I quite often hear people describe their dogs as having “too much drive”.
In fact I just recently read an article by a dog handler who described a problem they had with their dog. In the example given the dog was trained to work for food but wasn’t able to maintain focus if there was food on offer elsewhere. The author of the article put this down to the dog having “too much food drive”.
Is it true? Can dogs have too much drive? In my opinion, there is no such thing as ‘too much’ drive if you know how to use it, have a purpose for it and have control over how the dog uses it.
There are definitely situations, quite regularly in fact, where we meet dogs that have more drive than the owners require and this can definitely cause behaviour problems if the dog develops a drive imbalance. An imbalance is where the dog is not receiving enough drive satisfaction in its life.
However being a dog sport enthusiast the most common time I hear other handlers describing a dog as having “too much drive” is when the dog ‘misbehaves’ or buys into distraction.
“My dog has too much prey drive, she ran out of the ring to chase bird at our last trial”
“My dog has too much drive, he can’t control himself if I bring out a high value treat, so I use low value food instead”
“My dog has too much drive, if I use food he is ok, but as soon as I bring his favourite ball/toy/tug out he loses control”
“My dog has too much drive, as soon as he sees someone else with food/toy/tug/etc he runs off and doesn’t want what I have”
“My dog has too much food drive, he will only work if I bring food out, as soon as I don’t have reward on me he doesn’t want to work”
“My dog has too much drive, she gets so excited about the reward she can’t work with precision”
These are common complaints that all have one thing in common: they are a handler and training problem, not a dog problem or a drive problem.
So, what is drive? Have a read of Steve’s previous post that describes the different drives and how we use them.
Having a highly driven dog can be a huge benefit when training competition or any type of work. A dog with a lot of motivation is capable of working with a high level of focus for long periods of time. While you won’t score extra points in the ANKC obedience ring just for having a dog that works in drive, you will have dog that has a higher level of reliability, more handler focus and durability under distraction – which can make dog and handler teams who train in drive hard to beat. So why do we hear people concerned their dogs have ‘too much drive’?
High drive dogs can be easy to motivate, but they aren’t necessarily easy to train.
Using rewards accurately in training to get the best possible result is a skill that can be a lot more complex to develop than you might initially believe.
Anyone can hand over a cookie and give a dog a reward in exchange for behaviour, but using rewards to develop drive and work ethic in a dog requires much more than just handing over a piece of food. By far one of the most important things Steve has taught me is that, “You need to teach a dog that their behaviour produces reward, not that reward produces behaviour”. This has been one of the key lessons in my understanding of training dogs.
It may sound simple but it would be one of the most common areas people go wrong when using rewards in training.
For example, a very common complaint we hear from competitors is that their dog works well in training, but can’t carry that over to the ring; if they don’t have reward on them; or if something “better” is on offer.
While it is easy to point your finger at the dog and say it either has too much drive or desire for reward (or the other common complaint – that the dog doesn’t have enough drive) – make no mistake that this is a handler error. The dogs have been led to believe by their owner that unless they can see or smell reward available, there is no reward on offer. In most cases, the sight of reward has been built into training as a trigger for behaviour – the dog thinks that training works only if they see a reward, which then leads them to offer a behaviour. They believe reward produces behaviour.
All of the dogs trained in Steve’s training in drive program believe the opposite – that their behaviour produces reward. They understand that their behaviour influences their handler and the handler enables access to the reward, rather than blocking access to the things the dog finds most valuable. This means that we have dogs that not only fail to buy into distraction, but they do not need to see reward at any point to believe they will be rewarded. They trust through experience that it doesn’t matter if they can’t see, smell or touch reward, if their owner tells them ‘ready’ and the dog produces the right behaviour, their owner will magically produce reward. Every time. Guaranteed.
It’s important to note that the more drive a dog has the harder and better they are capable of working under distraction. Both of my dogs will work harder and better in high levels of distraction – because they have to work harder to focus on me. It doesn’t matter if someone offers them the exact reward they are working for, they do not believe that reward is available to them. Building durability like this under distraction is an extremely important step that often gets missed in training. In the video below you can see me demonstrate this with our dog Wisdom. Even though her ball is clearly and freely available to her, she has no interest in taking it or self rewarding. She does not believe it is available until I tell her it is, even when I pick it up.
However none of this is possible without first building a clear communication system with the dog so it understands how to earn reward and offer the correct behaviour. Training isn’t just about handing reward over, but being able to accurately mark the correct behaviour and tell the dog when they are on the right path. A strong communication system enables the handler to work with the dog independently of the reward. This allows the dog to develop an understanding of its role in training, and to offer behaviour when we give them feedback.
When I first started using Steve’s Training in Drive System (many years ago now) it became clear to me very quickly this was far more complicated than simply being tricky with a piece of food or playing tug with the dog. This is a system, it has very precise and important steps in each part of the program and I have been fortunate enough to watch many dogs excel that have partaken in each and every step, I have been just as fortunate to watch dogs fail when the owners have only run the parts of the training they think are useful.
Steve doesn’t do things by half, but he is very fast at getting dogs learning and progressing, most people in the dog world will attest to that. If he says there are a thousand steps in something, if you don’t do all of them you won’t have success. He doesn’t add steps just for the sake of adding steps.
Another common problem, especially with people who use food rewards, is that handlers will use food to reward calm behaviour, rather than using drive. This is often out of fear of making the dog too ‘amped’ or ‘out of control’. BUT – if the dog isn’t getting drive satisfaction in training, they will naturally look for it elsewhere and often at the most inappropriate of times – like when a bird flies over their head in the competition ring.
Often handlers don’t realise that if we always train our dogs in low gear, we are teaching them we only have a low value.
When the dog sees an opportunity to earn a high value reward (such as chasing after a rabbit, or stealing food) they will blow us off because there is no reward history to tell the dog the way to get drive satisfaction is through following our commands.
These same handlers who try to control their driven dogs by calming them down in training for performance work are often the people who say that you can’t get precision with a high drive dog trained in drive.
Make no mistake that this simply isn’t true – if you look to the top handlers in ring sports like IPO and Schutzhund, they only work with hard, high drive working breeds and the level of precision seen throughout the sport is very high. The more motivation a dog has to earn reward, the more potential it has to work to an elite level.
All dogs can be trained in drive in some manner, some take longer than others, some will have more drive than others and some will not feel confident enough in all environments to use drive, but consider this: if you have a dog that has moderate to high drive and you don’t satisfy this drive, the dog will satisfy or attempt to satisfy it some other way, and the odds are you won’t like the way the dog chooses to do this.
Many dog aggression cases we see start with dogs that are searching desperately for drive satisfaction, and they off load onto another dog in their young life, hoping, EXPERIMENTING, shaping and striving for some hint that they will find stimulation in that other dog. Most dogs in some way oblige and you end up with a dog that is now working hard to develop behaviours that will make every dog deliver them drive satisfaction. It’s easy to understand why people can be scared of drive or believe it is a hindrance in training, but if you learn how to use it to your full advantage you will not have a dog that looks for drive satisfaction elsewhere.
Training in drive is fun, it can produce an obedience champion or it can be used simply to teach, reward and maintain a reliable recall. So the next time you find yourself tempted to explain undesirable behaviour as your dog having “too much drive”, remember that drive is not the enemy, it is a huge benefit when encouraged with the right training.
As always we welcome your questions and feedback in the comments below!