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Prey Drive & the Border Collie


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I heard a lot, before coming to the Boards, that stock working instinct was just genetically enhanced prey drive. But I seem to remember reading here that that was an oversimplification, and that a working Border Collie did not need high prey drive to be a good worker. How true is this?

 

Also, one of Albert Payson Terhune's favorite old saws was that the better a dog was at sheep work, the worse it would be about killing/ mauling sheep if it "went bad." He wrote several stories about the great sheepdog that assiduously guarded its own sheep by day, but suddenly turned killer, and went around slashing the throats and mauling the lambs of other people's sheep by night. I believe that's a theme that surfaces in "Bob, Son of Battle" with Red Wull being a sheep-killer. I always imagined this was something that made for thrilling fiction, but was much exaggerated in real life.

 

I know that where I grew up, your calves were much more likely to be run and/or worried to death by stray dog packs than coyotes and such. So, sheepdoggers, what's the skinny on prey drive and the Border Collie? The sports crowd seem all for it, but I wonder if you can have too much of a good thing in a pastoral dog. Do they need it? And if so, how much is too much?

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I'm not a Sheepdogger; but as I understand it, (based on Coppinger's theory), wild wolves are predators and their behavior follows a seven-step sequence:

 

Orient

Eye

Stalk

Chase

Grab

Bite-Kill

Bite-Dissect

 

As people have bred dogs, they have pulled the pattern apart, emphasizing certain aspects and downplaying or eliminating others, depending on their purpose.

 

People can promote certain characteristics by either breeding pairs of dogs that share the desired qualities or by allowing dogs to breed randomly but culling puppies from the litter that do not possess those characteristics. In either case, the genetic frequency for the desired quality goes up in each generation.

 

Herding dogs must eye and stalk, but never bite or kill. Hounds chase. Retrievers must grab the prey but should not dissect. Dogs that did their job well were allowed to reproduce, those that didn't were not. With intense selection, traits can be fixed in just a few generations.

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I heard a lot, before coming to the Boards, that stock working instinct was just genetically enhanced prey drive. But I seem to remember reading here that that was an oversimplification, and that a working Border Collie did not need high prey drive to be a good worker. How true is this?

I believe that the working genetics in a border collie are a *modified* prey drive. As Rushdoggie pointed out, dogs working stock don't follow prey drive to its logical conclusion, which is the kill, but do use some aspects of prey drive (including bite, though the bite is also not to kill, eye, and stalking). But this mofified prey drive alone doesn't make a good working dog. The dog also has to be able to read stock and react appropriately to their actions, must be biddable enough to allow a human to control the action, even when the human's commands go against the dog's instincts, must be trustworthy enough to work out of sight of the handler and still do the right thing (assess a situation and make the correct decision without human input), and at times choose to ignore the handler and do what it thinks is right. So there's a lot more to the genetic package of the excellent working dog than just prey drive (modified or enahnced).

 

To me personally, in the most basic sense prey drive is a dog's desire to chase and kill. A dog with a really high prey drive (chase and kill instinct) would be difficult to train on stock. Even if you could train it in such a way that you kept it well off the stock so the kill instinct didn't kick in, under high pressure situations, you'd have to realize that the dog will revert to its default behavior, which in a high-prey-drive dog would likely be chase and kill. Such a dog would be a liability for most farmers, whose margins are slim enough without having to worry about losses caused by the working dogs.

 

Regarding stockdogs and their treatment of stock, I don't think any left alone with the stock would deliberately or automatically become killers. But I can envision a scenario where the dog starts working stock on its own and if it harried the stock enough, or trapped them, then its prey drive could kick in and damage and death to the stock could result. That's why there is a whole separate classification of dog that's used as livestock guardians. Those dogs also have prey drive, but of the sort that allows them to live with a flock or herd and never harm a member of that flock or herd while efficiently killing any intruder bent on harming its charges.

 

All of these comments are my personal opinion.

