Predatory vs. aggressive behavior in dogs

I read two wonderful discussions recently, one regarding predatory versus aggressive behavior from IAABC (International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants- Dog Group, I can’t link the discussion as it’s a membership site), and one regarding resource guarding from Patricia McConnell, PhD, CAAB. The topic was as follows: what is the difference between predatory behavior and aggressive behavior, or when does one cross the line into the other? And from Dr. McConnell’s blog, is resource guarding a predatory behavior or an aggressive behavior?

Well this piqued my science mind. Not to mention, ahem, Reggie has a bit of a resource guarding problem with tennis balls. So back to predation versus aggression. Let’s break it down.


Reggie stalking ...something

Reggie stalking …something

Predation is rather cut and dry. The function, at a base level, is to get your prey. The sequence of events is: eye, stalk, chase, grab/bite, kill/bite, dissect, consume. The intent, and desire, is to get your prey. Read a general discussion by the ASPCA about it here. Most dogs will play with the bodies (think shaking the squeaky toys). It’s not the best mental picture of your adorable Fido- a fierce hunter stalking the backyard wildlife. But, that’s nature. Greyhounds are expert chasers. Staffordshires are expert kill/biters. Terriers are expert stalkers. Fortunately, evolution and selective breeding has de-volved this tendency in domestic dogs to a certain extent and the urge towards genuine predatory behavior like a National Geographic special is not so common, actually rare, in today’s dog.


Reggie giving a warning

Reggie giving a warning

The function of aggression is to remove a threat, whether perceived or genuine. This is seen in fear responses, anxiety, resource guarding, leash aggression, to name a few. These are all the dog’s conditioned (learned) responses to a perceived threat. In the case of, say, a dog fight or attack where your dog is the victim, an aggression response would be the removal of a real threat. The removal of a threat is not precluded by a stalking behavior; think of predation as premeditated and aggression as relatively instant.


It is reasonable to think that one behavior crosses over into another. For instance, Reggie’s cousin Stewie has trouble with “dog conversation.” He’s still a young dog and he’s learning. But it gets him trouble. Stewie loves to play, and play and play. When his play partners are tired or done playing they sit down or walk away like most dogs do. Stewie will poke and pester them to keep playing. The other dogs will growl or nip Stewie to give the signal to “back off.” Stewie does not understand this and keeps going back for more (“play with me!”). What started as social predatory behavior quickly escalates to an aggression situation when Stewie can’t read the signals and the other dog feels it needs to remove the threat (pestering dog).

Resource guarding can also be aggression behavior in a certain context. Reggie guards tennis balls from other dogs BAD (not humans). He perceives dogs as a threat to his ball. Why? Who knows. But this is an aggression response not a social predatory response. He goes stiff, low growl, lip curled- all signs of an impending lunge and/or bite. There is no stalk, no chase. No time- you want his ball!

All fun aside, it’s important to note the difference and know the difference in general, in social contexts, and in your dog. Reggie is much different than his cousin Stewie, but no dog is perfect and they both have issues- but much different ones. Now that I know, perhaps I can work a little harder, a little better, at Reggie’s tennis ball issues 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s