Category Archives: Disc Dog

Is it really disobedience?

It was our seventh rally run of the day. Layla and I waited patiently at the start line, her eyes bright as she gazed up at me. When the judge gave us the okay to start, we began the course, my dog’s tail keeping time with the beat of my feet.

Photo by Robin Sallie

Photo by Robin Sallie


When we hit the third sign, I asked Layla to stay in a sit as I left her, and she popped into a stand. I asked again, and she went into a down. We circled away from the sign, then came back and she held her sit-stay as I walked away.

I had already noticed that Layla was striding short in her right rear leg earlier in the day, especially when she first came out of her crate. I had a friend watch one of our runs, and she noticed the same thing. She also wondered whether Layla’s left hip could be sore.

It was clear that Layla wanted to keep working. We had two runs left, both in our favorite class, Level 3. Not knowing whether she was sore from an old neck injury or something new, I decided to scratch those runs.

Because of our history and relationship, it was very clear to me that my dog wasn’t disobeying in the ring, but rather communicating. Sadly, this is not always the case, and I see many dogs who are corrected for “disobedience” when they are really trying to tell something to their people.

Remember, your dog cannot tell you where or why it hurts. He can’t choose which sports or activities he participates in. That’s on you, and it’s on you to make sure that your dog both enjoys and can physically do anything you ask of him.

If you use any compulsive training, you need to ask yourself very seriously whether pain or discomfort could be contributing to your dog’s behavior before you correct him. If you use motivational training, you better be damn sure that your dog isn’t hurting himself in his efforts to earn whatever reward he loves so much. Much like Layla will push through pain for the joy of working with me in rally obedience (and for the lamb lung she gets to eat after she’s done!), many dogs will ignore their physical discomfort in order to get a treat, toy, play session, or other valued reward.

Physical limitations can cause a whole host of problems that masquerade as behavior or training issues. Two of my rally students have discovered that their large dogs had hip issues after I pressed them to see their vet. One of these dogs would sit more slowly and reluctantly the longer he worked, and the other tended to “puppy sit” to one side rather than sitting straight. Had we approached either of these issues as a training problem and started drilling sits, we would have been causing unnecessary pain to these lovely, willing dogs. Putting these wonderful dogs into conflict by asking them to do something that was uncomfortable over and over would have been cruel, but knowing that they could have pain issues allows us to focus on working with them in such a way that we build their muscles and make the tasks we wish them to complete doable for their physical limitations.

Outside of the sports community, many behavior problems are caused by pain. Recently, I worked with clients whose elderly dog had begun growling at their toddler. The dog was clearly in conflict, eager to interact with the child but concerned about being hurt. The child would crawl on the dog, and he would turn away, lick his lips, and eventually growl. Once the parents took their dog to the vet for pain medication and started providing him with a safe place to get away from the toddler when he was sore, he stopped growling. He wasn’t aggressive, just arthritic. Growling was the only way he could communicate how very much it hurt him when the toddler climbed onto his inflamed joints.

When I consult with pet or performance dog owners, I frequently ask that they see their vet before further appointments. A cracked tooth, thyroid disorder, ear infection, or back pain can and will cause changes to behavior, and all the training in the world will do nothing if the physical problem isn’t addressed. I see a much greater number of allergies or GI issues with my anxious and reactive dog clients than with the dogs I see in regular training classes (and if you’re a researcher who could help quantify this, please contact me – I’d love to work with you!). Physical stress causes behavior changes: just think of the last time you were sick or hurt.

We need to be our dogs’ advocates. We need to give them the benefit of the doubt. Dogs are rarely lazy or disobedient or stubborn, but are frequently unmotivated, unable, or unsure about the task in front of them. Don’t be afraid to seek a second or even third opinion, either. Many of my own and clients’ dogs have been diagnosed only after seeing a specialist or sports vet who had more experience with the problem. Vets are only human, and no vet will get every diagnosis right every time. If you think something’s going on with your dog, keep pushing until you get an answer. You’d want those you love to do the same for you.

Have you ever had a physical problem masquerade as a behavior or training issue? How did you discover what was truly driving your dog’s “problem” behavior? Please share your stories in the comments below!

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!