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Attitude Really IS Everything: The Science Behind Drives (Part 3)

The final part from our series from Dog Sports Skills Book 1: Building Engagement and Relationship by Denise Fenzi and Deb Jones, PhD.

This article is the third part of a three article series. Part one can be found here. Part two is here

The Science Behind Drives

The term "drive" was liberally used in psychology the early 1900s as a way to explain underlying motivations for behavior. Drives were believed to be internal to the subject (human or non-human animal), and their presence was assumed based on overt behavior. If the animal was eating, he was doing so due to a hunger drive; if he was drinking, it was due to a thirst drive; and so on. Clark Hull was well known for his drive reduction theory, which stated that drives lead to uncomfortable internal states and the animal will subsequently work to find ways to satisfy the drive and thus escape the discomfort (at least temporarily).

Using the concept of drives to explain an animal's actions fell out of favor in the scientific psychological community due to the work of behaviorists, most notably John Watson and B.F. Skinner. Behaviorists looked more carefully at external antecedents and consequences as the causes of behavior, and found more parsimonious and testable explanations.

The discussion of drives in dogs actually relates to the different aspects of the fixed action pattern hunting sequence seen in canids (dogs, wolves, coyotes, etc.). The typical pattern includes eye (orienting on the prey)  stalk (moving slowly and carefully closer to the prey)  chase (running full speed toward the prey)  catch (grabbing the prey with the mouth)  kill (in any number of gory ways, but often by dissection)  and consume (eat the killed prey). This pattern is seen in its entire sequence in wild canids that must hunt to eat, but we still see parts of the pattern in our domestic dogs as well. Typically, a domestic dog who displays the entire pattern will kill small animals, which is not desired in most family pets.

That said, dogs who naturally show parts of the hunting fixed action pattern are easier to train for certain jobs or dog sports. The Border Collie with natural "eye and stalk" is prized by those that work livestock. The German Shepherd with a strong "chase and catch" will easily learn to run down fleeing suspects. Certain types, breeds, and lines of dogs are bred specifically to capitalize on these traits, but even a cute little mixed breed pup will likely pounce on and tear apart his stuffed toy (which is catch and kill practice). Watch friendly dogs play together and you will see an enormous amount of eye, stalk, and chase in their play behaviors.

As we stated earlier, frantic behavior is not drive, yet this is a common misconception among competitors. A dog who is growling and thrashing a toy around may be exhibiting drive, but it is just as likely that the dog is simply out of his mind. Dogs who are frantic are not in a position to learn. Although they are moving, they are not consciously controlling their movement. As a result, frantic behavior cannot be channeled. Frantic dogs have lost control and are no more trainable than a three-year-old child who is screaming and running around the house because he desperately needs a nap. We frequently hear trainers watch their dog's out of control behavior and comment, "If only I could channel that drive." What they don't realize is that they can't because it's not drive!

If you aren't sure if your dog's behavior is driven or frantic, ask yourself, "What is the focal point?" If it is easily identified, then you have drive. If you cannot determine what is causing your dog's motion, you have movement without purpose. A dog in drive exhibits energy with purpose and focus, while frantic behavior does not have a focal point. It's worth noting that drive has nothing to do with the movements of the dog's body. When we say a dog is "in drive" we are referring to the dog's mental state, which is one of focus and intensity. A dog who is quietly staring at a ball, completely focused but with no motion at all, is in drive.

This does not mean that a dog in drive is necessarily in control; he can be both driven and frantic at the same time. For example, if your dog is screaming around a closed box, desperately attempting to get at a ball that he can see inside, the dog is frantic but also in drive because you can easily identify the source of his energy: the ball. However, if the dog gives up out of frustration and begins to run around the room, having forgotten about the ball, that dog is still exhibiting frantic behavior but is no longer in drive.

It is up to you as the trainer to harness and channel your dog's energy in the appropriate direction. If your dog is grabbing at your bait bag to get to the food inside because he has no idea that the route to the food is to work with you, then you have drive but it's not channeled in a usable direction. 

Denise Fenzi and Deb Jones, PhD, are both long-time, successful dog trainers and dog behavior instructors. Denise has been showing and training dogs for 30 years and runs Fenzi Dog Sports Academy ( Deb has been showing and training dogs for 20 years and has authored many books and created several DVDs about training for dog sports. Together, they are the authors of Dog Sports Skills Book 1: Building Engagement and Relationship, which can be purchased at


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