 

J.

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So, if I'm understanding this correctly, the modified prey drive is what draws the dog to the stock initially, and may be responsible for the first-time or very inexperienced dog actually closing with the stock, as in lunging, biting or chasing. (And for the more experienced dog to deliver a chastising bite to turn an aggressive ram or steer.) And it's the dog's biddability that channels that energy into a mode of behavior more suitable to the handler's wishes?

 

(ETA - nearly every young wolf goes barreling directly at a large prey animal on its own at least once. They quickly learn that it is pretty useless though, and settle down to learning the craft of hunting and teamwork from their elders.)

 

I can also see how a certain amount of prey drive (or the complex of instinctual behaviors that includes prey drive) would enable the dog to read the stock. Other canine predators such as wolves also are adept at reading a herd of ungulates, sizing up the most likely candidate for focusing on in the hunt, and separating it from the herd or driving the mass of prey animals to the more experienced members of the pack. Wolves have been seen doing these things routinely - sizing up groups of animals and bringing pressure to bear on them to show their individual weaknesses, and separate/ tire the target animal for the pack members who are more experienced at actually closing and bringing down the prey.

 

As far as knowing what to do when they can't get a cue from the handler, or ignoring inappropriate commands by the handler, I always supposed this was the reasoning ability and justly famous intelligence of the breed that was responsible. I know some will disagree that a Border Collie can reason, but I've seen enough to convince me that they can, and that they have been bred to enhance their ability to do so. A dog that has fewer demands upon it than a good stock dog can be as dumb as a bag of hammers and still get by. But a dog with the characteristics outlined by Julie has to be both intelligent and discerning.

 

I always supposed that the reason that the livestock guarding breeds didn't attack the animals they are charged with guarding was that they were raised with the sheep, some even suckled by an ewe, so they would regard them as part of their pack, and accordingly, defend them. I have been told this is so. Is it?

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I have been wanting to start the topic like his because I started with sheep and the BC came later. And I found a number of things hat the dog does that seem to me very inconsistent with prey drive (however modified).

 

1. Gathering - if a predator hunts a flock, they want to separate one of the flock not to put it back into the flock. It seems odd that singling is the at the highest level of training.

 

2. behavior towards the lamb. I have seen numerous times that dogs ignore lambs. they often I not "tucked in' with the rest of the flock. Very easy target, and should be very attractive for the dog. Instead lots of dog ignore them.

 

3. Bossing the head of the flock - I have noticed that BCs often seek out the strongest and the head of the flock to control it, while on the peripheries wonder silly helpless lambs. Why engage in the staring contest with the ram instead o eating the lamb.

 

4. Protecting the flock. My dog has protected the flock from dogs,. Not my lgd but my BC. She went between the flock and the dog and chased it away.

 

5. Protective behavior towards lambs. My dogs give lambs a lamb licence, they are particularly gentle with them.

 

 

These are my observations.

 

Maja

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I always supposed that the reason that the livestock guarding breeds didn't attack the animals they are charged with guarding was that they were raised with the sheep, some even suckled by an ewe, so they would regard them as part of their pack, and accordingly, defend them. I have been told this is so. Is it?

I've never heard of LGDs being suckled by their charges, though I suppose very rarely it could happen. It is important, in general, for LGDs to be raised with stock so they bond to stock, but talk to anyone who has raised LGDs and they will tell you stories about the dogs as puppies and adolescents, running animals to death, killing lambs (or kids), etc. Not out of maliciousness generally, but because they go through the same maturation phases as any other breed of dog and during those times they can exhibit behaviors that are detrimental to their charges. And I don't know of anyone who uses LGDs who would, say, leave an inexperienced LGD out with a lambing flock without close supervision. Sometimes even in their efforts to help (clean up afterbirth, etc.) they can be too enthusiastic, again to the detriment of the stock they are meant to protect.

