The term, drive, when used in dog training is a departure from the behavioral scientist’s understanding of the concept. In the early days of research into animal behavior, scientists attempted to place theory into strict, even mechanical, descriptions of behavior, much like a mathematician or chemist. These early experimenters postulated that drive was the energy behind instinctive behavior, that is, the characteristic that motivated an animal to act in instinctive ways. This rather rigid approach to create objective conclusions about motivation led to some serious problems, as it did in many other early behavior theories. The first is that energy is the result, not the cause, of animal behavior. The second problem is that if we are going to use the concept of drive to define every action of an animal, we must describe a different drive for every different type of behavior, no matter how insignificant the action. Taken to an extreme, I can recall one dog training book where the author described over one hundred different drives that a trainer would confront in training and these were only general definitions!
The trainer must be wary when he hears such terms as play drive or fighting drive as they are more subjective descriptions of what the dog exhibits than explanations of what is motivating it. If, applying this theory, a dog has what must be over several hundred thousand drives, then training would be no more than programming a series of behavioral switches, much like hard wiring a computer board.
Vestiges of these early scientific descriptions of drive remain in dog training and they now have a more meaningful and practical definition than when used in a scientific context that has now been discredited.
As a kind of verbal shorthand, trainers will talk about the dog’s prey or defense drives, meaning the general description of what behavior is being shown. It is a convenient way to express some training idea to another person, but drive, even to a dog trainer, has a more specific and complex meaning. Instead of describing some exhibited behavior, most dog trainers use the word drive to define the level of motivation for the behavior. Therefore, it is more likely that trainers will talk about high or low drive than just drive itself.
Drive is not an independent behavioral response like prey or defense, but the energizing force behind these behaviors. If a dog is highly motivated to respond in some way (such as to a ball), the handler would say the dog is high in prey drive. If it would just stare at a thrown ball, with no thought to pursuit, the handler might say the dog is low in prey drive. Keep in mind that when we are talking about temperament, a dog might have good nerve in defense or a willingness to please in social behavior, but these responses are quite independent from describing the motivation behind these behaviors, the drive. I have seen beautiful young dogs that had no fear of the helper in protection, but also had no interest, some even going to the extreme of lying down and going to sleep during protection.
So some elements of a dog’s temperament might be fundamental to whether the dog is sound or unsound while the presence or absence of drive might tell us if the dog is trainable. Without a good temperament and strong motivation to work, the dog is probably not going to be a good working dog, although it might be a good dog in every other respect. On the other hand, a dog can have a poor temperament and strong drives, so we still have a dog that is untrainable in the sport. One example of this problem is the excessively sharp dog that is most often high in defense drive, but not very trainable and probably a threat to all around it. The concepts of prey, defense and social behaviors, reviewed in the past three installments, must be combined with good drives for the working dog trainer to succeed. The phrase good drives is equally subjective, so we, as dog trainers, need to understand how drive levels can hurt or help training.
The most important thing to understand about competitive training is that the top performing dogs always have their drives well balanced and under control. If the drives aren’t balanced, then serious problems result from one drive getting out of control. In protection, the usual problem with a dog that won’t out is that it can’t out; its drives have gone off the edge. Similarly, in the courage test, a dog chases the escaping helper in prey, only to have him turn on the dog for an attack. The dog must shift from prey drive to defense aggression immediately. Only the dog that is well balanced in its drives can perform this task.
Theory of Drives
The level of motivated behavior is often dictated by genetics. A dog born with low drives is doomed to be this way all its life; genetically based behavior that doesn’t exist cannot be developed. I have seen young dogs that, even with the best developmental training, wouldn’t respond with any interest. In such cases these young dogs were placed with pet homes where I am sure they did just fine because their temperaments were otherwise sound.
So, while we cannot create fundamental drive levels, we can manipulate good drives in training so the dog becomes charged under circumstances that are often artificial. As an example, an experienced dog often goes into high prey drive immediately upon seeing a helper swinging a sleeve. Yet, if we were to show the same movement to a young, inexperienced dog, it might show no reaction at all.
On the other hand, once high drives are developed in a good dog, the trainer must manipulate the drives so the dog learns to lower an otherwise high drive. After spending long hours developing a ball crazy dog for beginning obedience work, I must then teach the dog when to bring prey drive under control so it is obedient to the handler, but with a strong, positive attitude. In beginning protection work, one of our fundamental goals is to build a high prey drive for the sleeve. Yet, the day must come when we teach the dog to lower its drive when the helper goes passive for the out.
No matter if we are training for tracking, obedience or protection, one of the most important goals for the trainer is to build and balance drives. This is not a short term process for often it takes some measure of maturity before a dog can start to control its drives. If the trainer doesn’t understand the basic mechanisms that raise or lower drive, then serious problems often arise in training. It is one thing to have a strong protection dog that initially rips and tears at the sleeve. But, many months later, this unrestrained early training turns into a nightmare when the handler tries to calm the dog for control training or the out. Even if all of this is true, my general rule is that it is easier to bring drive down than to raise it, so some unrestrained, high drive training is necessary at first. Yet, even during this early period, we will do some things to teach the dog to bring its drive under control when the handler needs it.
