Tell Me About Your Dog! - Part 3

Continued from Part 2

I believe that reading dogs is one of the most important parts of dog training. In part one of this article I tried to address general qualities in dogs that we hear often when dogs and their training are discussed. I deliberately limited myself to traits that deal with perception and reception of stimuli. In this part I would like to tackle the active side of dogs' characters and talk about the traits that determine how dogs respond. As always my intention is to share ideas and provoke thought.


I put directability at the beginning of this article because it is an important aspect of a dog's personality when it comes to training for any type of performance, be it sport or service. Two terms are commonly used in the discussion of this trait, they are "biddable" and "tractable." However, I was never really happy with the picture I got in my mind with those terms. Webster defines "biddable" as "ready to do as commanded" or "obedient." To me that describes more what we achieve through training than an inborn trait in the dog. Webster defines "tractable" as "easily managed, taught, or controlled" and as "docile and compliant." This term comes a little closer, but it almost contradicts the picture I have of a high spirited working dog.

The German term that is used to describe what I am talking about is "Führigkeit." Loosely translated it describes a dog that is willing to follow a leader. I like the image I get from this term. And even though some trainers still equate this with a subservient and even submissive attitude, I always chose to translate the term "Führigkeit." as directability.

Directability is truly the willingness to follow the directions of a leader. Think about this for a moment. I am not talking about a dog that works great for food or a toy. I am not talking about a dog who is submissive. I am not talking about a dog who can handle heavy compulsion and learn his lesson that way. I am talking about a dog who has an internal trust that following the direction of the leader must be in his best interest. This is a dog who can be shown what to do. Not a lot of coaxing with rewards is necessary and neither is a lot of force. I guess one way to assess directability is how much or how little coaxing or force was necessary to get a dog to take the direction. (When I am talking about force, I am not describing a correction -soft or -hard dog.)

High-drive dogs that are eager to work and that learn quickly are not necessarily examples of directable dogs. Dogs like that often figure things out quickly on their own in order to satisfy their drive. But there is an attitude that shows, this attitude has a "I know, I know! Let me do it on my own!" feel to it. A directable dog welcomes guidance from the handler and does not see it as an interference in his quest to satisfy his drive.

The directability of a dog shows in all phases of the work-- tracking, obedience, and protection. It is a great trait to work with and gives the trainer a unique opportunity to help his dog. It does not mean the dog is dependent on the handler that he lacks confidence and needs help. It simply means that the dog can be shown what to do, and how, more easily. With this trait, achieving team harmony is much easier. The team spirit flourishes.

One thing I have noticed with directable dogs: they seldom display a lot of dominance behavior (more on that later). Now, that does not mean they are submissive; they simply do not have a strong desire to seek top rank.


What are drives? Unfortunately, people have forgotten what the term is meant to describe. It shouldn't be used to give a name to every little thing a dog does. Drives are the internal impulses and urges that motivate animals-- in this case dogs-- to take certain actions. In order for something to be classified as a drive there has to be a drive specific stimulus, drive specific action, and a drive goal. We can manipulate the drives in our dogs during training to suit our purposes and to get them to perform tasks that are the results of these manipulated drives. However, we should never lose sight of the fact that a drive has biological significance for the animal and its species. It is this biological significance that is specific to every drive that gives us a better idea of what we can and cannot achieve by manipulating the drive. Drives can be split into two main categories. The criteria that create the division are the drive goals. One category contains the drives that lead to the gain of something positive or pleasurable; for example: sex drive, prey drive, pack drive (in this case the desire to be with members of the same species). In this category there is a tone of excitement and lust during the drive action and deep satisfaction when the goal is reached. The other category contains the drives that lead to the prevention of something negative or harmful; for example: defense drive, flight drive, the desire to remain unscathed. In this category there is a tone of stress and tension during the drive action and relief when the goal is reached.

Fighting "Drive"

Let me say one thing right off the top that I have stated in previous articles. I do not believe that there is a natural drive to "fight." I believe that what we refer to as fighting "drive" is a package made up of a number of components which are in turn individual drives, drive-products, and behaviors. How good or strong a dog's fighting "drive" is depends on how many of the components are usable in the dog's training, how strongly the individual components are present in the dog, and how well promoted all usable components are when the dog is being assessed. I will now discuss the major components that I have been able to notice separately. I will wrap up my thoughts on fighting ?drive? at the end.

Prey drive

A lot has been written about prey drive, so I won?t re-hash all of that again. Prey drive is part of the food acquisition behaviors of dogs. The stimuli triggering prey drive are irratic, fast evasive movements. The prey drive actions are chasing, pouncing, biting, pulling down, shaking to death, re-biting, and carrying. As I mentioned above, prey drive is a lust oriented drive. This means that all drive specific actions will be performed in a lustful manner. During training this should be kept in mind to ensure that we are in fact working in prey drive. The end goal of the drive is possession of the prey with the intent to eat it (at least from a biological standpoint before human manipulation).

