10 Things I’ve learnt about Training in Drive

The 10 Most Important Things I’ve Learnt about Training in Drive

I am lucky enough to have spent the past almost 18 months working with Steve at K9 Pro HQ every day and he has given me the opportunity to train and handle his dog Wisdom, which has allowed me to learn even more about my biggest passion in training, training dogs in drive.

I wanted to write this blog post to share ten of the most important things I’ve learned about training dogs motivationally using Steve’s training in drive program. These are some of the most valuable lessons I have learnt over the last few years.

Bec and Wisdom
Bec and Wisdom

1)      Create a reward experience

Last year I wrote a blog post about creating a reward experience with your dog, fast forward just over a year to now and it still remains one of the most valuable things I’ve learned about training dogs. A dog that has learnt how the reward experience works knows that it takes more than one element, the reward, to make the experience happen – that way without the handler, a tug or even food has little value on its own.


2)      Get the foundations right first!

Training a solid foundation and building a good relationship with your dog is critical! Our dogs need to learn how to earn rewards and how to play the game before anything else. Every competitor client of ours who does Steve’s Training in Drive program regardless of the sport they are training in starts with the same foundation program. Once the dog understands how to train in drive, has value for you and the rewards you have, you can apply that motivational framework to any sport, but without a good foundation and a good working relationship with your dog, you will struggle no matter what you are training.

Drive is not something that will just happen; if you haven’t built a good foundation before you start training specific exercises and formality, your dog will not magically start working in drive once they understand the exercise better; get more maturity,  “grows a brain”; if you use a tastier treat or more engaging looking or squeakier toy etc.

If your dog gets distracted, lacks drive or motivation, can’t maintain focus or has no durability this will not improve with the more exercises you train no matter which sport you are training in. These problems have to be addressed at the source – teach your dog how to train in drive, build a good foundation and relationship and get it right there before you ask for more.

Daisy my beagle loves Training in Drive!
Daisy my beagle loves Training in Drive!

I learnt this the hard way when I was training my Beagle, Daisy, in obedience and like most people started by teaching her to complete various exercises, but she was extremely distracted and unreliable and there was a lot of conflict in our relationship that made training extremely difficult. Once I went back and laid a good foundation by training her to work in drive it addressed every major problem we had and training became much easier and more enjoyable.

We don’t train ANY formality in the beginning no matter what sport we are training for, some of our clients might train for months building good, useable drive before adding in any formality or new commands. Steve gave an insight into how we approach training competition obedience in a recent and very popular blog post which you can read here, which covers this in more detail.


3)      Training in drive is part science; part instinct

Training in drive is part science and part instinct. Science allows us to understand the mechanics of how to play the game, things such as understanding opposition reflex; the way we can use adrenaline to give our dogs a chemical reward (dopamine); the way a dogs metabolism functions so we can increase their drive for food etc are all critical elements that assist with our understanding of how to use drive.

However a huge part of training in drive is developing an instinct for how your dog likes to play, it has taken me the last five years to learn to play the game well with different dogs and I am still learning every day. Every dog enjoys the reward experience in a different way; my Malinois loves it when I smack her ribs and push her around when we are playing tug, whereas my beagle would hate that, she prefers for me to cheer her on and likes chasing food.

Wisdom loves a rough game of tug, but it's not something all dogs enjoy.
Wisdom loves a rough game of tug, but it’s not something all dogs enjoy.

One thing we find handlers struggle with is when they try to copy the way they’ve seen other handlers reward their dogs or the way they’ve seen a trainer on a video playing tug, that may work for the dog the other handler or trainer is playing with but you can’t apply the same method of play with every dog. Some dogs like the chase element of playing tug, some dogs prefer to thrash around on the tug toy. Some dogs might enjoy rough housing with the handler during a tug game, some dogs would jump away and turn off immediately if their handler rough housed with them.

While there are basic rules we have with every game we play, so much of drive work is instinctual, we need to look to our dogs for feedback on how they are enjoying the game rather than trying to make them like the game we want them to play.

4)      Work with the dog you have, not the dog you want

Our clients Henna and Jaime showing how to rock heel work in food drive!
Our clients Henna and Jaime showing how to rock heel work in food drive!