The last element of drive theory is what the Germans call Reizschwelle, or drive threshold. This is most probably a genetic characteristic, but we will see how neglect can affect the same behavior artificially. Imagine a dog that is totally sound in nerve and temperament, but when shown the ball or agitated in protection it doesn’t immediately react. In fact, it takes exaggerated moves by the trainer or helper to bring out any reaction at all. This is different from a low drive dog that shows no interest under any circumstances (i.e., the dog that sleeps during protection). In fact, this dog may be very interested in what goes on but shows little or no reaction. We would describe this dog as having a high drive threshold, that is, it takes a great deal of stimulation to make the dog go into drive. On the other hand, a dog with a low drive threshold can be good or bad. This dog immediately triggers strong drive whenever the stimulus is shown. While a low threshold would be great for teaching the retrieval, it would not be so good if the dog would become aggressive against anyone who looked at it.
Even a dog that has a high threshold can be trained to work well by manipulating the drive in training. One such dog in my club was a seeming deadhead, but the trainer continued to motivate the dog in every aspect of the work and today it is a high spirited, happy working dog. His secret was to never let the dog walk when it could run. He also would not feed the dog the night before obedience training, so he could use food to motivate the dog. On the other hand, a dog with a low threshold can be a delight in the beginning because it is so willing to work for the reward in high drive. In those cases where a low threshold creates a danger because the dog will alert to any perceived threat immediately, the answer usually rests in socialization and making sure it understands what is acceptable behavior and what is not.
The drive threshold can also be affected by training or the lack of it. In an earlier installment, I commented on how strange it is that some people bring untrained dogs to our club that like neither food nor the ball. Yet, our own club dogs live for work and the ball. It is likely that many of these untrained dogs had perfectly normal drives when they were young, but through neglect or abuse never had their drives developed. The result of failing to build drives in the beginning is often to see the drives die. Another cause is the trainer who simply starts training compulsive obedience without first creating a strong foundation. In these cases, the dog is more often interacting in social drive only with no desire to do anything but submit to the trainer. Unfortunately, I have seen many dogs that liked the ball, but immediately shut off their prey drive when the lead was put on their collars. From that point on, the trainer could not get the dog into prey drive for the ball, no matter how hard he worked. In these cases, and many others like them, the dog was allowed to create an artificially high (even non-existent) drive threshold. Genetics often isn’t the only problem.
Drive Development and Training
In earlier installments I emphasized that with the beginning, untrained dog, it is of paramount importance to build both the bond and the retrieval. It is this second part, retrieval, where much of the drive foundation for obedience can be built. I also talked about isolating the starting dog for purposes of improving the bond, but it can also greatly aid drive development.
Initially, the trainer must treat drive development as one of his most important goals. At this early age, bonding and drive development so interact that it is next to impossible to describe where conditioning for one starts and the other leaves off. A few examples might help to demonstrate the training goals.
The young dog is isolated in a run or crate except during those limited times with the handler, when it plays or trains. This isolation not only keys the dog to the handler and no one else, but energizes the dog so it is focused more on the play and work.
Retrieval with objects of all kinds should be started during this period. While the retrieval aids in the bond by making the dog return the retrieved object to the trainer, it also stimulates the dog’s prey drive. In fact, the more that we can stimulate the dog, the more it will build drive for prey in the future. When first evaluating the high threshold dog I described earlier, I complained to the owner that he didn’t have enough holes in his sweat shirt.
While our goal is best described as maximizing energy, what we are really doing is conditioning the dog to respond with maximum drive in all its interactions with the trainer. The fact that we will moderate these responses later is not important at this point.
This early conditioning allows us to create the prey key, discussed in an earlier installment. Image a young dog that is totally crazy for the ball as a result of the trainer’s hard work. If we take this dog to the obedience field for some early training, all the owner needs to do is show the dog the ball and it will become so focused that the trainer can manipulate all manner of early training so the dog performs with high enthusiasm and drive. My early training in obedience always addresses enthusiastic (if less than perfect) heeling, recalls, send aways and dumbbell retrieval. The prey aid is based upon a high drive for the food or ball to make the dog perform these early training tasks with abundant enthusiasm. How does the prey key play such a pivotal role in this early training?
Many years ago an experiment placed a cat into an enclosed area full of mice. Immediately the cat started pouncing on mice, killing and then eating them. As this process continued, the cat stopped eating the mice, but kept killing them. Eventually, the full and contented cat lay on the floor taking no action while the remaining mice ran around it. We can hardly describe this cat as having a low prey drive, quite the opposite. What we can say is that its prey drive was satisfied and effectively shut off.