I'd like to make one point here. Prey drive in itself will generally not motivate a dog to bite a human being (I said generally, there are some exceptions). Since prey drive has consumption (or eating) as the end goal of the drive, and canines are not cannibalistic by nature, a properly socialized dog who views humans as his own (even though only adopted) kind will experience very strong inhibitions when it comes to carrying out the follow through drive actions. The fast evasive movement of a human can stimulate prey drive and it can even lead to pursuit and chase. But when it comes to biting, there is a mental block. I will get to why I brought this point up a bit later in the article.

Now, this article is about assessing the traits in dogs. So let's look at the things to consider where prey drive is concerned. Naturally we have to look at the stimulation threshold of the drive. By this I mean how easy or how difficult it is to trigger the drive. Then we should look at the intensity with which the dog carries out the drive actions. How fast the dog pursues and how hard the dog bites, relative to his physical capabilities needs to be looked at. We can assess how strong the dog's prey drive is. In other words, how much difficulty is the dog willing to overcome in order to engage in drive specific activities and to satisfy the drive. And one final assessment category for prey drive is the drive endurance. How quickly does the dog ?have enough? of doing prey drive actions? Or how soon does the drive exhaust? Drive intensity, strength, and endurance even though related can appear in different levels. So a dog with low intensity can have strong and enduring drive, etc..

Defense drive

A lot has also been written about this topic, however, I feel it is an aspect of protection training that is often misinterpreted. Therefore I will spend some time discussing the defense drive. Defense drive definitely falls within the category of aggressive behaviors in dogs. But I think the biological significance of this drive needs to be examined closer in order to get a proper perspective. Defense drive can appear in conjunction with other behaviors and drives, or as self defense. Defense of prey, defense of territory, and defense of a weaker pack member (such as a puppy) are common overlaps during which defensive behaviors will appear. I will address these overlaps a bit more later. For now I want to discuss self defense further.

Self defense behavior does not only belong in the realm of aggressive behaviors. It also falls into the realm of self preservation mechanisms. The trigger stimulus for defense drive is threat or the perception of threat. I'm sure you are familiar with a variety of techniques that are used to threaten dogs for the purposes of protection training. So I don't need to go into too much detail. One thing I want to point out though is that once the dog experiences a threat, he feels a worry or concern that harm may come to him. So the true trigger of defense behavior is the feeling of worry.

The goal of defense drive is always the same, namely making the worry go away. This is achieved when a safe distance is reached between the dog and threatener or when fear is caused in the threatener.

I use the drive specific actions as a way to split dogs' defense behaviors into three divisions. The first major division is between the active defense reaction and the passive defense reaction.

Active defense reaction

The active defense reaction is a very aggressive form of defense behavior. This type of aggression falls in the category of re-active aggression. My description of the active defense reaction is that once the dog gets the trigger stimulus for the defense drive, he uses physical violence as a means to achieve his drive goal. I am deliberately using the term violence here to make a point. Dogs who show this reaction will resort to biting as the first or one of the first responses that their programmed behavioral pattern dictates for this drive. This is my personal line of distinction that I use when I assess dogs. The reaction is strong and powerful and stems from confidence in the dog. Dogs exhibiting this form of defensive reaction will go towards the threat and attack the threat physically. They show a clear "offence is the best defence" mentality.

Passive defense reaction

The passive defense reaction is split into two separate forms to give us our three divisions.

First there is the strong passive defense reaction. This reaction is one that we see in confident and strong dogs. The dog uses threatening displays such as barking, growling and gesturing while confidently standing his ground. The big distinction is that behaviors other than biting appear as the first responses to the trigger stimulus. And because the initial response is not physical, I classify this reaction as passive. Why a passive or non-physical response appears before the biting response can have different causes. One major one is simply the predetermined behavioral response pattern that the dog was born with. Another cause in highly social dogs is that they realize the threatener is human, and the biting response is inhibited, so other forms of defense behaviors are used first. I do not believe that dogs who show this type of reaction are any less tough or strong than dogs showing the active reaction. Generally dogs who fall into this category of passive defense can be taught to bite in defense quite readily. They will bite when a threat cannot be driven back by other means and continues to advance.

Second there is the weak passive defense reaction. During this reaction we can see the dog using threatening displays such as barking and growling, etc., but he is retreating to maintain a safe distance. How quickly a dog will retreat will vary. These types of dogs are definitely weaker and have less confidence than the two types discussed previously. They will only bite as a last rsort when retreat is blocked and the threat continues to advance. This falls into the category of fear biting and is everything but an active response.

Continued on Part 4

Armin Winkler has been the instructor at many schutzhund training seminars. He has been training schutzhund dogs since 1976 and is a USA member who lives in British Columbia. His English translation of Dr. Helmut Raiser’s Der Schutzhund is available from Armin Winkler Publishing, 3503 Lakeshaw Road, RR#7, Duncan, BC Canada V9L-4W4 or by phone (250) 746-8989.

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