What do you think of when you hear the word balanced?  I think of something or someone that is stable, strong, coordinated, and steady.  When training our dogs we do consider balance,  but balance in the dog, not the training techniques.  We want our dogs to be well-rounded.  To have equal amounts of drive and control.  We want dogs to work with energy, excitement, and enthusiasm.  But we also want them to respond promptly and correctly to cues.


This is Baby Star on her balance board.

The balance between drive and control is a fundamental one.  It is a goal we are constantly striving towards.  Please note, first of all, that I am using drive as it is commonly used in dog trainer lingo.  The scientific view of drives is that they are not terribly useful for an understanding of behavior.  But if you say “drive” to a dog trainer,  we typically have a shared understanding of an internal force motivating the dog to act.  Some sort of internal push, often coming from the dog’s genetic inheritance.  Types of dogs, and specific lines of dogs, are purposely bred to maintain or enhance some of these tendencies.  Border Collies with a drive to herd or retrievers with an innate desire to pick up and carry stuff are examples of this.  Even within breeds however, some dogs have much stronger natural drives than others.  Not every pup from a litter of exceptional parents will be a great herding dog or retriever.  But the genetic possibilities are there.  So we would expect the drive to come naturally and be present without any outside interference.  That’s nature.

We can, however, enhance or diminish or divert the drive that is naturally present.  We can offer appropriate outlets for the drive and shape it in desired ways.  We can help our dogs learn how to control their natural desires and tendencies.  Dogs with “too much drive” can be difficult to impossible to live with.  They are likely restless and frustrated and looking for an outlet for that internal push they constantly feel.  Without an outlet they divert or displace that energy, often in inappropriate ways.  They often have a high need for action or sensation seeking that is not satisfied.  This can lead to all sorts of behavioral issues such as excessive barking, chewing, destruction, anxiety, hyperactivity, and so on.  These are the problems that lead people to rehome their dogs or take them to a shelter.

However, because that desire for activity can be diverted into appropriate channels, those of us with performance dogs like this type of dog.  This dog has the desire and energy to do stuff with you.  No matter what the sport, this dog is likely to be a willing partner in order to be active.   Herding dogs are very good performance partners because they have been bred for generations to work all day.  Granted, their work involved moving livestock.  But even without livestock they can learn to participate in agility, obedience, rally, disc, and so on.  This type of activity uses up that desire to do things, at least temporarily (it always comes back!)  Of course, those hardwired herding behaviors can then be problematic.  You can end up with a dog that wants to arc or circle instead of going straight out on a go out or retrieve.  That arc is built in for circling the herd or flock.  But we don’t want it in obedience.  You can get a dog that wants to nip at your legs to make you move faster in agility.  Again, that is hard wired to keep the livestock moving.  But clearly we don’t want that either.  So we get the drive to work, but we get some of the deeply ingrained behavior patterns that we might not want as well.

Some dogs, on the other hand, do not seem to have the drive to do much at all.  They are typically more easy going and laid back.  They seem to have missed whatever hardwired behaviors their breed should have.  Or they may be a breed or type that is simply meant to be a companion animal.  They make good pets, which is incredibly important.  They don’t come with too much hard wired baggage, so they are relatively easy to manage.  But they also don’t have a lot of  energy to put into dog sports and activities, especially when those activities are not highly rewarding or engaging.  Their baseline state is low energy.  Trying to make a dog that has this genetic inheritance into a high-level performance dog is going to be very challenging.  It can be done, to a point.  But it will require a great understanding and skillful use of reinforcement to build the “want to” into the dog and the enjoyment into the activity.  Often, this is the nice family pet that someone decides to try out on their first attempt at a dog sport.  An inexperienced trainer and a dog without much drive don’t seem likely to have a lot of performance potential.  They have a hard road ahead.  If they get the right instructor they may find success.  But the wrong instructor can make both dog and owner miserable, and often turn the owner off to the idea of dog sports.  The problem is a lack of innate motivation and desire to seek activity.  If a punishing or aversive approach is used to try to coerce the dog to perform then the desire decreases even further.  If a trainer has only ever worked with highly driven dogs, then he or she may struggle greatly when trying to work with dogs without that drive.