This example shows how the trainer can use the prey key to build and lower drives. We can raise drive by withholding the reward (ball or food) and lower drive by giving the dog the reward. If you tease a properly conditioned dog with the ball, you can see its eyes brighten and energy level increase, but the moment the ball is thrown, this drive diminishes. There are many examples of this type of manipulation in our day to day training experiences.
With a dog on lead, the handler heels with the ball held up near the handler’s face. As the dog heels, it has no option but to work in a near proper position, staring at the handler (ball). The ball or food is only given when the dog is in the proper position and then the dog learns that it must heel in a certain way to get the reward. As the dog gains experience, the ball is thrown less often so the dog has to heel longer distances. Instead of killing drive, the withholding of the ball actually makes the dog work harder to push the trainer to throw the ball.
In protection work, we might have a problem of a young dog that, because of some worry, does not strike the sleeve hard enough. In these situations, the helper will often make the dog miss the bite while it is on lead, so the dog’s frustration pushes up drive. It then is more likely to hit the sleeve harder and learns that nothing negative comes from the full commitment to the hard bite.
In tracking, we reduce bait on the track over many training sessions. It might be reasonable to believe that the dog’s tracking drive would diminish because there is less bait, but we will actually see the dog track with more intensity when it doesn’t find as much bait as in the past.
Although all of the above serves the trainer well, there are a few things that can go wrong with the beginning dog. As mentioned earlier, if the training is abusive or a proper foundation with the prey key is not established, corrections will kill prey drive which is an easy way to say that the dog really is unwilling to work in prey because it is worried in its social drive. The result is the submissive obedience dog. The other problem is that the prey key can never be given too often or withheld for too long. The withholding of the prey key will raise frustration and drive until a critical point is reached where the drive will start to die. In young dogs, with undeveloped drives, the reward must be given more often than later in training, when the reward can be withheld longer without the dog losing drive.
A strong drive can also help the trainer overcome normal training problems, especially the dog’s stress or submissiveness. Most corrections, particularly during the early learning phases, can result in some avoidance. Remember that a dog can only work in one drive at a time, so if it is working in high prey drive, it will more willingly accept a correction without slipping into social behavior and avoidance.
After an extended period, the trainer might have taught the dog all of the fundamentals of training, but now needs to move on to polishing the training into a more controlled and potentially high scoring performance. This is a problem for almost any trainer as he has taught the dog to work in high drive and now that same enthusiasm must be moderated to make the dog focus on its responsibilities. If you have attended enough training sessions, you will see that a very typical response to this problem is to correct the dog into submission, so its wild enthusiasm comes under control. But, as we have seen, this approach will probably kill drive, not bring it under enthusiastic control. The better answer is to balance the drives, so the dog is always capable of working under control in any work it is performing. While negative reinforcement is a very necessary part of this work, the prey key plays an equally important role. Our goal is not to kill drive, but make the dog understand what level of drive the trainer will tolerate.
In the earlier installment on prey behavior, I described a type of protection training called channeling. In general, this is teaching the inexperienced dog how to control its drives by making it shift back and forth between the two behaviors. A simple example is the helper who steps from the blind and agitates the dog from a distance to raise defense drive. As he approaches the dog and senses that defense is rising to an uncontrollable drive level, he will start to run sideways or swing the sleeve, bringing up prey drive. Since a dog cannot work in more than one drive at a time, the dog will voluntarily lower defense behavior and shift into prey behavior. The helper might again raise defense behavior with the process continuing to move the dog from one behavior to another. This concept, which I call drive shaping, is designed to teach the dog how it can bring its drives under control on its own. In fact, at the Schutzhund I level, I will have developed this technique to the point where even the strongest dogs should out without a command.
A dog with strong drives that have been properly balanced can focus on the work without conflict or drive levels that constantly interfere with training or trial performance. In the end, it is probably this focus that the trainer is after, more than any other characteristic of behavior. It is an understanding of the basics of the foundations of behavior and the manipulation of drives that will ultimately lead to the finished and focused, high scoring Schutzhund III dog.
When you are reading about dog training or attending a seminar, absorb all of the new training concepts, but be careful with what mental compartments you place them in. In one compartment place all those ideas that are really designed to retrain a problem dog or finish the advanced Schutzhund dog. On the other hand, all of the remaining ideas should address behavioral and drive development. If any new ideas don’t make sense from a behavioral view, the trainer must be wary and ask the question: Is this really a good idea over the long run? If the idea makes sense, try to understand where it should fit into your training and if it is in conflict with any other training concept you are working with. The problem with theory is that it must be applied; however, it is my belief that more bad training results from no theory than the misapplication of good theory. Don’t worry about mistakes, for even the best make them. If the trainer’s theory is sound, the mistake will soon become apparent and no real harm has been done. A good understanding of what motivates the dog’s responses when coupled with a thoughtful and enthusiastic willingness to experiment is what takes dogs to high scoring titles and championships.