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German Shepherds are one of the most popular dog breeds and for good reason! These intelligent, loyal, and athletic dogs are great for most households and owner lifestyles.
Due to how easy they are to train and how quickly they are able to adapt to different living situations, many owners might assume that their German Shepherd is not one for chasing things they shouldn’t. That line of thinking can sometimes get their dogs into trouble!
German Shepherds, despite their more common use as service dogs and police dogs, actually fall into the same breed category as Border Collies and Australian Shepherds…the herding group!
While it’s common knowledge that more popular herding breeds tend to have issues with small animals, can the same be said for German Shepherds? Do German Shepherds have a high prey drive?
German Shepherds do have a higher prey drive than some other similar dog breeds. This is largely due to their herding ancestry. Despite having a high prey drive, with proper socialization and training most German Shepherds can get along well with smaller animals, though care should still be taken if any aggression is seen.
Below we’ll discuss the German Shepherd’s history as a herding dog, and why they have a higher prey drive despite not really being used for herding anymore. We’ll talk about why it’s not a bad thing if your German Shepherd has a high prey drive, and what you can do to help manage a high drive German Shepherd so that everyone stays safe.
Finally, we’ll discuss how it’s possible for a high drive German Shepherd to still live peacefully with animals smaller than them.
Do German Shepherds Have A High Prey Drive?
As a member of the herding group, the German Shepherd can have a higher prey drive than some other breeds. However, they do not have as high a prey drive as those dogs within the sporting groups and terrier groups.
The German Shepherd’s prey drive is also dependent on their genetics, upbringing, socialization, and training history. German Shepherds who come from working lines tend to have a higher prey drive, whereas those German Shepherds who were bred more as pets, service animals, or show dogs are likely to have less of a prey drive.
All German Shepherds can usually be taught to behave around cats and other small animals, though! Socializing German Shepherd puppies from a young age around smaller animals is important, as is teaching them proper impulse control.
As a highly intelligent and easily trainable breed of dog, German Shepherds usually learn quickly what is and is not appropriate behavior around things smaller than them. While they may engage in their natural chasing instincts from time to time, a properly socialized and trained German Shepherd is unlikely to willfully hurt or injure a smaller animal unless they have previously been encouraged to do so.
However, German Shepherds who are poorly socialized, have no training, or those who are working as guard dogs or herding dogs may have an increased risk of engaging in their instincts when around smaller animals (though this can also be very situational, and only with certain small animals).
The German Shepherd As A Herding Dog
German Shepherds were first bred as utility working dogs, specifically for herding sheep. The focus of the breed’s founder, Captain Max von Stephanitz, was for intelligence, drive, temperament, and work ethic. These dogs were prized for their ability to quickly and easily handle a task without becoming distracted or swayed by interruptions.
The temperament of the German Shepherd was one of s loyal family guardian who put the interests of their owner first and foremost. With the emphasis on intelligence and trainability, this led to the German Shepherd being able to better manage their natural herding urges.
Herding dogs in general will usually display some type of herding behavior when around animals of any size (that’s what makes them a good herding dog!), but smaller animals tend to pique their interest if they move suddenly which can trigger a chase.
While some herding dogs are too intense around smaller animals which often leads to injury, German Shepherds seem to be able to adjust the intensity of their instincts even with the influence of their herding genetics.
Despite their ability to adapt to other outlets for their instincts, it’s still important to remember that the German Shepherd has a strong prey drive due in part to their history as a herding dog so socialization and training are still incredibly important to undertake in order to ensure that your pup is safe around small animals.
4 Ways To Tell If Your German Shepherd Has A High Prey Drive
While every dog is different, there are a few things you can be on the lookout for if you are wondering if your German Shepherd has a high prey drive (and if you should be concerned about it):
1. They Hyper Focus On Movement
While every dog will usually orient towards anything that makes a sudden movement, if your German Shepherd hyper focuses on something that moves then that could be an indicator that they have a high prey drive. The sudden movement will instinctively trigger interest in dogs.
While low drive dogs will usually focus on the movement for a moment, they’ll generally switch their focus once they determine the moving thing is of no threat or interest to them. For dogs who have a high drive (as well as dogs who are anxious, fearful, or aggressive), it can be difficult if not impossible for them to switch their focus once they’ve locked on to the moving object.
Additional signs that a dog is hyper fixated on something include vocalizing that increases in intensity, body tremors or shaking, lunging or pulling if they are on a leash, and an inability to focus on their owner and their owner’s cues.
2. Their Body Language Changes When Around Small Animals
Dogs communicate primarily through their body language, and there is some telltale body language that indicates a dog has a high interest in small animals.
If your German Shepherd sees a smaller animal (or even a moving animal) and they become tense, drop their head low, lift one of their front paws, or engage in stalking and pouncing behavior, then it’s likely they have a higher prey drive.
While many of these behaviors come naturally to all dogs and are an important part of their instinctual urges, there are appropriate and inappropriate ways a dog can engage in them.
If these behaviors are seen in play or the end result is just a quick chase and your German Shepherd is still able to listen and respond to any cues from yourself, then it’s probably not anything to be too concerned about.
But if your German Shepherd engages in these behaviors and you are unable to redirect them or they chase the animal to the point of exhaustion and/or aggressively grab the animal, then it’s worth a consultation with a local trainer who can help you find alternative, more appropriate outlets for your pup’s hunting instincts.