 

So, yes, bonding with its stock is important for an LGD, but I have also watched one of my dogs harrass (IMO) sheep for no apparent reason. In fact, I have gone so far as to correct her for her behavior. So all is not as folks would idealize these dogs (or working border collies, for that matter).

 

J.

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Maja makes some good points. A lot of dogs will ignore lambs (which can be a pain when you need them to pay attention and make sure the lambs move too) while working their mothers. You often hear shepherds talking about good lambing dogs--such dogs are willing and able to take on and move (over)protective mamas without ever hurting a baby lamb. It requires calm, careful work while not being intimidated by the ewes and at the same time not causing chaos among the adult sheep, which can risk the safety of the lambs (little lamb bones are easily broken).

 

J.

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I have been wanting to start the topic like his because I started with sheep and the BC came later. And I found a number of things hat the dog does that seem to me very inconsistent with prey drive (however modified).

 

1. Gathering - if a predator hunts a flock, they want to separate one of the flock not to put it back into the flock. It seems odd that singling is the at the highest level of training.

 

2. behavior towards the lamb. I have seen numerous times that dogs ignore lambs. they often I not "tucked in' with the rest of the flock. Very easy target, and should be very attractive for the dog. Instead lots of dog ignore them.

 

3. Bossing the head of the flock - I have noticed that BCs often seek out the strongest and the head of the flock to control it, while on the peripheries wonder silly helpless lambs. Why engage in the staring contest with the ram instead o eating the lamb.

 

4. Protecting the flock. My dog has protected the flock from dogs,. Not my lgd but my BC. She went between the flock and the dog and chased it away.

 

5. Protective behavior towards lambs. My dogs give lambs a lamb licence, they are particularly gentle with them.

 

 

These are my observations.

 

Maja

 

Maja, you make some good points, but I'd say those things can be explained by biddability as well- a biddable dog with high prey drive will protect their flock and ignore tempting lambs if they're taught to.

I've known pet dogs ignore squawking and flapping hens and their chicks, but kill other small animals quite happily.

 

Aren't border collies good ratters? Or so I've heard.

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Maja, you make some good points, but I'd say those things can be explained by biddability as well- a biddable dog with high prey drive will protect their flock and ignore tempting lambs if they're taught to.

No, not at all. These are very much instinctive, out of their own initiative behaviors. As Julie wrote, ignoring lambs is often quite a pain. The time that my dog defended the flock was a shock to us, because I thought the BCs were not supposed to do that. Then also, my dog who had out and out fights with one of the rams would back off because a lamb shook its head at. it looked very funny. the same lamb when it grows up is treated differently. A numbers of behaviors which I would like to call "nurturing attitude" towards lambs was always in my dogs. From day one they were like that, it was not taught, and that's what was so surprising to me and so strikingly inconsistent with the prey-drive idea about it.

 

I've known pet dogs ignore squawking and flapping hens and their chicks, but kill other small animals quite happily. Aren't border collies good ratters? Or so I've heard.

If herding is not simply a modified prey drive then being a hunter and a herder are not two mutually exclusive/conflicting jobs. In one of Mr. McCaig's books he wrote about his dog catching a largish critter during an outrun. I forget what it was though.

 

Maja

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I've been reading through the posts above and thought I would share my .02. I would say that it all depends on the individual dog, how much self control they have, how excitable they are and how well they have learned their job.

 

I've seen and worked with border collies that would be very careful with lambs and other baby animals and then another that would pick on the babies even going so far as taking a leg off if given a chance, the one that would pick on the babies often times lacked confidence, courage and self control.

 

I think that there is an ideal that most working border collie breeders would like to achieve when they are developing and advancing the line of dogs they are working with, not everyone has the same ideals in the same order so I would expect to see variation based on selection pressure or lack there of to appear across the breed.

