Spun into Control

One of the biggest contributing factors to speed and consistency in sport dogs is drive and control. Lack of Drive with too much control seems to be a big problem in a lot of competitor’s dogs. Too much Drive with no control is a curse as well. So where is the balance? There are many misconceptions with how people view drive. Some competitors believe that in order to obtain a 3.4sec flyball dog he needs to be “spun out of his head” with few house rules and a nightmare to live with. Some believe that it’s genetics, the dog is born with a certain amount of Drive and regardless of how you train the outcome will be the same. While others believe Drive can be created and brought out by reinforcing all the time and just keeping life fun and simple with a mentality of “The happier and more fun I am, the more drive my dog will have.” I believe Drive is influenced by a combination of genetics, environment, impulse, reinforcement and training techniques.
It’s true that some dogs are born with a lot of natural drive and enthusiasm. Generally the working breeds have been selectively bred for trainability, work ethic and enthusiasm, all of which feed into what we perceive as “Drive”. Just because some dogs are born with these desired traits doesn’t necessarily guarantee success in the dog sport world. Too much Drive with no impulse control can be a nightmare to work with and depending on the breed very dangerous too for the handler and other competitors. The trainers that use positive reinforcement techniques and allow these “naturally high drive” dogs to think for their rewards while incorporating impulse control and permission based games tend to get the furthest with communicating effectively. Laying this ground work proves effective especially when it comes to working in higher stimulating environments. The trainers that try to “dominate” or apply physical pressure in a negative manner to attain control tend to create problems such as anxiety, aggression, fear, and avoidance. With some breeds such as terriers, sighthounds and many of the working breeds, yelling or physical corrections while they are in a high state of excitement can increase their adrenaline which turns them on even more. This type of trainer will typically increase the amount of negative force exerted and never actually get their dog under control. Their dog just starts becoming numb and tolerant to the pain being applied. Clearly an ineffective training method.
But what about the dogs that lack natural drive? How can we increase it while still incorporating control? Can drive be brought out and trained. I believe it can with restriction and the proper techniques. Much like high drive dogs, the low drive ones have to work for anything they get. Food, toys, playtime with other dogs, walks, swimming etc. basically everything the dog finds reinforcing. Everything has to be earned which means there are no toys, bones, freedom to go in and out of the house as they please or free playtime with other dogs they live with. In order for this type of dog to get any of the above I would expect them to show a few repetitions of a chosen behaviour before being allowed to do anything deemed a “jackpot” reward. When working with the LD dog I make sure that my level of difficulty and the duration of my training session are much less than that of the HD dog. The HD dogs can work longer and think more through difficult behaviours while recovering easily from multiple failures without losing motivation. The LD dogs need simpler behaviours that require little thought, limit failures and don’t become repetitive and boring in order to keep motivation up. If at any time the LD dog loses interest he would immediately be removed from the training session and put away where all forms of reinforcement are unavailable. I’m a firm believer that when a dog engages me with eye contact or a play session then a party of reinforcement may begin which includes me acting crazy. Bribing my dog by acting crazy to get his attention is quite simply bad dog training. It would be no different than your dog walking away to go sniff something and you chucking treats at him to get him to come back and pay attention. I refuse to perform a head stand, while shrieking and spinning in circles to get my dogs attention. Offer me that attention and you will get a show. Now when a LD dog is in a stimulating environment, like a flyball tournament, I require less control and encourage and reinforce any excitement or interest they show in watching dogs work. However I mix that up with focus exercises as well in order to have a good balance. I’m completely happy with a dog showing excitement while other dogs work as long as when I ask for attention it is quickly and easily attained.
Basically when working with both levels of dog I teach the HD dog that when he shows thought and control he earns reward and is given permission to move on to the next behaviour. When he loses control everything stops and he has lost any possibility of reinforcement for his performance. When I teach a LD dog I want them to learn that when you show lack of interest in working with me then restrictions are applied and the only time you experience anything rewarding is when you have interacted with me first. When they engage me, perform behaviours and show enthusiasm I jackpot the session with activities they find most rewarding and build difficulty and duration in small increments.
Identifying the level of drive your dog has and what rewards work best to reinforce the HD dog’s control or the LD dog’s moments of enthusiasm is the hardest part. Once they have been identified the best dog trainers figure out creative ways to use them to their full advantage, creating the ultimate bridge of communication between sport dogs and their handlers.