3. They Are Aggressive Towards Small Animals
Properly socialized and well-trained German Shepherds are rarely aggressive towards small animals of any kind (unless they feel the animal is a threat). If your German Shepherd is frequently displaying aggressive or threatening behaviors when around small animals of any kind even with proper socialization and training, then it may be that they have a high prey drive.
A dog’s genetics also play an important role in a lot of their behaviors, and German Shepherds who come from breeding lines where their ancestors were utilized for various herding and working jobs and who may have been encouraged to act aggressively may display those same characteristics.
If you obtain a German Shepherd from a breeder, it’s important to research the dog’s breeding lines as well as interview the breeder to see how the puppies are raised and how the parents act.
While German Shepherds are great for first time dog owners, due to their popularity there has been an increase in unscrupulous breeders so it’s important to make sure you are getting a dog who is happy and healthy, both physically AND mentally.
4. They Perform The “Grab And Shake” Technique
The “grab and shake” technique, which can be seen even when our dogs are playing with their toys, is actually rooted in an instinctual hunting and killing behavior. When a German Shepherd grabs onto their toy and shakes it, they are performing a technique that was once used to stun and kill prey.
While most dogs engage in this behavior only while playing with their toys (which is an appropriate outlet for displaying this behavior), some German Shepherds may show this behavior with living things, too.
While some owners may not mind if their German Shepherd grabs and kills a mouse or rat using this technique (which is actually a good thing if your German Shepherd is used as a farm dog, for instance), for some dogs it may be wise to take notice of this behavior.
Because the act of chasing, grabbing, shaking, and killing something is self-rewarding, a dog is more likely to continue to do the behavior. While some German Shepherds can be taught to leave cats and other small pets alone even if they are allowed to interact in this way with things like mice and squirrels, for other Shepherds it may be too ingrained in their instincts, and they will act this way with any small animal.
Predatory behaviors are very complex to work on training-wise, and most trainers will suggest management solutions (such as keeping your German Shepherd away from all small animals) rather than trying to train this instinctual behavior “out of” the dog.
Is It Bad If My German Shepherd Has A High Prey Drive?
No, it is normal for a lot of dogs to have high prey drives. Sometimes it is even preferred, depending on what activities you are doing with your German Shepherd.
If you would prefer a German Shepherd with low prey drive, it’s important to research the genetics of the parents carefully and interview the breeder about the characteristics, drive, and energy level of their dogs and of puppies from past litters. If you’ve adopted a German Shepherd, pay close attention to their behaviors around small animals for the first year you’ve got them.
Newly adopted dogs can take quite a while (several months at least) before they really start feeling comfortable in their new homes. Until that time comes, they may show behaviors that are abnormal for them and may not be their true personality.
If you’ve got a German Shepherd puppy, make sure to socialize them early and often, and make sure every encounter they have with cats or other small animals is a good one. Teaching them impulse control and basic obedience skills will help manage their behaviors as they grow, and it allows you more opportunities to redirect them to other energy outlets if they try to engage in a chase.
Also keep in mind that your German Shepherd may only show a high prey drive with certain species, or only if they make a sudden movement. So always be mindful whenever your pup is around something smaller than them until you can be certain that your dog will listen to you.
What You Can Do If Your German Shepherd Has A High Prey Drive
If you happen to have a German Shepherd that has a high prey drive, there are steps you can take to make sure they are safe around smaller animals. If your dog is still a puppy or in the early stages of adolescence, you can continue to work on socialization and impulse control training.
Teaching things like “Leave It” will help if you notice them show interest in a small animal. If your dog is already older or still has difficulty around small animals, it’s important to make sure they are kept on a strong, sturdy leash while out and about (retractable leads are not a good option as they can snap if the dog suddenly lunges forward to chase an animal) and to monitor your yard for any signs of small animals that you don’t want your pup going after.
If you have small animals in the home and your German Shepherd is high drive and shows a little too much interest in them, you should keep the small animals totally separate from your German Shepherd.
The risk of injury or death to the smaller animal is too high, and there is also a risk to your German Shepherd if the animal bites or scratches them, or if it is a toxic or poisonous species of animal.
You can make sure to provide your German Shepherd with appropriate outlets for their predatory instincts (puzzle toys and interactive toys are great options). Ensuring that your German Shepherd gets enough physical and mental stimulation will help keep their energy levels more stable, too.
Can A High Drive German Shepherd Get Along With Smaller Animals?
German Shepherds are highly intelligent and can develop good impulse control through training. They must be well socialized with lots of positive experiences with small animals.
High drive German Shepherds generally also have higher energy levels, so it’s important that they receive ample exercise (both physically and mentally) in order to avoid any pent-up frustration that can result in the unwanted chasing of small animals.
If you have small animals in the home, make sure they have safe spaces that your pup cannot get to, and it’s probably best not to leave them alone together unless you are 100% certain there will be no issues.
For some small animal species, such as lizards and hamsters, it’s probably best that a high drive German Shepherd be kept away from them unless under supervision from their owners.
While German Shepherds do tend to have a high prey drive, the majority of Shepherds can manage their instincts through good socialization and proper training.
Certain working lines of German Shepherds and those who have poor socialization and training skills are more likely to have high prey drives that could cause issues with small animals.
It’s not impossible for a high drive German Shepherd to get along with small animals, though. Just make sure you keep up with their training and provide them with plenty of outlets for their energy!