Often we meet clients that desperately want to play tug with their dogs, but the dog has little to no prey drive. You cannot force a dog to have value for a reward it doesn’t want. When we build drive in a dog, we are working on what is already there genetically and harnessing it and building on it.

You can only work with the genetics that your dog was born with, and trying to make it take a reward it doesn’t want and have desire for will do more harm than good.

You can spend months or even years trying to shape your dog to play tug and some dogs will do it for food, but if it takes that long to get your dog to play tug; or it will only play tug under certain conditions such as with a fluffy squeaky toy on a cool day with no distractions around, the reality is that it probably doesn’t have enough prey drive to use successfully in competition.

So if your dog has more food drive, use it! We have many successful K9 Pro clients that train in food drive, when you watch the dog work you would not be able to tell the difference between a dog train in food or prey drive; the quality of the work looks the same.

5)      What are you teaching outside of training?

This was a lesson that took me some time to learn, but I think it is really important. How you manage your dogs outside of training can and does make a huge difference to their performance.

If your dog is using up its drive outside of training, that will impact on how much it has to give in training.

If your dog always has access to its favourite reward, always has free access to you, knows that no matter what it will always get given a bowl full of dinner for free every night – that can impact on the dog’s desire to earn the reward when comes time to train and you ask it to work for something it usually gets for free.

Every interaction we have with our dogs is training them, and I believe that the relationship we have with our dogs day to day, outside of a structured training session, can directly impact on the way they work with us in training and competition.

6)      Work ethic

Most dogs aren’t born with a good work ethic, that is something we create, teach and instil in them in training.

One of the most common phrases I hear in dog training is ‘always set the dog up for success’. This is not something I agree with entirely. I strongly believe sometimes we need to set our dogs up to fail; they need to taste the loss of the reward to make them work harder. We need to keep raising the bar in training at the right times and push our dogs to try harder and give their all; Steve’s training in drive program is designed so that we ask the dogs to give 110% so we know that we are getting everything they have to give.

Steve pushes Venom to work hard so he always gives his all!
Steve pushes Venom to work hard so he always gives his all!

If you make training easy and don’t push your dog to try harder, if you don’t build a bit of frustration and let them feel the loss of the reward, you run the risk of teaching your dog it can gain rewards without putting in 100%. Training your dog is about team work, and it’s not a team if you are the only one putting in real effort.

7)      Training a high drive dog doesn’t make it easy

A lot of people say to me that training must be a lot easier now I handle Wisdom, who is an extremely high drive working line Malinois, than it was to handle my Beagle Daisy who is only moderately food driven. The reality is that more drive doesn’t make it a dog easier to handle, it makes them easier to motivate which isn’t the same thing. There are many ways in which training Wisdom is a lot harder than any other dog I’ve trained or handled before. I don’t have to work as hard at motivating her as I did with Daisy, because Wisdom has more drive than I would ever need to use – but having a dog with that much drive is a big responsibility. It is easy for them to go into drive for something else and they require a higher level of management than the average dog.

When you do play tug or even food games with a very high drive dog you have to be confident in your handling skills or they will monster you. It is easy to end up bruised and bleeding, in fact we still get our fair share of bruises and accidental bites every now and then. It is certainly a challenge handling a highly driven, powerful dog! Getting a dog with more drive isn’t the answer to every problem, if you can’t train the dog you already have, you aren’t going to have any more success with a dog that has a lot more grunt – in fact it can highlight your handling errors even more!

High drive dogs pack a punch!
High drive dogs pack a punch!

8)      Give yourself the most value

A big part of training in drive and creating a reward experience is that it teaches your dog that rewards don’t have any real value if they aren’t paired with you.

By this same reasoning we don’t train our dogs to have value for equipment or specific exercises, the exercise or piece of the equipment is the vehicle that gets them access to the reward and reward experience. Nothing should have a higher value for your dog than working with you, your dog shouldn’t see running through a tunnel or retrieving a dumbbell as more rewarding than what you have to offer. Once you allow your dog to self reward on equipment or during an exercise you are allowing them access to a reward you can’t practically control which is a very slippery slope to be on. Build value for yourself and the reward you have to offer above anything else, and the rest will fall into place.

