What is drive?   The terms high-Drive and Low-Drive  are commonly used in the dog sports world, but almost never in the behavior world.  Presumably that is because these terms lack any real definition. Dog-sports people are along the lines of, “I know it when I see it” and that vision is likely to change depending on what sports the person is involved with.  Dog behavior folks want precise parameters!

Here’s the definition I use: High Drive defines a dog who stays in the game even under adversity.   

Even under adversity! The fact that your dog will work for kibble or toys while working in the house is neither here nor there. That’s not high drive. High drive is the dog that will stay in the game when the going gets tough and without significant additional training to develop this behavior.

What is adversity? Fear inducing situations. Interesting things happening. Other dogs or people.  Limited opportunities for reinforcement. Inclement weather. Rough terrain. Life sucks.

High drive dogs are easily entertained by work and tend to be motivated by a range of things.   While they may be curious about the environment, they are more interested in working and earning reinforcement from their handler than in investigating alternatives – they focus!   And while they may be fearful in a given environment, they stick it out. Stressed? Could be! Miserable training?  Yeah.  And yet…they work anyway. That is what they have learned is the expectation and they go along with the program – willingly!

if you like analogies, consider a high drive human trainer.  This person trains their dog even when class is far away and the weather is bad. Even when it’s hard to get there. Even when it’s expensive.   Even when the dog is struggling and learns slowly.   The fact that they get relatively little reinforcement for their efforts does not deter them –   Whatever reinforcement they get is enough to keep them in the game. They stick it out.

So what is low drive?

Low drive dogs are difficult to keep engaged in the game. They either don’t particularly enjoy the activities that you have in mind or they are not sufficiently motivated by the things you have to offer.   They may work just fine when there’s nothing better to do or the reinforcers are flowing freely, but add a little adversity or alternative options and they will opt out quickly.

It’s worth pointing out that one cannot tease apart “likes the reinforcement” from “easily bored.”. How would we know? How do we know if the dog shows flashy heeling because he loves heeling or because he loves reinforcers?   I do think most of us have a sense of the activities that our dogs prefer, regardless of the amount or type or reinforcement on offer.   However, at the end of the day, I know that some dogs work for long stretches of time under challenging conditions for relatively little reinforcement across a range of training options and sports – and it requires no heroic efforts on the part of the trainer to keep them happy. They are high drive, pretty much regardless of the sport or the reinforcer in play.

You get the idea. In a nutshell? High Drive is easily motivated and not easily bored or distracted and low drive is difficult to motivate and easily bored or distracted by alternatives.

Of course I’m describing the extremes here. The vast majority of dogs ( and people!) fall in the middle, So think on a continuum rather than a black or white situation.

As a side note it’s worth pointing out that movement is not drive. While it is true that high drive dogs tend to have more energy than other dogs, it is far from a requirement. A dog can be downright lazy and yet show tremendous drive when it’s time to work. So the question I would ask is, what is the appropriate behavior at that moment? A sheep dog who just runs around all the time would make the farmer crazy. Sometimes movement is required and other times stillness is the answer. But focus on the task? Ready and willing when the time is right? That is not negotiable.  That must be there for a dog to be considered “driven.”

I would also point out that most of us refine what we are talking about according to the needs of the situation. So it would be normal to say something like high drive for toys, high drive for food, etc. But in general, high drive is also a package, and one starts to discover that dogs that are high drive in one sport or for one reinforcer are frequently high drive in a variety of ways. My experience is that if I see a dog working with “drive” for one type of reinforcer in one environment I can make some pretty accurate predictions about how the dog will look working in different sports and for different reinforcers.

I’m working on a workshop where I discuss handling disengagement from work.   if you are interested in this workshop, then it is helpful to start thinking about your dog’s drive structure because I handle disengagement differently depending on many factors, and one of those factors is the dog’s overall drive.