Husky prey drive

What gives a husky prey drive?

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 a huskies prey drive. Over the following three articles, I’ll explain a bit about motor patterns, neuroscience and learning history.

Motor Patterns

I mentioned genetic dispositions for certain behaviours in my first post on the difference between huskies and malamutes. 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 – the 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 asked them to perform behaviours they would otherwise not be concerned with. When conflicts arise with our dogs and problem behaviours, it is important to bear in mind that we ask them to exist in an artificial world.

Husky Prey Drive 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 the husky ‘prey drive’. The only variation to the pattern for today’s husky is that the stalking element has been reduced from 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. Usually, a bolt of fur disappears over the landscape as the Chase element kicks in. What happens after this is determined by the emotional circuit driving the behaviour. Depending on the situation, you might get a play response or something more sinister.

Why is my husky 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 due to breeding lines. Consider a sheepdog that is struggling to move a herd of sheep. You may see it suddenly and 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 husky 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 significant change for moots is that they don’t tend to ‘stalk’ – they go straight to the ‘chase’, ‘grab a bite’ and ‘kill bite’. The strength of these patterns will vary from dog to dog, depending on their genetic profile and breeding lines.

Dogs bite for several reasons depending upon the emotional response the dog is having (I’ll elaborate on this in the following article). Biting generally occurs for fun, to relieve discomfort or to create distance. Biting can be fun for dogs – especially huskies and malamutes 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 vital to understanding 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. If you’re having issues with biting, check out our article on bite inhibition.

What about the desire to pull?

Whilst I’m talking about instinctive behaviours, a quick word on pulling. I bet you’ve heard the saying that putting a sled dog in a 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 walking or being walked by their 8lb chihuahua on an extendable lead. Northern breeds 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 sleddogs – 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 sledge 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 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 in the trees, I reinforced this behaviour by verbally encouraging him.

Cognitive desire

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 behaviour in specific circumstances. We then need to generalise this learning for them to do it when asked wherever they are.

  1. This pattern is correct if the husky was a header-type herder but it would vary if it were 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.

Next up

Hopefully, this has shown you how genetics influence the husky prey drive. I’ll write a post on common problem behaviours (including pulling) with tips on addressing them. Next will be the second article on what creates behaviour, in which I’ll explain more about how emotions factor into behaviour.

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