 

When I had a long visit with Tony McCallum this past winter he flat out said that if a young dog of his bit a lamb or a calf that he would kill it, when he said it it sounded harsh, and I thought he was kidding but I don't believe he was. When you look at it closer you realize that neither the calf nor the lamb would do the dog wrong, but their mommas may, it could be viewed as a sign of weakness that the dog would take the easy route by aggressing the animal that was weaker and he wanted no part of weakness in his lines.

 

Another breeder may be more forgiving and opt to train the dog to not bother young stock or to work with the dogs confidence, that difference in selection would create variance amoung the breed. Based on my many converstations with Tony I took away that he is a big advocate for not being willing to train for a trait that should be bred in.

 

As to border collies being good ratters, yup they can be and good rabbit hunters and pheasent retrievers too.

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Dear Theoretically-inclined,

 

Drive theories were popular among behaviorists until Skinner captured that movement and reduced drives to food (subsequently expanded among positive trainers to praise, toys and play). Meanwhile, in Europe, Konrad Lorenz’s pupils expanded some of his theories into a “drives” vocabulary, and they became and are common parlance in Schutzhund and other teutonic dog training.

 

Drive theory offers some interesting metaphors of some use understanding what dogs are doing.

 

I watched the 2010 National Finals with Wendy Vollhard; a strong proponent of "Drive Theory" for training pet dogs. At the double lift, the dogs were asked to abandon #1 flocklett - who were escaping to the exhaust - in order to turn back for the 2nd. It was visibly difficult for the dogs to release #1 (tough enough when they're just grazing; much harder when #1 is escaping). It seemed a textbook instance of prey drive being altered by defensive drive (the handler's insistent commands) to pack drive (cooperatively going back for #2).

 

Using another set of metaphors, the dog was “locked on” to the escaping sheep until he “listened” and "looked for new sheep". The earlier metaphors are more generalizable, the latter more specific to a particuar task. I suppose someone could describe these same behaviors using the “four quadrants” but I’ll leave them to it.

 

Drive theory provides useful metaphors but when taken too literally they obscure as much as they reveal.

 

In years past when we had a newborn orphan lamb we couldn't save, we'd tube it and bring it in to die on a sheepskin by the warmth of the wood stove. Pip saved several such lambs by "mothering" them. But the photographs I took of one such rescue show a dog torn between nurturing and chowing down.

 

“Food drive” and “Protection drive” are close kin. Many pet owners believe the “play bow” is an invitation to fun, pure and simple. Wolf studies have shown that it is one way wolves “try” their prey to assess vulnerabilities. We’ve all seen how guardian dogs sometimes sort off ill or infirm sheep as “prey”.

 

Some theorists (Coppinger?)suggest that Border Collies are so intelligent and show so much “Prey drive” because they are (relatively) late evolutions from wolves. How Border Collies managed to evolve 20-100,000 years after other dogs goes unconsidered.

 

Okay. The first recorded mention of dogs like our modern Border Collie is the late 16th century when they were already well known.

 

Border Collies only become useful when flocks are large enough that poor mens’ children cannot move them easily from grazing to grazing and are too numerous to be sheltered from predators inside the family dwelling.

 

Larger sheep flocks sprang up for cultural reasons (Border Lords liked to live in London more than the Highlands, thus weakening their clan (crofter) bonds and obligations and a key ecological change: the extinction of the British wolf.

 

Before these events, the crofter’s dog was more likely to be a guard dog, much like our modern Akbashes, Anatolian Shepherds, etc. Such dogs may have arrived in Britain with the Romans.

 

Sheep guarding dogs often move their sheep to safer circumstances, sometimes leading, sometimes driving. Clearly, these dogs understand how to move sheep.

 

They were the only plausible ancestors present in rural Britain when circumstances changed to favor thousand ewe flocks, roaming on great tracts of depopulated land, herded by a single shepherd and his dogs.

 

I think that’s where our dogs came from, that Border Collies are one extreme of a genetic continuum; the sheep guardians the other and the semi-protection/semi sheepdogs like the German Shepherd and English Shepherd in between.

 

And that prey and protection drives are genetically intertwined.

