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Understanding your Dog's Drives

An analogy I use with Clients as far as their dog's drive/energy/arousal levels is that is is like gearing in a car.

When you first learn how to drive a manual car then you need to learn how to balance clutch and accelerator along with a gear stick and brake. It is a complex skill that requires many hours of practice to be able to physically achieve the outcome of smooth transition as well as learning to judge the safety aspects and make sound decisions.


Prior to even being allowed to learner drive you will need to have sound knowledge of road rules and to have passed a learner test. This gives you foundations of knowledge to then layer in the practical skill of driving. You must log your driving hours and account for your actions at all times under the direct supervision of the fully licensed driver.


Initially a good instructor will start you in 'Park', motor off and go through all of the safety checks first...mirrors, adjust seat for comfort and reach, be aware of your surroundings, be knowledgable of all the functions such as indicators, all the pedals, steering, seat belt etc etc.

From there you will practice starting the motor, engaging the clutch and moving from neutral to 1st gear, then transition back to neutral. This is done over and over until you can do it smoothly without stalling the motor or bunny hopping the car. Once this is achieved then you may be allowed to progress to second gear and increase speed. Steering changes at higher speeds, your reaction time needs to be better and your ability to take in and process info of your surroundings needs to be more intuitive and fluid.

A learner driver may not be allowed access to 3rd, 4th, 5th or 6th gear until they can prove themselves safe and in control with the lower gears as well as being able to make considered choices.


So now think about a dog that is bred for working, be it stock, racing, man work, hunting etc etc.

Predatory/prey drive relates to orient - stalk- chase- catch- kill- consume. Some breeds have been modified so that the timeline ends at chase as in herding dogs. Others like the terriers have the full cycle and will follow through to the end point. Whatever the end point, every dog requires foundations of impulse control to be able to make good choices as far as their Drive.

If we are dealing with Defence type drives then this is triggered by threat. If a dog feels legitimately threatened then it will kick into Defence and show behaviours such as growling, snarling, barking, lungeing, grappling, biting etc. The end goal of this is to drive away the 'threat' and increase distance for the dog. Much debate goes on as to if the emotional response of the dog is actually fear at this point. Deeper debate for another time. No matter the basis for the response it is often inappropriate and badly managed by the owner and leads to bites.

Sometimes a dog can be triggered into this state by leash restriction/frustration and then inadvertently reinforced by the handler trying to 'calm' the dog or to deflect the dog's attention back to the handler via a lure.


If we flip back to the initial analogy then each dog needs to be able to hold a stable neutral position as well as mindset/emotional response. We can use Place training for this, a drop or sit position etc to help with this exercise.

Once the dog can hold a thought and stay neutral then we can carefully layer in activating the dog into low level drive. Pet dogs should only be worked in Prey NOT Defence. Defence is for a dog handled and managed carefully by an appropriately trained and employed Handler.


An example: Dog on mat in drop, focused on handler. Release cue given and then the 'Rouse toy' cue given. Dog is allowed a short play on tug at a low level of intensity. Toy is dropped by handler, "give" cue given and the dog releases the toy. Dog sent back to Place and the process begins again until the dog works cleanly with no collar pressure required to get them to let go of the tug and no breaking of position or 'dirty' tags of the toy taken by the dog prior to permission given. This sounds simple? Try it with a dog that has a good level of Drive!


There are many layers to this exercise, impulse control and emotional regulation along with the Obedience exercises. Being clear in your Cues and consistent.

Teaching the handler to recognise elevated levels from the dog and how to bring them back to neutral with minimal fuss....

How to stop/block an inappropriate lunge for the toy,

How to regain the toy cleanly and fairly from the dog.

How to clearly begin and end a gaming session.

How to utilise this gaming session to release tension in both ends of the lead.

How to game with a dog in an engaging way.

How to not be a boring player or to layer in too much pressure on a soft dog.

How to not get Bit and how to teach the dog to target the tug cleanly.


Only once all of the above can be done cleanly do you even consider letting that dog go up a gear!

How high through the gears you allow your dog to go will depend on many factors also.

Is it appropriate for the dog to access above say 3rd Gear? Is there a safe outlet for this?

Do you have the capacity to manage the dog once it has accessed these higher drives?

Can you maintain relations in a multiple dog household safely once you have allowed the dog to hit top gear?

Do you have a strong dog that will always be pushing or looking for an opportunity to access the higher levels?

Do you have the equipment or skill set to put the dog into high drive?

Does your dog have the nerve/genetic capacity to be able to hit top gear and come out of it cleanly and safely?

Does your dog really even need to access that top end? Or can it lead a satisfied life without it?

Do you have the financials to risk your dog injuring itself or you/others when it accesses that top gear?


If your dog has a specific job/purpose then teaching the dog to use all of its' drive may well be required but the management of that dog will need to be more considered. Suitable containment, appropriate levels of control via equipment such as E collar when at liberty, better handler education and skill set.


Another way of managing drive can be done via your Marker cues to allow the dog to understand that access to a resource is only allowed on permission not just on opportunity. My preference is for a strong and well generalised 'LEAVE' cue. In this way as the dog first orientates towards a stimuli you can interrupt the behaviour and bring back the arousal level via that cue. This then gives the dog clarity in the moment and does not leave the outcome up to chance or whimsy. This cue is specific to "you cant' have that" or "not your's" .

Example: a cat runs across in front of you on your walk, the dog is naturally triggered into lunging forward to catch/chase. LEAVE! and add a pop/correction if required to reinforce. If the concept has been well conditioned and generalised then it should reduce the drive as a paired response to the cue. The dog understands that it NEVER gets access to the resource after that cue is used. If it employs self moderation and does not lunge/pull etc then it can also avoid a pop on the lead. Even better if the dog spots the cat and focuses up onto the handler instead and ignores the cat then the reward will be HUGE from the handler. Win win all round.


Other markers that can be conditioned in regards to drive could be the "NUFF" which is used to stop play as required and reduce arousal level. Taught via the gears as per above, stop play and return to neutral position.

Once a level head is reset then activate on a "Go play" cue etc hence teaching the dog to go into drive and come out of it on cue. This enables inter dog play to be moderated to avoid escalation, resource guarding over toys or snotty type responses from competitive dogs. If the dog refuses to reset then a suitable time out in isolation is given and this allows the dog decompression time as well as being a punisher for not moderating themselves.


Be aware that some dogs will deliberetly tease/torment another player into losing their cool to initiate the punisher for them. If these machinations start up (usually instigated by a bitch/female) then make sure that BOTH dogs have time out in their individual pens etc as well as the toy being removed from access for awhile.

Take note of which toy produces this response or what the layered stress model was leading up to the event.

Maybe the dogs just punched up a gear and did not have the training to handle it.

Target this issue with future training sessions in a very controlled format to give that dog the life skill to do better next time.


A final Cue to consider is an end of games one, this will tell the dog that play time is over and do not try to re engage or the consequence will be time out. Mine is "ALL DONE" . If a dog requires a time out then I use "RUBBISH!" as a cue and this pre cursers the time out and marks the moment the dog made the wrong choice.


All of the above have enabled me to live with strong genetics/high drives in my dogs who have lived a moderately fulfilled life as well as me avoiding hospital stays. In the early days there were vet visits, utilising the above has also avoided those now days. I prefer harmony and low stress in my home and avoid chaos/drama. My dogs can have big fun but can also chill out. They are not robots or perfect, but then who is? They can discriminate as to when they can engage in hunting type behaviour, when to access defence and when to play and to what level. My GSD never got to reach full potential with me as it is not appropriate for them to do that but they have had a good full life.



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