “flush” them out. Those game birds could be in the water, cattails, or high brush. 

Stalk

Golden Retrievers are moderate to high on stalking. Stalking requires waiting patiently once the prey has been found before chasing it down. The carnivore must be patient and hidden to not “spook” its potential target. 

For example, when he sees birds in the backyard or on the fence, my Golden Retriever Bailey will often lay down in a crouch. Then, he waits and watches patiently until he’s ready to chase them. 

Often he will come out of the crouch slowly as he starts moving and then accelerates; other times, he just sprints full-on from the crouch – this is an example of stalking behavior. 

Golden Retrievers are also required to do this when, for example, they are assisting hunters. Whether retrieving birds or more commonly seen when flushing them out of the brush, as with pheasants. 

Golden Retrievers, as hunting companions, are a prime example of using the prey drive for a specific purpose. Herding dogs for sheep would be another. For example, a Border Collie herding is a beautiful example of the stalk and chase drives in action. 

We’ll discuss dogs that have been selectively bred and trained to use certain prey drives a bit more later on. 

Chase

If you have a Golden Retriever that loves to chase things, you are seeing a high prey drive in action. 

Chase is precisely what it sounds like – pursuing the prey with the ultimate purpose of catching it. 

Balls, especially tennis balls, are a favorite of the Golden Retriever for that very reason, and they love to chase balls. Balls often mimic prey with their fast, erratic movements as they bounce and roll around the ground.

With the simple and unassuming ball, you’re witnessing the innate prey drive of the chase in all its glory. Somewhere in the deepest recess of your Golden Retrievers genes, that furry tennis ball is a small furry animal. 

If you’re interested in learning about what Golden Retrievers are obsessed with balls, then check out this post: The Golden Retrievers Obsession With Balls: Solved!

My Golden Retriever loves to chase anything that moves, including skateboards, bikes, frisbees, motorcycles, birds, squirrels, cats, and cars. 

Moreover, the retrieval and flushing part of the Golden Retriever as a hunting companion is predicated on chasing. Whether your Golden Retriever chases the game bird or ball to retrieve it. It’s all prey drive. 

Tennis balls mimic prey and trigger the “chase drive” in Golden Retrievers

Bite-Hold

For Golden Retrievers, the bite hold is on the lower end of the scale. Golden Retrievers are notorious for their “soft mouths.” 

Bite hold is when a canine bites its prey and holds it. Typically, that is followed by the “death shake” or the “bite kill”. 

Those soft mouths are owed mainly due to their breeding as a hunting companions. 

The hunters bred the Golden Retriever to gently bite and hold the downed waterfowl in its mouth while carrying it back to the hunter. In this way, the bird is retrieved without any damage. 

So, this is an example where a prey drive was softened for a specific purpose. While that drive may have been blunted or “softened,” it is a prey drive nevertheless. 

You’ll also find that your Golden Retriever likes to take objects in its mouth or steal things to carry. Typically, it holds things in its mouth very gently, be it socks, glasses, a TV remote, or other objects. It is a soft bite hold in action. 

If you are curious about why Golden Retrievers steal things, including your socks, then check out this article: Canine Kleptomania: Why Golden Retrievers Steal Things.

Bite-Kill, Dissect, and Consume

The last three elements of the prey drive are bite-kill, dissect and consume

Most pet owners have witnessed the bite-kill in action during their dog’s play. For example, if your dog shakes a toy or rag during play, it demonstrates the bite-hold and bite-kill

Fortunately, Golden Retrievers are typically very low in these elements. While Golden Retrievers may bite and hold, they usually do so gently. The dog rarely moves to the latter stages of the prey drive. 

I’ve actually read stories of Golden Retrievers gently picking up small bunnies or chicks for their owners without doing any harm.

So, while your Golden Retriever may catch a squirrel, it may hold it but not try to kill it. If it does kill it, then it rarely would eat it. Notice, I say “might” (remember I said there are differences among dogs in a given breed). 

