High Drive Dogs

“Drive” is a highly desired aspect in most dog sports, whether your area of interest is agility, flyball, herding, hunting, coursing, or something else. Sport and performance dog handlers specifically look for “high drive” puppies and work to build their puppy’s drive further through tug, chase, and other games. Arousal and excitement are considered signs of a talented dog who will go far.


But there’s a dark side to this drive building, one that negatively impacts the performance of many otherwise talented dogs in their chosen sport. Here’s the thing: arousal and drive are not one and the same.

So often, I’m told about a “high drive” dog who is in actuality just frantic. “Drive” refers to focused commitment to a specific goal. A dog who ping pongs from one distraction to another without truly “locking on” to anything is not in drive, she’s simply distracted. Arousal is not drive, and high drive dogs do not necessarily show high arousal or excitement.

Consider Layla, a dog with high prey drive. If Layla finds a chipmunk in the backyard, she chases it up the downspout of my rain gutter. If I don’t interrupt her and bring her inside, she then pulls that chunk of gutter pipe off the house and carries it into the center of the yard (chipmunk inside). She stands or crouches, staring intently at the gutter pipe. This can go on for hours. If she moves at all, it will only be slight muscle trembling in her back legs. When the chipmunk inevitably ventures out, thinking that the coast is clear, Layla grabs it, quickly killing and eating it.

No one who watches Layla catch a chipmunk could have any doubt that she is intently focused on her task. When she’s working a chipmunk, she has laser focus on catching and killing it, and the rest of the world fades into the background. She doesn’t allow herself to become distracted by my other dogs, people walking past, or even other prey, such as the squirrel in the tree or the bunny outside the fence. This is an example of true drive.

Trying to build your dog’s drive by increasing her excitement may work really well if she’s naturally focused on and motivated by the task at hand. However, getting an excited but distractible dog further aroused is not only unlikely to make him more talented at the sport of your choice, it’s likely to make matters worse. The more aroused and frantic the dog becomes, the harder it gets for him to think.

If you truly want to increase your dog’s drive, work on his focus and on making the task at hand highly motivating. While Layla and Dobby came to me naturally motivated by toys and play, my youngest dog, Mischief, had very low drive for these activities. Now a year old, she will work very hard with intense focus, heeling for the chance to play tug or chase. She does this because I’ve made these things very fun and rewarding for her. Getting her excited without giving her something to focus that excitement on just results in a frustrated, bitey, barky dog and does nothing to increase her drive.

The take home message, regardless of which sport or activity you do with your dog, is clear. Select a dog who will naturally want to participate in your chosen sport. Whether you go to a breeder or rescue a dog, don’t confuse hyperactivity or franticness with drive. And once you bring home your new partner, nurture that dog’s focus and make working with you fun.

What activities does your dog have natural drive for? Do you agree with my definition of “drive,” or do you have a different idea of what this term refers to? Please comment below!

15 responses to “High Drive Dogs

  1. I was interested to read that you developed play with Mischief. I’m a terrier and I am not very motivated by play or toys (not for long, anyway). I prefer food, but I’ll even ignore that if there is a rabbit or squirrel in the neighbourhood. Any suggestions as to how my owner can make training more fun for me and help me to work hard with focus?!?

    • Terriers are the ADHD children of purebred dogs…lol
      You will need lots of patience and no butterflies! I love them dearly but being ADHD myself it would be an impossible task for me. I am so fascinated that one of my friends did actually put obedience titles on her smooth fox.

  2. Thanks for this post! As someone who just recently obtained a performance mix puppy I found it particularly pertinent and love the topic. I’ve heard it argued that there is no such thing as “drive” in our dogs, only genetic predispositions toward a particular behavior or behaviors. While I’m pretty sure that I agree with that, I do like the term “drivy” and think this definition best fits that description in dogs: “A strong motivating tendency or instinct related to self-preservation, reproduction,or aggression that prompts activity toward a particular end.” Does this fit your description of “drive”? I would say it’s pretty darn close. While I agree that drive and arousal are not the same thing, I think they are inextricably linked. Most performance related or work related activities our dogs engage in are really just softened up rehearsals of kill skills, skills that all of our dogs come hard wired with to one degree or another. Tapping into these innate tendencies is what allows us to participate with our dogs in things such as Agility, Flyball, Nosework, Lure Coursing, etc. A good description of arousal could be “the emotional & physiological response associated with the tendency or instinct related to self-preservation, reproduction, or aggression.” Arousal, as a result of the potential to gain a particular object or activity, can be used to focus a dog in the midst of a highly distracting environment. You can have a dog that is sensitive to changes in its environment and mitigate that sensitivity through the introduction of something that the dog finds extremely motivating or “driven” to engage with. The use of a tug (and the promise of a great game) to hold together a large behavior chain amidst high distraction, as is seen in Agility or Flyball, is a great example. However, you wouldn’t take a dog that has shown some nice interest in a tug, but has a history of being easily distracted, and then throw that dog into a pen full of chickens and expect the dog to engage in a spirited game with you. The motivator must be worked with & molded to not only build the arousal (as with your Mischief) but to balance that arousal with control. I would also argue that most dogs will need the game to be generalized a bit and need it to be worked on in increasingly distracting contexts. Speaking of distractibility, aren’t we always dealing with this when training our dogs? A dog that is over stimulated by its environment or by particular triggers in its environment may have been pushed too far, too fast. If your dog appears to be frantic about something in the environment or is too distracted to focus, I would argue you need to step back and examine your training progression. Dogs that have some fear based reactivity need to be handled with even more care and may never be able to function in certain environments, despite the motivator. In short, know your dog and be their advocate but don’t be afraid to challenge them a little, you might just be surprised by what your dog is capable of if given the right motivation (P+ & R- excluded). As an aside, I love my drivy dogs! I have taken to saying that I don’t want a laid back couch potato ever again (I may eat those words someday). I have a three year old Pitty x and a four month old Border Stack, both of whom are very tug motivated.

