In drive? Park it right there, mister.

High drive, low drive, ball drive, prey drive… if you hang around dog training circles long enough, you’re bound to hear about drive. I thought I understood this canine attribute, but when an acquaintance referred to her pet dog as “high drive” and my impression of the dog was that of a unique species of couch potato, I thought maybe I had gotten my wires crossed.


Tree drive?

What is drive? As a layperson, I thought I had a decent handle on this concept, albeit in a nontechnical way. I thought drive was the degree of relentlessness or intensity a dog possessed. I thought a high drive dog was a dog that pursued a goal with single-minded intensity: the more relentless the dog’s pursuit of that goal, the higher the drive. Add in obstacles and if the dog continues to work to achieve his or her goal – even higher drive. A dog that loves to fetch – low to medium drive. A dog that will find every ball ever manufactured, chase them until his feet bleed, fetch a ball out of a field of stinging nettles, blackberry prickers, or hot lava, and drop it at your feet — tail wagging, eyes glazed, jaws clacking, and tongue lolling: high drive. Every malinois owner reading this is now nodding in all-too-familiar agreement.

Knowing that my understanding was “pet owner” level and not sophisticated, I asked the question to my thousand or so Facebook friends (my friend list is heavily skewed to the canine crowd). I was pretty surprised by the answers I received, mostly because I was dead wrong. Drive is many things, it seems, but not what I thought it was. The definition I received started out very simple – drive is an innate biological concept that has to do with survival. Drive is a strong biological urge. This makes me want to ask if being hungry or needing to pee is a drive, although that sounds like I’m being snarky. I’m not, but that clear simple definition is too vague to be really helpful.

The next assertion was that drive is not exactly a thing in and of itself, but that there are specific drives. You can’t describe a dog as “high drive” but you can indicate which specific quality is present in abundance: high prey drive or high hunt drive, for example. Toy drive and food drive were also mentioned. Building or developing drive was also mentioned – as an owner you want to build specific drives for training but squelch other drives (especially prey drive) because it’s really inconvenient to have your dog blast off after prey animals… especially if your dog perceives the neighborhood children to be prey animals.

People talk about “high drive dogs” all the time in the malinois world but do they mean high prey drive? Or high toy drive? Or high something else drive? Getting a little bit more specific, I did learn a concrete, real world way to determine a dog’s level of drive: “Throw a ball into tall grass or brush so the dog can see the general area it went but not exactly where it landed. Then, take the dog indoors for 10 minutes or so. Go back outside and release the dog. If the dog immediately goes hunting for the ball, the dog has drive.”

Ok, now we’re on to something. This I can understand. If a dog looks for a ball after 10 minutes, it has drive. Since I have never tested this with any dog, I can now say with confidence that I have no idea whether or not any of my dogs have drive, but I can find out. I have some predictions: Peeka and Cinder will not spend one one-hundredth of a second looking for a ball. They have zero interest balls. If I stuck a bunch of porcupine quills in the ball, Peeka stand at the door whining and dancing for the entire ten minutes and then fight me to get out the door to go visit the porky ball. Cinder would ignore it completely. Brody? If the ball were near some poop, he might find the ball by accident while he zeroed in on his snack. Brody has high poop drive.

Hawkitt? I can’t predict. Hawk is a dog I would have described as high drive back when I thought I knew what it meant. But I think he might not pass this test. Hawk is very focused on me. If he gets to play with a ball, it is because I provided that ball. And I control playtime – I always have, because allowing Hawkitt to control anything is a terrifying invitation to mayhem and injury. So would he go away from me, the provider of all things play, to go look for a ball? That’s a big fat maybe. Iske would have found the ball if she thought I wanted her to. She would have found the ball before I hid it. That’s the kind of dog Iske was.

Asking Google for help led to a few websites worth exploring (side note – why are dog websites so badly written?). Here’s a new definition of drive, courtesy of “high drive dogs dot com.” High drive dogs tend to share the following characteristics:

  • tirelessness (they will keep fetching the ball until their feet fall off);
  • intelligence (they will think up new ways to ask you to throw the ball again after you say “time’s up!”);
  • focused like a laser on their human… Velcro much?;
  • enthusiastic and motivated to the point of not needing much external reward – the work or task or game is the reward;
  • focused on the work/game/task even when significant distractions are present.

This definition paints a picture that hearkens back to my original thought – that drive is related to relentlessness and a single-minded commitment to a goal. A low drive dog is an easier dog to live with for most dog owners. Low demand, easy-going, and happy with a modicum of stimulation but no need to go all crazy equals low drive. A dog that is seeking to engage you in doing stuff together to meet the dog’s needs … that’s higher drive. A dog that is constantly up your butt, bugging you to do stuff, even though you already did five different activities: that’s a high drive dog. Mental stimulation, physical exercise, affection, bonding, obedience, and just plain burn off energy with fetch… and the dog is still tapping his paw and looking at you with *that* look: high drive dog.

Perhaps that definition is incorrect. Maybe there is no such thing as drive, and all drive is specific. I still don’t know. What I do know is that some dogs possess an intensity that is palpable. They aren’t “easy” in any sense. They hum and buzz with passion for whatever they do. Some dogs focus this into certain areas, like killing and eating squirrels (coughCindercough), or greeting porcupines (PEEEEEEEEKA!!! LEAVE IT!!!) while others are intense about EVERYTHING. They have a zest for life that is infectious and a joy to be around… for a couple of minutes. Then they are really freaking exhausting.


High mud drive

Iske was a wonderful example of a dog that threw herself into whatever she did with the accelerator pedal flat on the floor. Food, toys, obedience, killing groundhogs, loving her human family members, running up and down sheer cliff faces… Iske had a joie de vivre that was pegged in the red zone and transcended all her other qualities. It made her more than a bit neurotic, but it also made her incredibly special. Hawkitt is similar and has that same quality, although not in the same quantity. None of the others before, during, or since have that quality – that unbridled enthusiasm for doing anything and everything. Any suggestion I make is the best, most exciting thing ever. Every reward is secondary to the sheer thrill of doing. Doing what? WHO CARES, LET’S JUST DO IT MORE! That’s how some dogs approach life.

If that’s not drive, that’s fine. All the other names — passion, intensity, relentlessness – are all fine. What is drive? I guess I don’t really need to know. Not knowing hasn’t impacted how I enjoy my dogs, but it may have led to me using the wrong term to describe them. No problem. I can take it out of drive and leave the whole topic in park.

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