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Border collie chasing a frisbee in a field

The essentials

  • High drive and high energy aren’t the same things — Dogs with high drive need to focus on a task and complete it, whereas high-energy dogs don’t have a target for their energy and focus.
  • Any dog can have a high drive — While some breeds have a more innate desire to complete a job because they were bred for certain traits, some mixed-breed dogs also demonstrate high drive.
  • More exercise? Think again — When working with your dog, you’ll want to do so at their optimal drive point. Too low and your dog won’t be interested in the task; too high and they won’t be able to focus and will become more frantic.

No matter how much I exercise my dog, they never chill out. My dog always seems stressed. My dog is always getting into trouble. My dog is too smart for their own good.

If any of these statements describe how you feel about your pup, you may have a dog with high drive. So what is a high-drive dog, and how can you work with them to make you both happy? Read on to find out if your dog falls into this category. If they do, we’ve got some tips to help you successfully manage your pup so that you both are satisfied and can build a better relationship than ever.

Is your dog a high-drive dog?

The first step in determining what your dog needs to succeed is determining if your dog has a high drive or is high energy. Though it may seem like the two are the same, they’re very different, and the management techniques that benefit one may be counterproductive for the other. For example, dogs with high energy benefit from lots of exercise, whereas dogs with high drive have trouble ‘turning off,’ and focusing solely on exercise only amps them up more. If you struggle to differentiate between the two, that’s okay and quite common.

It’s also important to note that ‘high drive’ refers to a more generalized intensity or the willingness to put the ‘job’ over everything else, even overcoming pain. The more commonly referred-to drives such as prey drive or food drive refer to a dog who is strongly driven by a particular thing.

A local behavior specialist, veterinary behaviorist, or veterinarian can help you determine which category your dog falls into and how to proceed.

Generally speaking, if your dog is a ‘working breed,’ they’re more likely to fall into the high-drive category. A working breed is a type of dog bred for a specific purpose; even if your dog wasn’t bred for that reason, they’ll still display the traits strategically selected in their ancestors. Some specific breeds known for their high level of drive include

Because these dogs were bred to perform a specific job, if they’re not using those skills in a structured manner, they will find a way to use those skills — and often not in a way you’d like. Now, what if your dog is a mixed breed? Since their genetic makeup includes a variety of breeds, mixed breeds can show some of these tendencies as well.

Once you’ve identified your dog has a high drive, there are some tried and true methods that will help you keep your dog satisfied and out of trouble:

  1. Provide enough exercise
  2. Provide mental stimulation
  3. Give them a specific job
  4. Set clear boundaries through positive reinforcement training
  5. Teach your dog to relax/settle on cue
  6. Seek help from a trainer or veterinary behaviorist if needed

In addition to these, you’ll be most successful if you can find a way to channel your pup and their drive. Lucky for you, there are tons of fun ways to engage your dog’s brain and eagerness to work. If you know your dog is a working breed, the easiest way to start channeling them is through the activities they were bred to do. If you don’t know your dog’s breed, that’s okay too! You can try ALL  these options to see what you and your pup enjoy most!

1. Agility

Agility is a training method you can do anywhere, anytime, and the course can be – simple or in-depth-. You can take your dog to a canine agility gym or set up a course in your backyard. Dogs who need to expend both physical and mental energy tend to benefit from this the most.

The basic premise is that you start by guiding your dog through the obstacle course using something they find reinforcing (treats, toys, or just you). As you and your pup advance, you can eventually have your dog do the course with little guidance from you. Agility is also a sport where you and your pup can take classes and compete.

2. Scentwork

Scentwork is a great option if your dog is physically limited but needs to tire out their brain. It’s also cost-efficient and can be done in any environment. This is also a great method for when you don’t have much time or energy yourself — just hide some treats and let your pup do the work!

Hounds tend to benefit greatly from scentwork since they’re bred to use their noses to find things. But don’t assume it’s all fun and games! If you want to challenge your dog with this, you can work your way up to finding people and even join a search and rescue group.

3. Retrieving

While most retrievers love to retrieve things, other dogs do too! If you’ve gotten bored of playing fetch with a tennis ball for hours, it may be time to step up your game. Does your dog like going in the water? Check out a local dock diving group near you. Is your dog agile and needs to expend extra energy? Playing frisbee with your dog can be a leisurely afternoon pastime or a competitive sport (also known as disc dog), as can flyball.

4. Lures

Does your dog like to chase small animals like squirrels and bunnies? If so, they’d likely benefit from working with lures. Breeds like terriers and dogs with a high prey drive love chasing anything that moves quickly, making lure coursing the perfect outlet. It allows your dog to chase the desired item at mad speed without you having to worry about them catching and potentially killing a small critter.

Don’t feel like joining a lure club? Look into getting yourself a flirt pole — this is essentially a cat wand for dogs, allowing you to tire your dog out quickly without needing to run around yourself. Plus, you can do it in the convenience of your backyard!

5. Field trials

Breeds like pointers, retrievers, and spaniels were bred to hunt; their job was to chase down, flush out, point (see below), and bring the prey back to their handler. These competitions judge dogs on their innate ability to carry out these steps, and dogs competing must be in tip-top physical shape for unmatchable endurance.

A dog standing in pointing position.

Image by: Braque Francais (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Field trials involve shooting live game, like birds and rabbits. While most practices in this field require live or ‘formerly live’ game, some groups have begun to create versions of the sport that allow participation from those who would prefer to leave the actual hunting behind.

