Terrier Prey Drive Explained (Everything You Need to Know)

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Terriers are a feisty breed group known for their energetic, tenacious personalities. This spirited temperament is deeply rooted in the history of terriers as hunting dogs bred to pursue and kill small prey like rodents, rabbits, and foxes.

Of all dog breeds, terriers tend to possess an exceptionally strong “prey drive” – the instinct to chase down, grab, shake, and even kill other animals.

This article will take an in-depth look at why terriers have such an intense genetically coded prey drive compared to other breeds.

We’ll examine how their origins as tenacious hunters shaped this trait, what triggers and expressions of prey drive look like in terriers, and how it differs from related concepts like herding instinct and aggression.

By understanding the prey drive bred into their DNA, owners can better manage their terriers’ strong instincts and channel them in positive ways – like Earthdog competitions.

Terrier Prey Drive Explained (Jack Russell Terrier in a field)

Definition of Prey Drive

Prey drive refers to a dog’s instinctive urge to find, pursue, capture, and kill other animals, essentially their desire to hunt. It involves a series of innate behaviors:

  • Searching/seeking: Using sight and scent to locate potential prey
  • Stalking: Stealthily approaching identified prey
  • Chasing: Running after prey that flees
  • Grabbing: Using the mouth to catch, grip and restrain prey
  • Killing: Biting prey with the intention to dispatch it

This sequence reflects the natural predatory behaviors modern dog breeds inherited from wolves.

However, prey drive manifests with varying degrees of intensity in different breeds. Terriers demonstrate some of the highest prey drive among dogs.

Prey drive is not the same as playfulness or curiosity. Dogs with high prey drive will fixate, target, and obsess over potential “prey” animals. They often enter a highly focused mental state when triggered.

Prey drive is also distinct from human-directed aggression. It is predatory instinct rather than social hostility. However, extremely high prey drive requires control and training to prevent harm to other pets.

Terriers Bred for Strong Prey Drive

Terriers were specifically developed and bred over generations to exhibit an exceptionally strong prey drive.

Their original purpose was to hunt, pursue, and kill small vermin and pests like mice, rats, rabbits, and foxes. This required a high-drive dog intensely focused on locating, chasing, and dispatching quick-moving prey.

The terrier breeding heritage stems from the British Isles, where working terriers helped farmers control rodent infestations that threatened crops and livestock.

Breeds like the Jack Russell Terrier and West Highland White Terrier were honed for tenacity and intense prey drive in their historical roles as fox hunters and ratters.

From the largest terriers like the Airedale to the smallest terriers like the Yorkshire, all terriers have an innate prey drive.

Yorkshire Terrier. Big or small, from Airedale to Yorkshire, all terriers have a natural instinct to chase prey.

Today, while not always actively used for hunting, those innate genetic drives remain embedded in the terrier breed. That hardwired prey drive is part of the terrier type’s distinctive temperament.

So when your terrier dog fixates on a squirrel and strains against the leash trying to take off after it, he is simply expressing centuries of selective breeding as a tenacious ratter and hunter.

It’s in his DNA; objectively neither good nor bad, but an essential terrier trait.

How Prey Drive Manifests in Terriers

In terriers, prey drive is frequently triggered by small fast-moving animals that resemble their traditional quarry – rodents, rabbits, squirrels, cats, etc.

When focused on a potential target, terriers will exhibit laser-like concentration – unable to be distracted. They may tremble with excitement and tension.

The terrier will instinctively attempt to chase after identified prey with relentless intensity. Many terriers are capable of hitting sudden explosive speeds in pursuit. They are nimble, feisty, and courageous in charging after prey despite hazards.

Jack Russell Terrier digging a hole in pursuit of its prey.

If they catch up to the animal, terriers will use their grip strength and tenacity to grab, overpower, and shake the prey.

Some terriers retain the ultimate killing bite instinct, while others are content just to capture. In either case, the terrier is consumed by the heat of the hunt when their genetics switch into prey drive mode.

Terriers in full prey mode may also frantically dig and scratch at the ground or into dens to reach cornered quarry. Their drive is so strong that no obstacle will dissuade them.

This prey obsession combined with athletic agility is what made terriers exceptional hunters. But it requires control in modern life to prevent harming other pets or running away in pursuit of their prey.

Contrast to Herding Breeds

All dogs have an ingrained prey drive instinct inherited from their wolf past, but this instinct manifests itself differently in different breeds.

While terriers were developed to hunt and kill prey, herding dog breeds were bred with a different kind of innate drive – the instinct to chase and round up livestock.

Herding breeds like Border Collies exhibit strong “prey drive” behaviors like stalking and chasing. However, they do not share the terrier’s intense fixation on capturing and killing other animals.

Border Collie herding sheep. Herding dogs such as Border Collies show behaviors like stalking and chasing, which are signs of a strong prey drive. However, they don't have the same focus on catching and killing animals as terriers do.

