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What We Talk About When We Talk About “Drive”

by | Oct 12, 2016 | 0 comments

“Drive” is a term dog trainers and dog sport people throw around a lot. When seeking a puppy for agility, folks seek a “high drive” dog. Some people even vocalize their desire for a “medium” drive dog, and no one in sports seems to go for a “low drive” companion. But I’ve cautioned people against asking breeders for these qualities because, frankly, there’s a lot left to interpretation. Drive is defined as an innate, biologically determined urge to attain a goal or satisfy a need. Does “high-drive” simply indicate that a dog has more of these needs? Or that her thirst for them is greater? Or is it just that when she has a need, she works harder to meet it? Conversely, what is a low-drive dog? Is he one that has few needs and desires, one that doesn’t want anything too badly, or is he one that just won’t work too hard to meet his own needs?

None of these seem to fit quite right. All healthy animals are “high-drive” when meeting their own needs or obtaining their desires is concerned. Think of the supposed “low drive” terrier from your agility class who would stop at nothing in hot pursuit of a mouse in your home. Consider the flat sighthound loping on the agility course who screams and leaps vertically in anticipation of chasing a rabbit in an open field. Labeling these dogs “low drive” is frankly silly.  Silly, too, is the “high-drive” label slapped on the border collie who refuses food in the presence of agility. Agility is not an innate need for any dog; so why would food, which is an innate need for all dogs take a backseat to it for this “high-drive” dog?

Further confusion abounds; sometimes “high-drive” is used to describe high-arousal, high-adrenaline, or just plain high. Too often dogs that are stressed, anxious, or even sick are labeled “low-drive.” When breeding dogs specifically for sports we need to be careful that we are not inadvertently producing dogs with overactive adrenal systems that make them fast, explosive, and mentally unable to cope. When slapping a label on a dog that is lackluster we might miss an illness, disregard a troubled emotional state, or just plain fail to rise to the occasion as a trainer.

The problem with creating our own definitions for words and phrases is a lack of universal understanding, putting us back at square one; an inability to describe what we are and are not looking for in our canine sports companions. I propose we simply say what we mean. The terrier whose mouse hunt beats your string cheese is high-drive, but he is harder for us to motivate for our purposes. If you’d like a dog that chooses your cheese over hunting, you’d like a dog that is “easily motivated by food.” The sighthound that has no desire in tugging on your expensive fleece braid woven with rabbit fur but comes unglued at the sight of real prey is also high-drive; she’s just not as easy to get into your game. If you’d like a dog that plays joyfully with humans and human toys, you’d like a dog that is “easily engaged in and motivated by play.” The border collie that refuses food ringside is probably quite high-drive, but his adrenal system is interfering with his ability to remain level-headed and present. If the dog comes unglued in pursuit of his needs, he is also not easily motivated for our purposes. The owner of this dog would never call him low-drive but she might report trouble with crashing bars, breaking contact and start line criteria, and potentially aggression outside of the ring. He is probably easily motivated by play, likely by food in the right environments, but he can’t cope with his excess of adrenaline. If seeking a sport dog out of other sport dogs, we’d do well to observe parents and relatives of our potential future puppies in the tough environments our dogs must face.

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Toy play is encouraged by both Felix’s genes and his training.


Is some of this nurture, and not so much nature? Of course. Everything is a combination of the environment and genes working together. Nothing is one or the other–ever. Genes and the environments in which the genes are to function are always one moving machine; never two. My point is simply to help yourself as much as you can if you choose to obtain a dog from a known background by using easily-understood words and phrases to describe what it is that you want.

If you’ve already got your sport dog and you are unhappy with his level of “drive” (high, low, everywhere in between) check these factors:

  • Am I using appropriate motivators? Make the task worth your dog’s while. In fact, make a promise that you will make it worth the energy they put forth–every time. The dogs that are “too much” might benefit here from less-valued motivators so that their arousal state doesn’t become a problem.
  • Is my dog well? Blood work and checkups can’t be overlooked. Be sure your dog is healthy, wether it’s an excess or a lack of “drive” that is concerning you.
  • Am I asking too much? The world is overwhelming. If your dog works beautifully in your backyard and shuts down (or amps up) in class it might be time to address some environmental factors that are affecting your training.
  • Does my dog understand? Most “low-drive” dogs I see are actually just confused, and many dogs with a supposed excess of “drive” are as well. Confusion is as aversive to most dogs as physical pain. Avoid it by dedicating yourself to becoming the best trainer you can be. Confusion always falls on the shoulder of the teacher; it is not the learner’s job to work through unclear information.

Whenever we are talking about dogs and dog training, we can encourage a greater understanding amongst everyone by using clearly defined and easily understood words. Too often in the dog training world we assign new definitions which only serves to further separate us from being a better, smarter community.



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