Some Basics on Canine Genetics

In  this article, I am discussing behaviors, not breeds. Breeds don't define the behavioral terms. They display  the behaviors. We have to take what we see the animals display, and  then we define these things in words in accordance to how they are  displayed. Experience provides a means to learning "display"  component. Education provides a means to the "definitions" component. By  building upon both, we are able to expand upon the knowledge acquired by  those that came before us. Combining both education and experience, one  begins obtaining a true understanding...and only after this true  understanding begins to occur is the proper application of true  knowledge possible.


The degree to which a dog displays a  behavior may be influenced by the breed and dog...but never the  less...the terms themselves are unified for all breeds...as they don't  define breeds, but behaviors. 

First, let’s define drive. A drive is a  behavior that is motivated or displayed in order to preserve a species.  Sex drive for example is the desire to engage in intercourse..., which  is obviously necessary to preserve a sexually reproducing species.

What Motivates the Dog?

Prey Drive

The desire to chase, hunt, catch, or kill...for food. This drive can be  harnessed and cross over to "non-food" items. What some people call  "play drive" when a dog chases a ball is actually prey drive even though  the ball is not food. It is the instinctive response to catch (and  typically bite) the object. This drive supplies food, which is obviously  a necessary component of life and therefore prey drive, as do all  drives...preserves the species. The perfect example is the cat and  mouse...or dog and rabbit. Some trainers believe all "forward action" to  chase is motivated by prey drive, but I challenge that way of  thinking...for if that was the case, there would be no basis for a  herbivore to chase another animal any significant distance since  herbivores are do not hunt prey. Prey drive is of great benefit to a dog  trainer because it allows the trainer to use items of reward besides  food, which can speed up a dog's response time to a command. When using  food, one can guide or direct a dog nicely, but food is generally "dead"  and not chased with speed. The toy "prey item" however is "alive" and  requires faster response to chase and catch. A buck in rut chases  another buck during the rut due to altered hormonal profiles in the  blood that increase the willingness to display fight type aggressive behavior, so I personally do not believe all forward action is motivated  by prey drive. It should be noted that prey drive will fail when the "predator" is exhausted and it seems like catching or killing the item  is impossible.

Defense Drive

The natural reaction to defend against a threat, perceived threat, or  challenge...to protect themselves, others, or what they possess. Defense  has many degrees. There are courageous defenders that are forward.  There are fear biters that would opt for flight if given the  chance...leading to the phrase "fight or flight" that often pops up when  discussing defense drives. The perfect example of defense is a coyote  or wolf protecting its den from a bear. If the coyote is courageous  (perhaps motivated in this example by protecting it den with young pups  in it...so it views the need to protect as worth the risk of courage in  this case)...the coyote or wolf may actually pursue the bear until the  bear is a safe distance from the den. If the wolf is not courageous (or  feels the den isn't important...no pups), the wolf may leave...or "cur"  to choose flight...realizing that success may come at too big a cost for  little gain. This behavior is species preserving and is therefore  defined as a drive. Some trainers report that defense cannot be  extinguished, but I also challenge that belief. Behavior sciences have  clearly defined a behavior known as "learned helplessness," in which the  victim of an attack has learned that any resistance to an attack only  leads to further pain. In such situations, the victim goes into a  "opossum like" state of mind to ride out the attack hoping that being  motionless and not trying to run or fight back, but just being passive  will be an effective survival strategy. All drives have limits and can  be exhausted, including defense.

"Fight Drive"

 3. "Fight drive" -  I put "fight drive" in quotes because it is often debated by dog  trainers if true fight drive actually exists. One can at least say with a  high degree of certainty that it certainly is not displayed at any  significant frequency in the natural world, but that really doesn't mean  it doesn't exist at all. Let me explain. Very few people truly  understand what real "fight drive" is. Fight drive is not  self-preserving in a natural world, as wounds caused by fight would lead  to death either by injury or infection in the wild; however,  domesticated animals that have been selected to fight are able to  recover from such due to medical intervention. In the natural world,  fighting an unnecessary battle causes injury, infection, death, and  eventually extinction. Let's remember, the definition of the word  "drive" is a behavior that is motivated to preserve the species.  Therefore, by definition of the term drive, "fight drive" can't be  labeled in the natural world as a "drive" in the sense that fighting  behavior (fighting simply for the sake of fighting) would go against  preservation and species. One may fight for prey, defense, rank, food,  sex, territory, etc...but to fight simply for the sake of fighting  simply would cause injury and extinction in a natural world. HOWEVER, in  an artificial world...a domesticated world...in certain populations  (such as game fighting dogs), if a dog quit then was not permitted to  breed. Only the ones that would win were allowed to breed...and over  time (with the help of using medicine to preserve winning dogs that  would have otherwise died)...the dogs got "gamer" and "gamer" until  "game dogs" began displaying a behavior that would cause their own  extinction if it wasn't for the aid of man and medicine. These dogs were  saved and admired...and bred. So, what was unnatural developed into a  "species preserving behavior in an UNNATURAL and DOMESTICATED  WORLD...hence "artificial selection" creating "an artificial drive"  known as "fight drive."