 

Donald McCaig

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Mr. Donald has made an excellent point about drive theory being a metaphor for the behavior of border collies. It is a perennial problem with metaphors that they only work if taken as such. When taken literally, they pathetically fall apart.

 

The continuum that Mr McCaig writes about I read about a few years back on a list for LGD, which however was closed down, and I only got hold of some copy. It made perfect sense to me at that time, and acquainted me with the term “bossiness” which was helpful in explaining a lot.

 

Concerning Ms. Debbie’s very interesting comments. I think that the assemblage called herding instinct is man-made, and that it is a set of desirable traits that humans selected because they were useful. So they do not have to come (and I don’t think they do come) from one behavioral repertoire or schema, though of course each of the element is in some form genetic by definition.

 

Thus, since it is considered that balance is part of the herding instinct, if a dog has no balance we would not say balance is not really part of the herding repertoire (since not all BCs have it), but that the dog lacks what is desired in the repertoire of herding behavior. If it is treated as such, then “lamb-friendliness” is the same. A dog that wants to eats a lamb simply lacks a part of what is desired in the herding dog behavior. But not all features of the herding instinct are treated the same way by all shepherds. Obviously for Tony McCallum, a lamb grabber shows a serious lack in the repertoire. But I have also heard opinions that a dog that cannot haul off and grab a sheep and hold onto it, is a weakling.

 

So since the actual set of desirable traits of a sheepdog is man-made, there are also differences in what actually these straits are exactly. And I think that also contributes to the opacity of the issue.

 

 

Maja

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This is very interesting.

 

One thing I would add about wolves is this.

 

Prey give signals about how healthy they are.

Such as stoting in deer, and actually sheep do this too.

 

This is when they bound with all four feet working at the same time.

 

 

Predators watch to see how well they stot. To determine how viable they are.

 

Elk and moose trot, head held high, almost like a passage in horses to show the same thing.

 

 

 

Often wolves will start a chase then stop.

 

 

 

Because the chance for a kill is unlikely.

 

 

 

Maybe not too much related to this conversation, but I think that is very interesting.

 

 

 

The conversation, unsopken between predator and prey.

 

 

I guess we have seen this conversation in its gentler form with our dogs.

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But I have also heard opinions that a dog that cannot haul off and grab a sheep and hold onto it, is a weakling

 

 

Yup..if all else fails and said sheep refuses to yield or honor there is one last line of defense. I doubt that many would have an opportunity to have that scenario presented and I suspect that the stong dog that can do it right and only when warrented is apt to rarely be seen biting. IMO, the bite is not what makes the dog strong it is the ability to not bite while maintaining the ability to bite when warranted.

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Yes, I know the dog must have the ability to grab the sheep. The eye is not a bluff, it s warning. But, I am talking about grabbing and holding on, and not as the last resort, that there has to be a great desire to do so - I have heard such opinions.

 

"the bite is not what makes the dog strong it is the ability to not bite while maintaining the ability to bite when warranted." - that's absolutely my opinion too. Helps in teaching too :D

 

Maja

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Ms Rushdoggie writes:

 

Would you care to elaborate? I am unaware of Skinner "reducing drives to food.

 

Try: http://www.mombu.com/pets/general-chat-for-dogs/t-the-trouble-with-drives-daniel-estep-phd-and-suzanne-hetts-phd-httpwwwanimalbehaviorassociatescompdfrmn-drive-troubles-2932439.html

 

Donald McCaig

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Ms Rushdoggie writes:

 

Would you care to elaborate? I am unaware of Skinner "reducing drives to food.

 

Try: http://www.mombu.com/pets/general-chat-for-dogs/t-the-trouble-with-drives-daniel-estep-phd-and-suzanne-hetts-phd-httpwwwanimalbehaviorassociatescompdfrmn-drive-troubles-2932439.html

 

Donald McCaig

 

Interesting article, but still doesn't support your statement...

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