Malinois Protection Training
Photo Credit @ Tamandra Michaels of Heart Dog Studios

“Drag him back,” the decoy coached.

The dog barked wildly, threatening to take his handler to the ground as he pulled to reach his target.

He wanted to bite. It’s all he could think about. And she struggled to get control.

She did as instructed, pulling the massive dog back to the line, attaching his harness to the bungee, and trying with all of her might to stay standing as the dog pulled hard, his gaze still fixed on the decoy in front of him.

She was getting frustrated. He was stronger than she and it was hard for her to hang on.

She wrestled the dog into some semblance of a down before releasing him to his prize.

With her word (well actually, with the release of her grip – let’s be honest, he wasn’t listening), the dog lunged for the bite, and with a quick movement, the decoy stepped away, effectively making him miss. The dog bounced against the end of the bungee, teeth clacking together as he was pulled back by the line. He tried again, this time with more intensity, his frustration peaking.

Another miss.

One, two, three…eight misses later and the dog was finally rewarded with the bite.

Finally securing his prize, the dog bit down with force, and for 20 seconds, he fought the pressure of his taut back line, locking onto the bite, the decoy working the dog, but never really working the line.

Crazy Malinois Barking
Photo Credit @ Tamandra Michaels of Heart Dog Studios

“I can’t control him,” she pleaded with me a few months later. “He’s so strong.”

He was strong. And his drive was intense.

As she walked him onto the field for our session he was on hyper alert, scanning his surroundings for a toy, or better yet, a decoy. She had lost him before the session had even begun.

Sure he’d play with her. But if she didn’t have a toy in his face, he was searching. Staring at anything that moved. Searching for something better.

She felt defeated. Frustrated even as she tried desperately to win the dog’s focus.

But she couldn’t do it. And it was quickly becoming apparent that she had a long road ahead of her to regain control.

Regardless of how we are using it, frustration, despite its negative connotations, is at the core of building our working dogs. Of making our dogs want the toy or the decoy more.

We see it not only in bite work, but in drive development for those of us who use toys as rewards in our training.

Plainly stated, anytime our dog is held back from something he or she REALLY wants, anytime something is just out of reach (and especially when that something out of reach moves), anytime we let our dog pull hard to get to something, and anytime our dog thinks they are going to lose their prize, we build frustration and as a result, desire and drive.

Reward at the peak of frustration with the decoy, a sleeve or a toy, and you’ve successfully captured that increase in desire, the goal being giving that drive a permanent boost.

But, while drive work is necessary for many working and sport disciplines, the execution, if not done strategically can obliterate both strong dogs and softer dogs alike.

Here’s where too many go wrong:

All too often, the ACTUAL dog being trained is neglected.

As decoys, helpers and handlers work to build drive with dogs day in and day out, the protocol becomes a bit of a routine. Bungee, harness, back pressure, miss. Wash, rinse, repeat. It becomes almost a standard operating procedure.

But believe it or not, all dogs are not created equal. Especially when it comes to drive work.

Check it out…

  • Add too much frustration to a really strong dog, and you might just create a monster that’s tough, if not impossible to control.
  • Use frustration because you swear you can build a dog who has already peaked, and you won’t add drive – you’ll only add frustration.
  • Put too much frustration on a lower drive dog and you run the risk of shutting them down completely.

With stronger dogs, you don’t necessarily have to spend time making them miss, charging them up, or frustrating them to get them to work and work well. Maybe a handful of misses to get the target right but if you have an experienced decoy, you likely don’t need much of that either.

Building too much drive can lead to a struggle for control, many handlers resorting to extreme measures to get their dogs to heed their commands after the drive work is complete. And many dogs are being washed out of programs for being too much for their handlers to manage. But is this the fault of the dog? Bad genetics? Or something more preventable?

Not only are there some dogs that don’t need their drive built, there are others who have had plenty of work, and now it’s time to move on. Their drive is as high as it ever will be, and further frustrating them will only cause problems.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are some dogs that simply can’t tolerate the frustration. While we intend for drive building exercises to increase our dog’s desire, too much frustration can cause some dogs to quit, leaving owners scratching their heads wondering why their dog simply doesn’t want to work.

If you are starting drive work with your dog, here are some questions you should consider.