Rank drive (& Dominant Type Dogs)

Rank drive motivates one to try to obtain dominance. Although rank drive has some  roots to defense, as it is a motivated to "protect" one's position  within a pack and the benefits of status that come along with this  status, rank drive is also different than pure defense drive in that  rank drive also tries to establish higher positions within a pack in  order to improve the benefits of status. This difference may seem  slight, but it is vital. So, although rank drive is similar to defense  drive in some ways, I believe rank drive should be defined totally  separately from defense drive as this is a significant difference that  is clearly visible in real life. Unlike rank drive, pure defense does  not "establish" new domain or dominion. Do not underestimate this  slight difference, as it is an important note when selecting a family  guardian. I have studied and observed two forms of Rank drive.  Intra-species rank and inter-species rank.


  • Intra-species rank drive  is normal rank drive behavior, which is the desire to move UP WITHIN  THE PACK for things like breeding rights, first at food,  etc...(Intra-species rank has nothing to do with humans). It is a desire  to obtain dominance ONLY within the given species and not directed  towards other species. Some degree of intra-species rank is to be  expected among all social animals.
  • Inter-species rank is  when rank drive/dominance crosses the species barrier (and is directed  towards humans)...and is not normal in most animals and even in many  breeds of dogs, but has been selected for in SOME lines of dogs (such as  the GSD, Rottweiler, Malinois, Chow Chow, Sharpea, and others). It is  BASICALLY defined as dominance towards humans or other non-canine  animals...and is often linked to what is known as social aggression.  Although many traditionalists desire a degree of inter-species rank or  social aggression among police and military types of service dogs, it  is my believe that inters-pecies rank drive is unacceptable for a  family companion guardian type of dog, as I find such dogs to be  untrustworthy and often times unstable, especially around children.

There are other drives, such as sex drive, but those have nothing to do with training, so I see no reason to discuss them.

Other Aspects of Animal Behavior...

What is a "cur?"

"Cur" is a descriptive reaction. It describes an animal that  quits as a result of realizing success isn't likely. This is both a  positive and a negative. In the natural world...in nature it promotes  survival...which is good. A natural world a canine shouldn't fight a  losing battle, not if it wants to live and reproduce. For some types of  domesticated dogs though this is not desirable. Fighting dogs,  protection dogs, and even tracking dogs have been selected to not quit  their job...and for these groups a "cur" is not desired. A rank driven dog will often cur when it sees it can't dominate,  therefore a term developed known as "rank cur" came about when a dog  would bluff or start rough, but would rather decisively quit as soon as  it realized it wasn't going to dominate its opponent. This is not the  type of dog you want for PP work, and this is another reason why I don't  like rank driven dogs.

What is a "game dog?"

"Game" is a descriptive term that is often used  to refer to a dog that won't quit and that always sees himself as  winning or succeeding...no matter how bad they get. While  gameness may be enhanced by various drives having high upper thresholds  (lower threshold is not as significant), gameness is about the state of  mind and is not really a drive in of  itself. To a game dog, it does not matter if they are hot, tired,  injured, or on bottom. No matter what is going on physically, a game dog  is mentally comfortable while performing a task.

Courage is a measure of confidence and in some cases overlaps to stability and nerve.

Stability is a measure of "clear headedness." A stable dog  does not flip flop or redirect with inappropriate behaviors regardless  of stress. Although redirecting behaviors are expressed in response to  stress...A stable dog may have strong nerve, but does not require strong  nerve. A weak nerved dog could also be stable by simply shutting down.  To help clarify this unique behavior, let's refer to many game dogs for  examples. It is known many game dogs will not bite a person even in a  heated fight even under stress in that "driven" environment. These dogs  will often remain focused on their opponent regardless of the stress  (not redirecting = stability) yet the same dog may shut down when taken  into a noisy busy shopping area or traffic (expressing stress = weak  nerve). Although nerve and stability are connected, they are not the  same.

Nerve - This is  not a drive. Nerve relates to a behavioral expression of stress. A  strong-nerved dog is a dog that isn't easily stressed. A weak nerved dog  is a dog that is easily stressed.

Threshold  - This is not a drive. If there is any aspect of animal terminology  that is often misunderstood...this would be one such term. A threshold  refers to the amount of stimuli required to elicit a change in behavior.  In other words, a threshold is what is needed to cause a new response  by stimulating it. A clear example would be a stimulus strong enough to  the illicit the "fight" option of defense drive...but not so strong to  cause flight. A threat presents itself and the dog/animal responds by  showing a change in behavior (aggression). Then there are ALSO  thresholds that cap that behavior by again causing a new response. Take  the same example of defense, but now say the heat of the threat gets  turned up and causes the dog/animal to change from the fight option to  the flight response. By ending the fight option and started a new  behavior we capped the fight threshold and just caused the flight  response. And now take it further...and say the dog has ran so long that  it is exhausted and must lay down...this again is a new stimulus  (tired) and therefore caused a new response (laying down/no longer if  flight).


Lee Robinson, M.S. Animal Sci