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Understanding Drives

Many people have different ideas on what drives dogs have, some describe actions as one type of drive and other trainers call it something else, often these people are talking about the same thing, just have a different name for it.

When I talk about drives, I use the word threshold to determine the level of stimulation that it takes for the dog to go into that drive. For example, if you had a dog with a low threshold to prey drive, this would mean the dog would go into prey drive at the slightest movement by something that the dog considered, prey. The threshold is the dogs genetic resistance to go into drive. The higher the threshold, the more stimulation required to trigger drive.

Some things you should know about drives.
• A drive is an adrenalin fuelled behaviour.
• A drive is a sub conscious reaction to a stimuli.
• A dog that has gone through a drive motor pattern receives a chemical reward.

I have underlined a dogs prime drives and added a little on each. Discussions on drives can go on for hours, this by no means is any more than a brief over view.


Prey Drive….

Definition: to chase, bite and capture a fast moving item.

Prey drive is the desire to chase and bite a moving item. Dogs that chase cats, cars etc are usually acting so in prey drive. The high tail, high pitched bark are traits of prey drive.

Prey drive is a very useful drive that good trainers use to start the foundation of protection work and or obedience work. They utilize prey drive in their training program and teach the dog certain movements will satisfy their drive.

Training in drive produces a very attentive dog that works very well under distraction.

The picture below  shows a very high drive German Shepherd jumping off a 15 foot embankment to subdue a decoy in a boat. This was a set up training sesson, with one of my own dogs. It was not my intention to have him jump off the bank, he was so worked up in drive that he simply lept off the bank without consideration for the height. No injures were sustained.


Pack Drive…

Definition: To participate as a pack member, to gain emotional contact with the Alpha.

Pack drive is often used in training when verbal rewards of physical pats are given. The best trainers know how to elevate pack drive to a very useable and reliable training motivator.

Food drive…

Definition: Dog has serious drive for food.

Often confused with the common Food exchange, used in most obedience clubs food exchange doesn’t come anywhere near Food drive…

Play Drive…

Definition: Dog has high desire to play with things including people.

Play drive is something some breeds have a lot of, trying to use this for training doesn’t prove to bring a lot of reliability, but there are ways it can be used to aid your dogs life and training program.

Defence drive…

Definition: Self survival through aggression.

Defence drive is an instinctual drive all dogs have to protect themselves. Cornering a strange dog may activate its defence drive and see it come out fighting. Defence drive is not a comfortable place for the dog to work in, it’s survival mode and very stressful on the dog. Many so called protection trainers train in defence only, this only produces an out of control dog that can eventually become vicious.

Training in defence is popular amongst poor trainers, it’s quick and produces a dog that lights up fast. What they dont tell you is that the dog learns that aggression is the key to the dog removing it’s stress and fear, and before you know it, the dog will display aggression under more and more circumstances, to drive off the fear or stress.

This is often where fear aggressive dogs live.

Defence drive is easily recognised by the deep, sharpness of the dogs bark, the open stance which indicates the dog can run for the hills at any time, if the pressure gets too high.

Rank Drive…

Definition: To elevate ones pack position.

This drive is triggered by the dog’s instinctual desire to elevate it’s pack order. If a dog finds itself in a situation that he is in a position to challenge the pack leader, he will be driven in rank drive to make his move.

Rank drive is not limited to dog packs, it is displayed during dominance battles between humans too, it’s not pretty and is the reason that dogs end up biting their owners on many occasions. See my article on dominance.

Dogs with a low threshold to Rank drive can become aggresive to family members.


Definition: to avoid conflict, stress, pressure.

This is the point in the dogs nerves which takes over when the pressure gets too high. For example, a dog with a low threshold to avoidance will turn and run in the face of any threat, one with a high threshold to avoidance will fight before it runs.

Understanding the signs of avoidance is very helpful in training a dog. Something as simple as a miss timed leash correction can drive some dogs into avoidance, praise and distraction can bring the dog back out again. Knowing how to read the early signs and redirect your dogs drive is a big part of training.

If you watch someone train your dog and your dogs tail is between his legs, he lays down in the face of the trainer, his ears have dropped or he is obviously scared of the trainer, you need to find a new trainer, your dog won’t learn anything whilst he is in avoidance.

Some people refer to this as “flight”, they are not 100% correct, a dog can show avoidance without running. Some of the signs are as subtle as sniffing the ground.

Fight or Combat Drive…

Definition: Dogs has high desire to win the fight.

Few pet owners will have ever seen a dog in this drive. Fight drive is not a trained drive, nor can you invoke it in an untrained dog. Fight drive is a combination of prey and defence drive, built on a foundation of confidence through training.

A dog in fight drive wants the fight, it will be happy to take the fight to the man, not in prey but in confidence that it can win. The dog will use all it’s skills learned in training to defeat the man, some have said that it’s a dog in fight drive has the bite of prey drive with the determination of defence.

The recipe for fight drive in my opinion is as follows:

• Prey drive and bite development, started young.
• Training in combat drive below the avoidance threshold.
• Scenario based training in which the dog is required to fight the decoy longer and harder to earn the win.
• Genetics, ie: good drives with strong nerves.

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