6. Herding

Breeds such as collies and cattle dogs have a natural tendency to want to chase things and keep the group together. Dogs with strong herding tendencies but no appropriate outlet may start exhibiting undesirable behaviors, such as nipping at your children’s heels or trying to control your movements. While you can train your dog to herd animals other than goats, this may not be a realistic outlet for your lifestyle. Consider investing in a herding ball if you want to channel these behaviors toward an object rather than a living thing.

7. Obedience training

All dogs, regardless of age, size or breed, can benefit from basic obedience training. From default behaviors like sit or stay to more advanced behaviors such as ‘place’ or ‘watch me’,  positive reinforcement-based training with your pup, will allow you to build out a special language that will allow you and your pup to communicate clearly with each other.

8. Canine Good Citizen (CGC) training

This form of training focuses on the teaching of 10 sets of skills and the test to prove that you and your dog can accurately demonstrate them. The program strives to teach good manners to dogs and responsible dog ownership to pet parents. While many of the skills you’d learn in this program are integrated with basic obedience, the program holds a higher standard and provides an additional challenge by requiring you and your dog to be able to perform the skills well regardless of distance, duration, or distraction.

9. Fun things you can do at home

We would be remiss if we didn’t mention all of the fun (and easy) outlets you can provide for your pup at home with minimal effort on your part. Start by ending the days of feeding out of a dog bowl. Instead, ask your dog ‘work’ for their food by getting their meals through daily training sessions, frozen kongs, or puzzle feeders. You can also work to teach your pup fun tricks like ‘high-five’, ‘play dead’, or ‘bring me a tissue’ — perhaps not the most useful tricks, but they work your dog’s brain and are just plain fun!

Understanding arousal in dogs

Dogs who are high-drive may also struggle with their arousal level, and while the two often work hand in hand, they are very different things.  In her blog, Denise Fenzi of Fenzi Dog Sport Academy explains, “When arousal is connected to a trigger we can control, we call it drive. When arousal is generic to the environment, it starts to look a lot like frantic behavior.”

If you’re working with a high-drive dog, it’s important to understand your dog’s sweet spot in terms of arousal. Increasing your dog’s arousal can improve their performance up to a point, but once you exceed that amount of arousal — their threshold — the performance dips back down.  This can also happen if your dog experiences ‘trigger-stacking . So, how can you tell when your dog is at their optimal state of arousal versus ready to tip into overarousal? Look for these signs:

  • Lack of focus on the handler or task at hand. Your dog may focus more on sniffing that suddenly interesting tree or grooming themselves rather than give you the time of day.
  • Frantic appearance and behaviors. This may include panting, pacing, jumping up,  leash biting, or taking treats roughly.
  • Unable to disengage from the environment. This includes fixation on particular stimuli with or without reactivity and inability to redirect using words, treats, or toys.
  • Inability to learn precise behaviors and/or offer them consistently. Your dog takes multiple tries to offer the behavior you’re asking for and begins to show frustration (barking, whining, mouthing).
  • Inability to perform behaviors with distraction. Your dog may be able to offer and hold a ‘down’ in your house, but in an environment with other stimuli, their mind is anywhere but on you and the cue you gave.

We spend a lot of time in this article talking about high-drive dogs and their experience with arousal, but it’s important to know that ANY dog can experience high arousal. Arousal can be triggered by anything from new or exciting stimuli to frustration or social interaction. It all depends on the dog.

Managing high arousal

Once you’ve identified that your dog is experiencing high arousal, it’s time to figure out how to help them manage it. Working with your dog to manage their arousal will help them to think through their response to different scenarios and help them learn what you’re trying to teach them more quickly. Your approach to three main management categories will impact if your pup feels more connected to you, calms down, and feels a great sense of satisfaction.

  • Exercise isn’t a cure-all. Pair physical exercise with activities that force your pup to slow down and focus: a long walk with lots of sniffs or hiding their food around the kitchen for them to find in between spurts of high activity helps them learn to better self-regulate.
  • They need sleep. Like a young child, dogs can experience being ‘overtired’ and begin bouncing off the walls or become irrationally irritable. This is often due to either a lack of sleep or a lack of quality sleep.
  • Work their brain. Dogs need an opportunity to burn off their brain energy — especially ones that are smart and have high drive. Run through some basic obedience skills or practice their nosework to get that brain going. Just be careful not to overdo it.

Every dog’s drive is different, regardless of breed. Owning a high-drive dog can feel daunting, but with a little patience and work, you have the ability to channel your dog’s brilliance and help them live a fulfilling life. If you’re struggling, it’s okay to look into local certified behavior trainers or a veterinary behaviorist and ask for guidance and support. No training method is one size fits all, and they’ll be able to help you identify your dog’s unique instincts and needs and devise a plan to help you and your dog function as a team.

Frequently asked questions

What is a high-drive dog?

A high-drive dog is a dog that has great motivation to work and intense focus. These dogs require a lot of both physical and mental stimulation in order to be successful.

Do high-drive dogs make good pets for new or inexperienced owners?

High-drive dogs can make good pets for anyone, regardless of experience, as long as the owner is willing to put in the time, effort, and resources to channel their dog’s drive.

What is the highest drive dog breed?

Various dog breeds are categorized as ‘high drive’ from Belgian Malinois to Border collies to Jack Russell terriers. However any breed or mix of breeds can demonstrate high drive.

What is considered a high-drive dog?

Dogs with a strong instinct to herd, retrieve, chase, and hunt down are all high-drive dogs, so long as they choose to perform those behaviors, even when it isn’t easy. These dogs have an innate desire to do a particular job.

Can you fix high prey drive in dogs?

You cannot ‘fix’ high prey drive in dogs, but you can manage it through environmental management techniques and consistent training.