Building drive seems as first a simple problem to solve. Your dog is lackadaisical, aloof, unmotivated or easily distracted. All you have to do is find out what flips his trigger, right? Ah well, not so fast, Sparky! Drive is a wonderful and treacherous tool.
When I mail ordered my first working dog from France, I picked him up at the airport and looked at him cowering in the back of the crate. Great. This wasn’t a good sign I thought. I took him right out and started flooding him with new and diverse experiences. No time to start like the present. He tolerated all of this with a tense aloofness. Partially the breed, partially mishandling. And then I began his search and rescue training.
The dog was a little aloof, so I decided to perform some drive building. Each time he located his subject (found a person), I had him grab a tarp that they were wrapped in and tug and play with it. This cause two problems. He didn’t really make a good connection with the human…he was in it for the tarp. He began tugging at clothing or nipping people sleeveless arms who weren’t wrapped in a tarp. Yikes!
It wasn’t an aggression problem, it was an over driven dog who was taught a bad habit by an inexperienced trainer. I was pretty unconcerned about it at first, after all, a lost person isn’t going to complain that the SAR dog tugged at his pant legs when they were found, but the first problem I ran into was people didn’t want to hide for him any more. The second problem is that people wanted me to pay for the $250 North Face jacket he maimed. And I could see other potential problems in our future.
The nips were not aggressive but they were lighting fast and intense. He was performing a little herding dog action on his lost subjects. That will teach them to get lost! Of course I share all of this at grave risk of people labeling my dog a biter. True he bites, but he doesn’t MEAN it. Uh huh. Tell that to the guy with the big purple pinch on the back of his arm.
Something had to be done so I removed the dog from SAR training and began working with an animal behaviorist. The first thing we did was muzzle him to remove my anxiety regarding errant nips. We taught him some solid obedience and a rock solid ‘leave it’ command. After he was more socialized and under control, we returned to SAR and armed our subjects with an e-collar. This could have been a great tool were it not for imperfect timing and hair trigger.
I further began ignoring the advise of my SAR mentors and trainers and I refused to amp my dog like a police K9. Yes, yes that works great for your labradoodle, but my dog has drive in spades and he doesn’t get to take it out on a bite sleeve. Instead of blindly revving the dog up, I was much more careful and meticulous about how much energy to give him. Were we going out for a four hour training, or just a quick run-a-way. And as he approached his subject, I gave him cool down commands or negative markers and advised my training volunteers to do the same.
It wasn’t a matter of weeks, but within six months, the dog understood that under no circumstances was he to make contact. And without sacrificing a cent of drive, this dog would go out for the pure joy of the hunt and work for hours.
The moral of this story is, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Build only as much drive as you need and can control.