What gives a husky its ‘prey drive’?

sportive dog team is running in the snow

Hi folks, Alex here, welcome to the second post in my behaviour and training series. In this article I’m going to explain what drives dogs’ behaviour. Over the next three articles I’ll be explaining a bit about motor patterns, neuroscience and learning history.

Motor Patterns.

In my first post in this series I mentioned genetic dispositions for certain behaviours. Behaviour is a science and, as with all science, follows patterns. Ray & Lorna Coppinger established that all dogs have the same, ancestral, motor pattern consisting of 8 stages. This pattern drives the behaviours that keep the dog alive and consists of:
Orient – Eye – Stalk – Chase – Grab Bite – Kill Bite – Dissect – Consumption.

Left to their own devices, dogs only have one purpose – survival of themselves and the species. As we humans have created breeds for specific purposes we have altered this pattern. These changes occur by exacerbating or reducing parts of the pattern. This is what creates the genetic behaviours of each breed.

We have brought dogs into our world and ask them to perform behaviours they would otherwise not be concerned with. This is really important to bear in mind when conflicts arise with our dogs and problem behaviours – we are asking them to exist in an artificial world.

Snow Dog Behaviour Origins.

We can see how this pattern has changed in the husky as the breed has developed over the years. When the Chukchi bred huskies to hunt reindeer, the pattern would have been: Orient – Eye – Stalk – Chase – Grab Bite – Kill Bite (dissect) – Consumption. Notice how the only part to be reduced is the dissection element.

When the husky’s purpose changed from hunting to herding reindeer the pattern likely became: Orient – Eye – Stalk – Chase – (grab bite) – (kill bite) – (dissect) – Consumption1.
This is the fundamental motor pattern in the modern Siberian Husky today and part of what causes ‘prey drive’. The only variation to the pattern for today’s husky is that the stalk element has been reduced out of the pattern.

If you watch a husky going through this pattern, you see them Orient when they get the first whiff of something they want to hunt. Next, you see them go upright as the Eye whatever they’ve been tracking. There’s very little, if any, stalking. It’s usually a bolt of fur disappearing over the landscape as the Chase element kicks in. What happens after this is determined by the emotional circuit driving the behaviour. You might get a play response or something more sinister, depending on the situation.

If this behavioural pattern has been changed, why is my dog biting?

So what happened to the other parts of the pattern that disappeared? We have reduced these to such a small value that the dog jumps these to the next behaviour. These reduced (or latent) behaviours may also appear unexpectedly – often as a consequence of breeding lines. Consider a sheepdog that is struggling to move a herd of sheep. You may see it suddenly remember how to ‘grab bite’ and nip at the heels of the sheep. You might also be wondering why the consumption element hasn’t been eradicated. Without this, the dog wouldn’t ever eat and would die so it can’t be removed.

For malamutes, the pattern is much closer to the original, ancestral, pattern. The major change for moots is that they don’t tend to ‘stalk’ – they just go straight to the ‘chase’, ‘grab bite’ and ‘kill bite’. The strength of these patterns will vary from dog to dog depending on their genetic profile and their breeding lines.

Dogs bite for a number of reasons depending upon the emotional response the dog is having (I’ll elaborate on this in the next article). Biting generally occurs for fun, to relieve discomfort or to create distance. Biting really can be a fun behaviour for dogs – especially dogs who play hard. Watching some dogs play is like a scene from Godzilla vs King Kong…just with more fur.

Establishing whether your dog is playful or not, it’s key to understand the motivator for the behaviour. There is a distinct difference between the biting demonstrated by a fearful or angry dog and one that is playing.

What about the desire to pull?

Whilst I’m talking about instinctive behaviours, a quick word on pulling. I bet you’ve heard the sayings that putting a sled dog in harness is like putting a car into gear. Or that huskies and malamutes are bred to pull sleds. Obvious, right? Wrong.

No dog of any breed has any idea what a harness is, or what it’s for, until we show them. Teaching dogs to pull involves harnessing (pun intended) the dog’s instinct to chase and reinforcing the desired behaviour. We then increase the dog’s fitness so that they are able to perform this behaviour for duration.

This means that any dog has the potential to pull, whether in a harness or not. You’ll have seen this in that person being walked by their 8lb chihuahua on an extendable lead). Snow dogs pull well because of their hypertrophied drive to run and their bodily conformation which facilitates endurance running.

How does this work?

Pull up a sandbag and I’ll tell you Darwin and the moose. A couple of years ago I went to Norway to run sled dogs – something I’d wanted to do for years. I took my huskamute, Darwin, who I’d rescued 15 months previously, with me. From what little background I have of him, I can almost guarantee that he had never run in a harness. For several reasons I had no plans to run Darwin on a sled but I did take out a ‘fat bike’ with him harnessed to it. He showed absolutely zero interest in pulling the first couple of trips out. He was happy to plod along next to me and that was fine with me.

On our third/fourth time out with the ‘fat bike’ Darwin caught a moose scent and started to track. If we consider this in the context of motor patterns, tracking would be considered part of the ‘orient’. I gave him his release word and he took off like I’d stuck a needle in his butt*. As we were whipping down this track, with me dearly praying he wouldn’t go into the woods and wrap me into the trees, I was reinforcing this behaviour by verbally encouraging him.

Darwin stopped a couple of times to check the scent direction (and to test my reaction times braking) but I just lined him up, gave him his release word and off we went again. The repetitions of this behaviour start to build a learning history with his release word, the harness and the environment. This starts to build a cognitive desire to perform the behaviour as opposed to an emotional response that we have harnessed.

Does this mean Darwin now pulls me everywhere? No. Dogs are contextual learners so they initially learn a behaviour in specific circumstances. We then need to generalise this learning for them to do it when asked wherever they are.

Next up.

Hopefully this has shown you a bit about how the dog’s genetics influence certain behaviours. I’ll be writing a post for you on common problem behaviours (including pulling) with tips on how to address them. Next up will be the second article on what creates behaviour in which I’ll explain more about how emotions factor into behaviour.


  1. This pattern is correct if the husky was a header type herder but it would vary if it was bred as a heeler.
  2. Don’t stick, or do, anything unpleasant to your dogs to make them run. Or to do anything else for that matter. It doesn’t work.
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