The herding dog’s goal is to stimulate movement of the flock or herd. They may nip at heels to motivate, but not bite down to injure.

Where the terrier locks eyes on a target critter and obsesses over capturing it, the herding dog is satisfied just by the stimulating action of a good chase. For example, a Border Collie will enthusiastically chase a squirrel at top speed, but is content to give up once it reaches safety.

The terrier is almost certain to keep tunneling relentlessly to reach its prey no matter how long it takes.

These contrasting drives align with the distinct breeding purposes of each breed type. Herders stimulate motion, terriers kill vermin. This colors their version of “prey drive” and intensity of fixation.

Prey Drive vs. Aggression

Prey drive is sometimes confused with aggression in dogs. However, there are important differences between a terrier’s predatory instincts and aggressive behaviors rooted in fear, dominance, or territoriality.

Prey drive is triggered by the sight of potential “prey” animals and manifests as excited fixation on stalking and capturing them. The terrier in prey drive mode is not angry or defensive. They are simply excited by the hunt.

In contrast, dog aggression is an emotional response driven by perceived threats to resources, status, or security. Aggressive dogs act out of fear or dominance. They may growl, lunge, or bite to make something go away.

The terrier chasing a squirrel is in happy hunt mode. The terrier biting a person’s ankle out of fear or unease is showing true aggression. Prey drive reflects innate predatory behaviors, while aggression arises from clashing social motivations.

However, very high prey drive can lead to harming other pets if not properly controlled. And some aggressive dogs do display predatory body language like stalking. So the concepts are linked, but stem from different internal causes in the dog.

Potential Issues with Strong Prey Drive

While prey drive itself is value-neutral and natural for terriers, an extremely high level combined with lack of training can lead to problematic behaviors. Common issues include:

  • Ignoring commands: When locked on prey, terriers often tune out owners’ calls. This can lead to dangerous off-leash chasing of cars, bikes, etc.
  • Harming other pets: High prey drive terriers may attack/kill small pets like rabbits, hamsters, cats, or even small dogs. Close supervision is required.
  • Destructiveness: In pursuit of prey, terriers may dig under or crash through fences, dig up gardens, and damage property.
  • Wandering: Obsessively tracking prey can lead terriers to wander far from home and become lost.
  • Injuries: Single-minded focus on prey pursuit can lead terriers to injure themselves on obstacles, fall from heights, cut paws on debris, etc.

Proper containment, supervision, training, and stimulation are essential to managing these potential issues. Tiring a terrier out physically and mentally helps prevent destructive pent-up energy.

Positive Aspects of Prey Drive

While requiring management, terriers’ strong prey drive can also be a source of great energy and enjoyment when properly directed.

Prey drive is a big part of what makes terriers so alert, lively, and enthusiastic. Satisfying their need to “hunt” turns on the terrier’s signature spark.

Playing fetch and tug with safe toys allows a constructive and bonding outlet for prey drive.

Some working terrier owners participate in “barn hunt” events where dogs search for hidden tubes containing pet rats. This tests their tracking skills without harm.

For owners who do engage in hunting pursuits like barn hunts, vermin extermination, or Earthdog trials, the terrier’s genetic predisposition really shines.

Terriers Excel at Earthdog Trials

Earthdog trials are a competitive event that highlights the terrier’s natural digging, hunting, and prey drive abilities. These simulated underground hunts consist of a maze of tunnels with turns, obstacles, and dens containing “quarry” – safely caged rats or mice.

The terrier must navigate the tunnels, locate quarry, and either give voice at the cage or silently work to enter and “capture” the protected prey. The handler follows commands for negotiation and extraction.

Earthdog tests terriers’ scenting skills, agility, tenacity, and hunting instincts in an earth-like setting resembling their original work. Terrier breeds dominate Earthdog competitions which align with their breeding.

Earthdog provides a regulated showcase for terriers to exercise their powerful prey drive in a simulated hunt.

Summing Up Terrier Prey Drive

In summary, terriers stand out among dog breeds for their exceptionally strong prey drive rooted in their history as tenacious hunters of vermin and small game.

The terrier’s obsession with stalking, chasing, capturing, and killing quick-moving prey reflects generations of targeted breeding to create the ultimate ratter, fox hunter, and varmint exterminator.

This innate predatory instinct manifests through intense fixation, explosive chase speeds, and unrelenting grabbing and shaking of quarry.

While requiring management to prevent harm, terrier prey drive also lends the breed its signature spunk and liveliness.

By appreciating prey drive as an integral terrier trait, owners can provide proper containment, training, and stimulating activities to direct this natural energy in positive ways.

Kevin William

Kevin grew up with a female West Highland White Terrier named Murphy who was always by his side. Kevin currently lives in New York state with his family including a Labrabull (Labrador Retriever Pit Bull) named Lily.

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