9)      Use a toy that is appropriate for your dog

Choosing the right toy is critical!
Choosing the right toy is critical!

Selecting the right type of tug for your dog is really important. While we teach our dogs to play with many different types of tug surfaces and balls etc, when you are starting out it is really important to make sure you are using equipment that is suitable for your dog. If you have smaller dog, don’t ask them to grip a large tug toy – using a toy that is too large for your dog’s jaw can cause muscle pain and put them off playing tug. Use quality equipment that won’t damage your dog’s teeth or fall apart easily. If you aren’t sure how to tell what size or type of tug or ball would be suitable for your dog, you can read our article here about choosing a tug toy.

10)   Don’t make excuses

This may not seem like something directly related to training in drive and motivating your dog, but it is one of the most important lessons I’ve had to learn.

Do not make excuses, it is easy to do, but it will not help you achieve anything – ever!

How many times have you heard or made excuses such as;

“It’s too hot.”

“My dog knows when I don’t have treats on me.”

“She doesn’t like to work if it’s windy.”

“The dog over there was playing tug and it distracted her.”

“Someone left food on the ground.”

“My dog knows how to do it at home.”

“He knows how to do it, he just doesn’t want to.”

etc etc

I am just as guilty as the next person for making excuses as to why my dog isn’t working 100% and while it might make you feel better in that moment to make an excuse and take responsibility away from yourself, the reality is that any problem we encounter will remain a problem unless we address it in training. We can’t control the environment we train and compete in, we can’t control what other people or other dogs or the weather will do. We can only control what we teach and proof our dogs for and if something does go wrong, it should be an opportunity to learn from and make our training even better.

To quote Steve, “Solutions, not problems Becky!”

Wiz is watching closely for the next command, marker or release cue.
Wiz is watching closely for the next command, marker or release cue.

11) The importance of using markers

I know I called this blog post ’10 things I’ve learnt about Training in Drive’ but I had to add a sneaky point 11. Communicating clearly with your dog is an important part of any training system and using markers when we train a dog in drive is extremely important, it allows us to tell our dogs when they’ve got something right and shape the behaviours we want to see more of. We also use a trigger word to tell our dogs when to go into drive and expect a drive reward, this is something that seems simple but is an critical element of drive work. Being able to switch your dog on at the right time is a powerful tool to have. Learning how to develop my timing, and communicate clearly with my dog (rather than talking at them) has been a really important and valuable skill to learn.

And finally…

Above and beyond any of these points, there has been nothing more valuable for me than learning how important it is to make sure we have a great relationship with our dogs. Whenever I see Steve working with his dog Venom, I am always in awe of their partnership. It isn’t just the amount of things Steve has taught Venom, in fact it isn’t that at all, it is the relationship they have together that is unlike anything I’ve seen between a dog and their human before.

Steve and Venom
Steve and Venom

When I watch Steve and Venom working together it inspires me to work harder to build a great relationship with my dogs. It drives home to me that before we can achieve anything with our dogs, we have to get the relationship right first. It isn’t about having a dog work for us, but teaching our dogs to work with us. If there is conflict in your relationship with your dog it will impact on everything you train. For me, there is nothing better than the feeling of working in a partnership with your dog and having a dog that wants to work with you more than anything else.


Don’t forget to share your thoughts on this blog post in the comments below!

About SteveK9Pro

Steve Courtney is a Nationally Accredited Canine Behaviour Specialist, Obedience Trainer, Law Enforcement Dog Trainer and ANKC Breeder. Steve has been training dogs all his life and in these articles he shares with you his experience...

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  1. Great blog Bec – and so true! Will be keeping this advice handy, that’s for sure. Also love Steve’s quote “Solutions, not problems” – may have to pin that to my fridge!!!

  2. Thank you Bec…great article!

  3. Great article Bec I really enjoyed reading it you put a lot of punch and information and the photo’s are great, keep up the good work.

  4. Love this article Bec. It’s great when we see progress in our relationship with our dogs. The hard work is certainly worth it.

  5. Fantastic Bec – great advice & excellent reminders !! Thank you 😉

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