Skip to content

To drive or not to drive?

December 18, 2014


Drive is one of those words with multiple meanings, different understanding and one thousands uses and misuses. I may be perceived as getting a little too fussy over the words we use. I do not desire to be a grammar queen but will suck teeth when told “I do clicking”, or that I am a “clickerer”. Misuse that affects what we are doing or what we believe we are doing does not move our training forward. Misunderstanding of a word or protocol can shut out many beneficial options and misuse can lead to a confused learner and a disappointed trainer.

Drive flips between its use in respect of people and in respect of dogs and they can have similar or quite different meanings. We may be driven to work excessively hard, by our own ambitions or by others, or be driven to a state of despair. We can use it in sport: golf-balls can be hit by a driver, birds can be driven from cover. We can drive a hard bargain, drive home a key point.

Add our activities with transport and I count no less than 21 different definitions in a standard dictionary.

The ones of relevance in this case are the nouns: “energy, ambition or initiative”, and “a motive or interest, such as sex or ambition”. These have morphed to our field of training into a descriptive blend of the two for dogs that are “high drive” in their behaviours such as running in agility, heelwork or playing with toys. It also leaps into the field of aggression associated with high prey drive, neither of which should be assumed to have any connection.

On several occasions I have been asked to assist with increasing a dog’s “drive” for a particular behaviour or in general relation to training. This is similar as being asked to teaching a dog to “be nice”, or “be friendly”. The unspecific nature of such terms cannot provide us with a clear intention of what to train, what to mark, or click, and what to reinforce.

We may reduce our language necessities by using this short hand term when considering the dog or the behaviour globally but it serves us poorly as trainers when precision is essential to find successful solutions.

In the anatomical sense a dog with “good drive” is a motion that is powered from the action of the rear end. The dog appears to be moving with ease and lightness at the front and can carry themselves in balance because of the highly desired “good drive”. A dog lacking this structure will appear to pull itself forward from the front end, particularly in the faster gaits, often dropping their head to do so. It can indicate poor structure or a discomfort in using the power from the rear assembly. To describe this action in detail may be tedious by measuring the length of bone, angulation of specific joints, alignment of the hips and pelvis. But if we were attempting to resolve why drive is lacking we need to know exactly what angle is lacking, or why a dog is struggling to use the apparent structure with strength.

To explore drive and lack of it in training we need to find precision in our terms and description to allow us to focus on the necessary training.

I would prefer the use of several terms:

 1. Confidence

The dog has confidence in:

a) The Cue. When they hear this cue they are confident that they can remember it and respond without hesitation. This comes from extensive practice of comparison to allow ease of discrimination and keep the memory of the cue association fresh.

b) Knowing what to do. How to carry out the behaviour(s). This is based on careful construction of the learning and the components of the behaviour. When given the cue is should act as a release to begin the behaviour and the dog will set about the task with confidence knowing exactly what is required with no uncertainty. Teaching this confidence is based on a programme that suits this specific learner and the way they can learn without any stress.

c) Always being right. Knowing that when they respond there will no stress, uncertainty, anxiety or confusion. No punishment for getting it wrong, or being too slow, or going slightly off track by adding a bark, or paw lift or other behaviour.

d) Their effort will be appreciated. It will always receive reinforcement in one form or another. There is no fear that punishment plays any part of the effort. No “Yes you are right but …”

e) The environment. That if they respond to the cue the environment will not contradict the behaviour. If the dog is heeling with their eyes on the trainer they can trust they will not be walked into an obstacle. If the dog walks with you pass another dog they will not receive hostile advances or unwanted petting from people.

We are also part of the environmental support and cannot become a rule changer because of where we are, who is watching, our own nerves or inattention. We should be trusted not to become another person because of perceived embarrassment.

2. Preparation

a) They have had the physical preparation. They are on top form for the tasks and behaviours. Muscle development is thoughtfully constructed, fluent and easily achieved behaviours, stamina is achieved and there are no underlying injuries.

b) They have been mentally prepared. Training has included focus, mental stamina to reject unwanted stimuli, control of arousal and energy channelled at the right time towards the right goal. Excess energy is not wasted. The dog can discriminate between intense focus and relaxed focus.

c) Training above and beyond. The training plan has given the dog experience to a level well beyond that expected in performance or successful completion of the tasks. The training has included sufficient mental stimulation to keep the dog engaged and mentally active.

3. Foundations

These are the underpinning physical and mental skills necessary for the final tasks.