For example, years ago, my friend’s Golden Retriever got a hold of the neighbor’s cat that wandered in the yard and shook it. That was an attempt at a bite-kill.

My friend rescued the cat, and it was fortunately unharmed. Still, the dog demonstrated the first five elements of the prey drive, search, stalk, chase, bite-hold, and bite-kill. 

This is also an example of mistaking a prey drive for aggression.

So often, people would label the dog as aggressive due to being fearful, poorly socialized, bad breeding, and so forth. But, in actuality, the dog was just expressing an innate drive that has been present for thousands of years—latent most of the time but it’s present nevertheless.  

However, rarely will you ever see the last elements of dissection and consumption. However, the drive is still present and can often be seen during play. 

Have you ever seen a Golden Retriever plucking the hair from a tennis ball and eating it? Guess what that is mimicking? Pulling the hair from the tennis ball is like plucking fur or feather from a critter.

However, while it may be present with a toy, it would rarely progress to a real-life situation. So, again, domestication, breeding, parentage, environment, and training will all play a role.  However, the Golden Retriever, as a whole, is not prone to aggressiveness or biting to kill, dissect and then consume.

Check this article out if you’re interested in whether a Golden Retriever is a dangerous dog (spoiler: they are not): Dangerous Dogs: Are Golden Retrievers One of Them?

The Prey Drive For Training

Modern dogs still possess the prey drive. While it may be latent and more so in some breeds and individual dogs, it’s still there. 

Some modern dogs have been selectively bred to heighten some aspects of the prey drive for work purposes. Those instincts then have been reinforced over the years. 

Two examples are the sporting dogs, including the Golden Retriever, and the herding dogs, such as the Border Collie, Sheltie, or Rough Collie. 

Watching a Golden Retriever waiting patiently in a crouched position for a command to go flush pheasants from brush or retrieve a downed duck from a lake and gently bring it back is quite impressive. As is watching a herding dog, herding sheep and moving them along in a sequential and organized fashion. 

Both are examples of specific drives being selectively bred for, reinforced, and then trained to enhance for sport or work purposes. 

The point is the prey drive can be harnessed for both our and the dog’s benefit.

For example, chasing a ball is an excellent opportunity to teach recall and critical impulse control skills such as waiting, getting it, and letting go. Likewise, playing hide and seek or scent training is a great game to harness the skills of search and chase.

Hunters teach Golden Retriever the sequence of search, stalk, chase, and bite-hold (softly). 

As service dogs, let’s consider tracking and search and rescue, both of which Golden Retrievers excel at.

Golden Retrievers as search and rescue dogs are often trained using retrieving games or hide and seek and those games use the search, stalk, and chase drives in that training. To teach tracking, the Golden Retriever must use its keen sense of smell to search out hidden objects.

Golden Retrievers are being trained to retrieve using a duck “dummy”

My Golden Retriever had a habit of chasing moving objects such as bikes or skateboards on our walks.

I taught him the command “to the side” to manage this, where he moves to the side and sits or lays down in a crouch. I am now using the crouch and hold position taught during those walks during our play sessions with a ball. Now, he must wait for my command before he can chase the ball once it is thrown.

In both instances, he demonstrates excellent impulse control, which has transferred to better obedience in other areas of life.

Hold Up. Do you need a dog training program for your Golden Retriever? I bought and compared five of the most popular online dog training programs to determine the best ones. You can read my review and recommendations here: Online Dog Training Programs: These Are The Ones To Buy

Summing it Up

So, as you see, prey drive is not as simple as what most people think. Yes, it is the wolf pack taking down the caribou and devouring it, but there is so much more than proceeds those final acts. 

All dogs have retained that evolutionary drive from their wolf ancestor. All dogs have it to some degree or another. We see it when they play tug, shake their toy or chase the ball in the backyard. 

And, yes, that included the Golden Retriever. The Golden Retriever has a very well-defined prey drive in search, stalk, and chase, and while low in bite-hold, it’s still there. 

The great news is that these drives can easily be harnessed through training to teach impulse control skills, which benefit both dogs and owners alike.


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