  3. Love and hate the term “drive!” I would describe high drive dogs as those for whom reinforcement related to SEEKING behaviors comes naturally/easily so that they are easily stimulated into that circuit and are resistant to being pushed out of it. What makes these dogs hard for some people is being able to control the reinforcement, and having the SEEKING behavior not under control. I have a theory that if we could examine dogs’ brains to look at the SEEKING circuit, and compared the brains of say, show bred rough collies vs sports bred mals, that we would see a difference in the structures and or biochemistry of that circuit, even as neonates, though I don’t have any idea what that difference would be- number of neurons, number of receptors for certain chemicals or decreased ones for others. It is completely about the seeking stuff, not getting or consuming stuff, so tracking and chasing prey, or their equivalents in the various sports, fall in line with that, with dopamine being released, and the potential not only for interest/arousal, but also OCD behaviors related to seeking behaviors- chasing light and shadows, or cars, or excessive sniffing. I suspect it is complex enough to allow for “drive” being the bloodhound following a trail, or the mali chasing down a helper, but not the consumption of food, which actually decreases dopamine levels (unless more is anticipated, which increases it) so “food drive” would be distinctly different.
    FMI google SEEKING (caps not mine) circuit and Panksepp

  4. Laura and Amadeus

    As an “average owner”, not a trainer, I would guess that I have a dog with fairly high drive. He loves to work for me in training, goes after our NoseWork seeks like it’s a job (he saves his “proud” for when we’re leaving the room) and will focus so intently on a ball that the whole rest of the dog park could blow up before he noticed. It has surprised me that as he becomes more focused on NoseWork that he actually moved LESS frantically, and has started to stare intently instead of dance when he wants a ball thrown (the shepherd “move, hooved-thing, move” stare). While he enjoyed working as a puppy and would calm down and focus when we were working, this has become much more pronounced with age (now 15 mo) – does drive typically “develop” like this?

  5. We share the same thoughts about drive and arousal!
    I work (professionally) with dogs that get overexcited in training and/ or competition.
    Still it’s very hard to convince the handlers in the highest levels of competition that their dogs would be more focused and able to perform better if they learned to control themselves and not bark en scream for half an hour before they had to perform. They think the dog is showing it’s drive, that he want to perform, while in fact the dog is in overdrive and out of control.
    They still think that that frantic behavior leads to the best results on the course. And that, if they would teach the dog some self-control, the dog will be slower on the course.
    Hopefully we can change this mentality step by step and by that create happier dog and happier handlers!

  6. Great post! I do think people confuse arousal with drive. Personally, I think alot of sports dog folks overdo behaviors which elicit arousal (like tugging), or, if their dogs don’t like tugging, they try to force it on them, hoping to build drive. It’s certainly possible – and also fun- to have a successful performance dog without overarousing the dog to such a state that the dog bites, becomes frantic, etc. There are some performance people who don’t mind being bitten in some of these over-arousal situations, but I personally don’t like it- ever. Barking and excessive whining is sometimes mistaken for drive, but with my dogs, it usually is an expression of frustration and a clue that I haven’t completed the training process and have an animal that doesn’t quite know what to do. I also don’t think it is healthy for dogs to be continually placed in these states of over-arousal.

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  8. The term “drive” is used by a variety of people to describe a variety of actions and behaviors. Some trainers create entire seminars and books around “creating drive” in dogs. Personally, I don’t use the term to describe any behavior in a dog. I prefer to be a lot more specific and use terms like “instinct” for things like hunting and chasing. Or I might use a term like “work ethic” for tracking or weight pull or rally or obedience.

    I think the term “building drive” is a catch phrase that is used to sell books and seminars. I have seen one person use that in his/her seminars when this person already has a long-time, designated “working breed” and then say they are “building drive” in their dogs. Well, who couldn’t get a designated working breed to do something?

  9. You nailed it!
    Great article.
    : )

  10. Great article, but the ‘how do we bring the frantic’ under control is missing.

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  12. I have a whippet that excelled at lure coursing. Unlike others that come to the line in a big barking frenzy he walks up to the line very calm and focused on the task at hand. Everyone thought that he would never be a great courser because of his calm demeanor. He was number one in the country two years in a row. Now that is high drive!! Love my boy.

  13. I would add one more variable to that – stress. What a lot of people call drive, is quite possibly stress. A dog who screams their way around an agility course, seems unable to focus on the job at hand, may well be highly stressed. I have seen these same dogs walking to the start line, frantically looking around them, lip licking and head down sniffing the ground. That is not a dog in drive ready to focus on the task.

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