For a dog expected to perform they need experience of multi-environments that give stability in cues, reinforcement and chance of performance success. Reliable equipment that will not fail the dog when engaging, surfaces that do not present a hazard. The dog will build a trust in the environment and have generalised their skills.

A layered learning pathway that has built up component behaviours on a clear understanding. When expecting performance in the final behaviours which may be short and intense or maintaining a lower intensity for longer periods, any gaps in the underpinning learning will be exposed.

Experience that gives the dog many, many different and varied memories of success to call upon when challenged. Flexibility in training building strength, not uncertainty.


I have been told on more than one occasion that I am lucky to have such drivey dogs. [Teeth sucked, nostrils flared]. These dogs did not just land on my door step or drop from the sky in a drivey state.

Yes, they are easy to arouse to specific stimuli. This can be either and advantage or a disadvantage. I spend most of my training time channelling their arousal to a mutually beneficial output. Which means arousal can explode once they have run into the field but not before they have been released.

Yes, they are intensely driven to succeed at what they are learning. This is the blessing of training in the World of Always Reinforcing. Always. They cannot be wrong. In one way or another all learning, all effort, all discoveries are reinforced. This gives them lots of personal confidence to strive, explore, remember and listen to their learning.

Yes, they are always eager to train. This is partly the benefit of being naturally competitive with their house mates and because they enjoy their individual time with me that is the special sauce when training. Learning to be training mates has been part of our every day getting to know each other, becoming friends, finding what they like and what they don’t like.

I do not over train, 2-3 formal sessions a week with spontaneous moments of play and actions. Sessions are short and very sweet and at the pace of the individual. I do not compare the dogs or expect them to train to a specific time frame or agenda. I may be motivated by a point in the calendar but the dogs are only motivated by the immediate moment.

Yes, they trust their environment. I would not ask them to carry out a behaviour that had risk of discomfort or without being fully prepared. If I inverted my brain and took them to a school for a petting fest then they would be given plenty of preparation.

Yes, they look fit, fluent and balanced. I will invest my time and experience in building their fitness, no short cuts or rushed expectations. No unnatural movements and they are deliberately developed in what they are good at, not what they would struggle to achieve.

Given these ingredients and a good dollop to time drive will emerge naturally.

The dogs that I train now are lucky to ride on the shoulders of all my dogs that I have trained in the past. The dogs that I expected too much of in conditions for which I lacked giving the proper preparation. The dogs that carried me over my shortcomings of which I am now aware of and appreciative. The dogs that needed me to be consistent in all environments and trained me to manage my own emotional responses.

There is no short cut to building amazing dogs that can share a performance, a task or every day jobs with us. Confidence in each other is a two-way channel and a direct result of the time invested in training and learning with each other. There is a unique feeling of partnership with a dog, whether it is on a mountain side with snow looming over your shoulder, in front of an audience of 300 or making a video locked forever in time.

Forced, or pseudo, training for “drive” may result in paper-thin arousal combined with stress which is not comfortable to watch or ask in performance.

Train for supreme confidence, with comprehensive preparation based on good foundations.

Let confidence, time and experience rise the dog’s natural skills and abilities to the surface. They will not fail you in this.



7 Comments leave one →
  1. Welch, Joanna R. permalink
    December 18, 2014 11:36 am


    This is a wonderful article, I really enjoyed reading it, thank you.

    Happy Christmas!

    All the best


  2. December 18, 2014 9:25 pm

    I love the bit about the ‘present’ dogs learning because of your own past experience. You learnt what worked with previous dogs, the present ones get that benefit.

    Happy Christmas from Vancouver

  3. shirley kenway permalink
    December 18, 2014 10:39 pm

    Loved this blog, it was timely, I have just been reading an article from a “top” competitor (I won’t say in which dog sport) Who was explaining the art of play to get the “drive” you need to win.


    • December 19, 2014 8:46 am

      Thanks Shirley. Play is an important part of building the relationship, reinforcing behaviours, if can help or hinder with over arousal before the understanding is secure. It is only half the picture …. if the other half is making use of corrections to “get the behaviour” then the elastic is being pulled very thin, liable to snap!

  4. aldythk permalink
    December 18, 2014 11:18 pm

    Thank you Kay, a very thought provoking article. It makes me sad when I think of all the mistakes I have made with my loyal and forgiving friends but fills me with joy that I can strive to be better for my present companions. Bless them!!

  5. julievanschie permalink
    December 20, 2014 9:32 pm

    Too often in life we aim our efforts at the wrong thing, this article highlights the importance of properly building the components that create “drive”. Loved it Kay, another keeper!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: