What is high drive versus low drive in a dog?

This picture is deceiving and playful, showing a German Shepherd, very relaxed and wearing eye glasses. But in reality, the picture shows a dog in a very calm down-stay and not drive. So what is High Drive? Well that this is a difficult question to answer. What is low drive in a German Shepherd Dog maybe considered high drive in a Maltese! So, it is relative to the breed you’re dealing with. So I’ll narrow my focus to working breeds and retrievers. You could have a dog that is really driven by *everything* or a dog driven by rewards – either a particular type or many.

My definition of a low drive dog is one that would give me headaches trying to train! It wouldn’t have real motivation and drive toward food, toys or attention and while you could try and bring this out to success of some degree and even perhaps get to competition level in whatever sport, you will never be able to truly harness that as the ‘natural’ drive to whatever you are trying to use is not there! For example -a G.S.D Showline dog may not be not a big tugger or like to work for a toy. (Not all of them, just one as an example). Leerburg has a great video on You Tube “So You Think You Want a High Drive Puppy” Where they show a super “drivey” Malinois puppy in an exercise pen and tormenting a Jack Russell. Do you think this puppy, when he grows up, will “grow out of it”? No, not really. What you see at 8 weeks of age is pretty close to the dog as he or she will grow. It’s great to see a dog that is flashy in obedience or protection sports. Do you know that that same flashy dog, that is very fast in obedience and has high scores in protection is a dog that is being handled by a professional trainer, who knows how to live with such a dog when it’s not working? In other words, your dog that you want all flashy for bite sports or obedience, and you go out and get yourself a Malinois.Or you want a top notch agility dog and you go get yourself a Border Collie. But what are you going to the do with this dog the 94% of the time when it’s not in an obedience ring or doing training, and you’re too tired from work and just got home, want to eat some dinner and watch some T.V with the kids?

Well, let’s first define a low drive dog. You offer him a tug toy and he won’t really take it. I’ve worked dogs like this, my dog Roxie I adopted, and to get the dog to tug, but no matter how you try, the dog doesn’t really want it. We can that dog to a stage where they will eagerly tug before some other activity, but not after. So, although I may be able to build up the drive for the tug, it would never be complete drive as it isn’t something that the dog naturally wants.

A high drive dog for me is one that pretty much sees the world as a big huge ‘game’…. they tend to be fast, quick on their feet and keen about *everything* or perhaps one thing in particular. They would go to the ends of the earth for that one object…. say…. a tennis ball or a ball on a string. They make training easier to a degree as you don’t have to think about ‘what’ you are going to reward with but more, how are you going to harness it! The dog is very keen to get their toy reward and is engaged with you.

He is activated and wants to work and offers a series of behaviors and figuring out which behavior will get the “click” or the “yes” command he can get to his reward faster.

He wants to please and get to tugging as fast as possible. He is also somewhat more of a high energy dog, and not a couch potato.

To me – drive isn’t driven by breed and I wouldn’t separate low drive versus high drive like that. But certain breeds are more driven than others. So a basset hound for example is a much less driven breed than a Dutch Shepherd for example. However, a field trial Golden Retriever that is a bird dog, may in fact be very high drive for a tug or his need. A Great Dane or a Mastiff type of breed might be very differently motivated than a G.S.D for instance. Bu the retriever needs to get his retrieve drive satisfied. So drive is less driven by breed, but it is driven by how they see those rewards they get. Furthermore, yes, I do think that a dog can be really driven about one thing, but couldn’t give a flying toss about something else. In our working breeds, German Shepherds and Malinois, we develop drive toward a tug toy or a ball on a string from puppy stage. But the drive to bite, and have a high prey drive, means that if your kids are moving too fast, the dog might seem them as prey and bite at their ankles. They are not doing it out of aggression, or spite. They simply are bred to be triggered by motion, and things which move fast and make high pitched sounds, like kids, trigger their prey drive. In other words, the dog that you want to be high prey drive for training, if not taught correctly how to channel this drive, will not be the right dog for you for every day living.

From my experience – drive is something that you can ‘build up’ in a dog. Certain parts of a dogs temperament needs to be there already (biddable, speedy, active – whatever)…. but in order to get the drive really working for you – it would be something that you have to ‘harness’ and ‘train’….. In other words with a German Shepherd puppy, you might want to tie a ball on a string or a flirt pole and and move the ball along the ground like a mouse to make rapid motion with it, so you can trigger the dog’s prey drive. I spent many evenings just harnessing the drive and playing with the toys/ food etc to get them to really *want* their rewards – keep them high value etc. If they really want what I have to offer, the work they offer me is 10 x better.

In a lower drive dog- I would do the same in terms of setting up training sessions – quality over quantity… make the dog ‘want’ to learn and ‘ask’ for it. So in saying that – I might break for a while and while we are training and train only little bits and a ‘good’ session once a week max. I wouldn’t drag them out every day to do the same training style – i.e: heeling for obedience…. but we might do some form of training each day.

To keep the drive up – I would reward often – the higher the dog gets in their obedience/ agility – the better the rewards are… they drive for what they get at the end and not in between. You can also have a two reward system: food reward as a lower level motivator and a toy reward as a higher level motivator…but the dog has to have enough prey drive to want to work for that toy. The working line German Shepherds have more prey drive than the other lines and so this is natural. A German Shepherd without prey drive is a crime against nature! So I define drive as eagerness to do stuff and get “activated” by play and toys and food and whatever the owner wants to offer.

Drive is developed and duration of the training session is developed over time as well. If you come home from work tired, and only want a dog to sit on the couch with you, and not bother you too much, then a high drive dog is not for you. But if you want to train agility, flyball, IPO/IGP and other dog sports, you want a higher drive dog. But, the key idea that the dog wants what you have and wants to say active and engaged with you. So in sum, a more active dog, with more prey drive and a strong desire to be quick on its feet and fully engaged with you is a “high drive ” dog.

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