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In Part One of this two-part series, we talked about what drive is, why it’s important, and the difference between drive and arousal. This week, we’re going to take a peek at some strategies to increase focus for dogs prone to arousal and talk about how to build drive.
Focus and agility
Now that we can tell the difference between drive and arousal, it’s time to apply what we’ve learned to agility class. Most dogs who are serious about their agility are tempted to bark at other dogs running a course. (Heck, some dogs bark while they run the course!) Some handlers look at this tendency proudly, noting how much “drive” the dog has to do agility.
But before we go slapping the “drive” label on anything that barks, let’s review our definition from last week: Arousal plus focus on the handler equals drive. Barking wildly while other dogs run does not fall under this definition!
So, how do we prep our dog for this and numerous other distractions while on the course? And what can we do with a dog who is determined to find something else to focus on besides the handler?
First, let’s up the ante on Doggie Zen. Start requesting your dog’s attention/eye contact for longer periods before clicking and treating. Use your dog’s favorite treats (or favorite toy!), held just out of reach. Practice in locations with other distractions: the vet’s office, the grocery store parking lot, or just outside the dog park. At home, add a verbal “Leave It” cue and start putting the treats on the floor instead of in your hand — first behind you, then (the ultimate!) between you and your dog.
Second, start or review the Name Game. You can use this same method to enhance your dog’s response to your on-course recall word, as well.
Use these tools in a distracting situation to gain and maintain your dog’s focus. If your dog starts barking at something, move farther away from the action until he or she is able to focus on you. Then praise, reward and make your way back to the distraction.
To see a great example of how channeling your dog’s drive and focus can be helpful (and an amusing look at how a simply aroused dog behaves), check out this video!
Slow dog? Build drive!
The easiest way to get a faster dog on the course is to use what he already loves — a game or toy! Pair your dog’s favorite game with an “on/off” cue — remember “Go Wild and Freeze”?
Does your dog have a favorite game, such as tug or fetch? If not, it’s time to find out which non-food-eating activity your dog enjoys most. Dogs who have a natural retrieving instinct are likely to enjoy chasing balls, discs or other toys, while wrestlers often enjoy tugging on ropes or leashes. Terriers typically like chase-and-pounce games. If you have a timid dog, play gently at first, allowing the dog to “win” the toy often.
Your body language and tone of voice is also vital to enhancing your dog’s drive. Using a high-pitched, excited, happy tone works to bring out the puppy in most every dog. Practice using this tone during all of your dog’s favorite rowdy activities, such as walking or feeding time. When working on an obstacle, make sure your body language is inviting to the dog. Don’t stare at the dog, and turn your body sideways or keep your back to him or her as he or she navigates an obstacle.
Experiment with both your body and voice to see what your dog responds to best.
What is “drive”?
Sometimes you’ll hear people talk about different types of drive in dogs, such as fight drive, play drive or prey drive. For our purposes, we’ll lump these together under the description, “the dog’s desire to perform certain behavior.”
Drive is important because it’s what makes the dog go! We can channel a dog’s drive to play with a toy into prerequisites for playing with that toy, such as a sit or down. Dogs who perform with speed and enthusiasm on the agility course are often said to have a lot of drive.
Drive versus arousal
We handlers and trainers love drive, especially in a working dog. However, there is a difference between drive and arousal.
Arousal in dogs means “an excited mental state.” Arousal, while useful in many situations in which dogs are asked to perform, also can be dangerous. Dog bites take place when a dog is aroused. Besides sometimes leading to aggressive behavior towards humans, arousal can also lead to fights between dogs. Leashed dogs that bark at other dogs during walks are often demonstrating arousal as a result of frustration.
Watch the two videos below to see the difference between drive and arousal.
So, if drive requires the dog to be aroused, how do we ensure what we have is drive, and not simply arousal? Answer: We want controllable, focused arousal.
Controllable, focused arousal = drive
By “focused,” we mean “attentive to the handler.” After all, dogs can focus on many things — cats, birds, other dogs — without ever acknowledging the handler’s existence!
How to get drive
Let’s get started on few exercises to enhance your dog’s focus and drive.
First, we’ll teach our dogs to focus on us, even when something they want is at stake, using the Doggie Zen exercise. This exercise teaches our dogs to perform a required behavior (in this case, paying attention to us), before receiving a treat or other reward.
Second, we’ll show our dogs the benefits of allowing us to control their drive with the “Go Wild and Freeze” game. To play the game, grab some treats and a clicker and get your dog a bit riled — nothing crazy, your typical excited praise should be enough. Then, once the dog is excited, suddenly stop moving, avert your eyes and give your “quit” command (“That’s enough,” “Settle,” or “Take a break”). Click and treat as soon as your dog shows signs of settling. (If the treats rile your dog again, use lower-value rewards or replace them with soft praise and petting.) Then repeat, seeing how quickly you can get your dog riled and how fast he or she will respond to your “stop” request.
Third, we’ll add the “1-2-3 Game” to help lower-drive dogs get excited, and higher-drive dogs to contain themselves! Hold a treat just out of your dog’s reach and count slowly to three. If your dog attempts to jump or grab for the treat, remove your hand, then put it a little farther from his or her nose and start counting again from one. If your dog remains in place and doesn’t try to grab the treat, encourage him to “come get it” using “Go!” or another release cue after counting to three. “One… Two… Three… Go!” Some dogs will need the treat to be quite far from their noses at first.
In Part 2 next week, we’ll look at ways to increase your dog’s focus, as well as how to build your dog’s drive, and make your dog’s drive even more controllable.