The less internally motivated dog requires a very sophisticated understanding of how to use reinforcers appropriately.  Reinforcement is a far cry from “throw cookies at the dog” though I must admit that “tossing cookies” is very common in my training of puppies and young dogs.  But it is used with a clear understanding of what I want to accomplish and how I will fade out those external rewards as training progresses.   My Papillon, Copper, was a serious little soul.  He was bred to be a lap dog, and excelled at that.  Many Papillons have a very strong desire for activity, but not Copper.  I learned from  him that “if it ain’t fun, it ain’t done”.  Coercion, or even a hint of negativity, led to a shut down.  Copper was so sensitive that he would leave me and go jump in someone’s lap if he felt the least bit of pressure!  Once when we were working on weave poles in the back yard (his least favorite obstacle which was entirely my fault) he want to the furthest corner of the yard and sat with his back to me.

Copper 05 Nationals jump

Talk about clear communication!  Luckily for both of us, I listened to him and respected what he was telling me.  I found a variety of ways to pair fun stuff with obedience and agility.  We worked on rituals at the show site that made him feel secure and comfortable so that he could work his best.  I was careful to  only ask as much of him as he was capable of giving.  I worked hard to build his confidence and enjoyment.  And it worked.  He worked his little heart out for me and earned a MACH and a UD within 2 weeks of each other.  And I allowed him to retire early to live the lap dog life he truly loved.  Training this type of dog can never be accomplished with stress, pressure or force.  You have to truly understand the dog and break down your goals into tiny little pieces so you can build success on success.  This is how you add balance to a low drive dog, by strengthening his weak areas, building his confidence, and helping him achieve realistic goals.

Dogs with high drive present their own set of challenges.  Since they are eager, often desperate for something to do, they seem like ideal candidates for performance work and dog sports.  They are, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy.  Zen my Border Collie, desperately wants to work.  He will do anything, anytime, anywhere. He never gets tired and he never wants to quit.  Sounds perfect, right?  Not always.  Zen is a whole handful of dog!  He throws himself into activities 10,000%.  But he doesn’t always think before he acts.  In fact, he usually acts first, thinks later.  He’s having a fantastic time, but he may not be doing exactly what I want.  His goal is to do it harder, faster, more.  Subtlety and finesse are not in his vocabulary (if dogs had vocabulary!)  So how to put balance into Zen’s life?  Do I want to diminish his drive?  Absolutely not!  I love his joy for activity and his unbridled enthusiasm.  But I do want to add more control and thoughtfulness to his work.  I want to channel his desire to work in appropriate ways.

Picture 6122 A

A dog like Zen would likely withstand quite a bit of force or pressure and still keep working.  Since working is reinforcing in itself, it’s unlikely I would be able to kill his drive with aversives.  Even so, I still don’t want to train that way.  Zen is a totally different challenge than Copper, but one I still approach with primarily positive techniques.  Just because I could “get away” with aversives in training Zen doesn’t mean that I want to.  My pride in my training is based on doing it without force, undue stress, or pressure.  So achieving goals with aversives holds no allure for me at all.  It would be a very hollow victory.  Zen challenges me to be smarter.  And it is hard, maybe impossible, to be smarter than a Border Collie!  He challenges me to think of new ways to add control and precision to his work.  And I’m up for that challenge :-}


Zen adds his own unique style and flair to everything he does!

So the mythical ideal dog would be a balance between Copper and Zen.  He would be thoughtful and sensitive, yet driven and enthusiastic.  What is the likelihood I will ever get that package genetically?  Probably pretty low.  A few people I know have gotten that gift.  The perfect dog falls into their laps.  But most dogs fall to once side of the scale or the other.  They are easy to control but lack drive; or they have tons of drive but lack control.  They make us work if we want to participate in dog sports and activities with them.  But that work is what makes us better trainers.  An easy perfect dogs sounds nice, but where’s the challenge in that?  We likely all know someone that stumbled into a great dog even though they’re not much of a trainer.  Do we respect that person’s abilities?  Not really.  We are astounded by the raw talent and potential of the dog.

So maybe we shouldn’t wish for or hope for the perfect dog.  Maybe we should work on balancing the dog that is right in front of us right now.