  1. Do you have control?– Are you struggling to gain control, especially when the decoy is around? If so, spend more time where you need it and cut out the frustration and drive building. Don’t do too much control work early on with young dogs just getting exposed to drive work. But if you feel your dog is getting a little difficult to handle when drive kicks in, it might be time to turn your attention away from your drive work for a while and give that squeaky wheel some oil.
  2. Is your dog checking out? If your dog is checking out during drive work, give them more successes, more wins. Checking out is a clear indication that you’ve taken the frustration too far, and they aren’t ready for it. These guys need to win and they need to win often, so frustrate only for a short time and then let them win the toy or sleeve. You can add frustration slowly and incrementally as the dog has more successes under their belt.
  3. Are you stacking drive-building? It’s rare that a dog needs frustration work every step of the way. But often, we do this in an attempt to “build” our dogs, unknowingly creating problems as we do. Frustrating a dog through agitation, giving them MANY misses, maintaining constant back pressure during the bite, lifting them off, and dragging them back is stacking frustration based building techniques and it’s sending your training in the wrong direction. Regardless of how strong (or not) your dog is, stacking this much frustration into your work will set the stage for problems down the road.
German Shepherd Protection Training
Photo Credit @ Tamandra Michaels of Heart Dog Studios

Listen, the dog in the story didn’t need drive building. And he didn’t need THAT much frustration stacked into a single bite. He was a very high drive, very strong dog. So giving him many misses, using the line for constant back pressure, and working in escapes and then dragging him back set the stage for this dog to go from strong and driven, to completely out of control and unmanageable.

As a result, the handler regularly struggled with control, the dog escalating from frustration barking, to redirecting, and eventually unloading, lashing out at his handler and anyone who got within arms reach when he was in drive.

Prior to this, he was a social butterfly. And while he would have always been more challenging in sport work, he could have had a career. But drive building and excessive frustration in work were quick to change that.

So if you are going to embark on drive building or protection work, do yourself and your dog a favor. Understand your dog. Understand drive building. And make sure you have an honest and open dialogue with your decoy and trainer about your dog’s needs. While your decoy should know more than you on the topic and while I don’t expect you to tell your decoy how to do his or her job, I do think you need to understand drive building enough to call attention to potential problems should they arise.

If you are struggling with control, speak up and ask for help. And if your dog is checking out, take a close look at his or her wins and see if they are frequent enough.

And please, whatever you do, don’t drive build and frustrate very strong dogs who don’t need it. Because doing so creates a perfect storm and a very dangerous situation for all involved.

Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    6 replies to "An Exercise in Frustration – Is your Drive Work Really Helping?"

    • Vicki Barbeau

      Thanks for your article. Now I realize a lot more on bite work. I now have a 7 month old pup that has a lot of drive. I think our helper that comes every month is doing it right. Loose line lots of wins. I have just started in this sport. At 5 mos when I got him he scared me in bite work. I am 67 with a new right shoulder. Question is it okay if I don’t play tug with him ? I let a girl that’s really good play tug with him at the club.

      • Meagan Karnes

        Yes. It’s perfectly fine. Keep your shoulder safe! There are other ways to motivate your dog.

    • Doris Prucha

      I have adopted a 4 year old GSD. If I were to compare her to horses, she would be a draft horse and not a thoroughbred. I am happy that she is relaxed, friendly and obedient (most of the time). I do not know what had happened to her in her first two years. What is interesting though is that she is not used to playing but twice a day, after her meal, she is expecting to play tug.

      I did not realize it first that she was not interested in the toys. She does not play in the backyard…she is all business, nose in the air, patrolling the area. I had never encouraged my previous dogs to play this game because I have cats and I did not want for them to get hurt. Yet, this dog wants to play tug for a few minutes with a large towel in which I had put a knot in the middle. Should I get one of those arm protectors. If so, where can one purchase those? Can I be the handler and the decoy? She only plays this game for a few minutes. I have noticed that she does not want to retrieve it but wants to take it away from me. She has never become too aggressive. When she gets the towel she shakes it so hard that if it were a small animal, its neck would be broken. I gave this game a name. I did not wanted for her to react to “go and get it” which I had said before. I tell her now “go, get the boogie man.” I imagine, if someone would want to hurt me, I would give her this command…? Do you have any suggestions?

    • Debi Ellsworth

      Thanks for all you do. I love your training tips and the knowledge you impart.
      Just started my young Dutchie Dock Diving and the trainer wanted me to get my girl amped to the point that she pulled (really pulled) me up the stairs to the platform. It feels like all the obedience​ we have accomplished just went down the drain. I think keeping the dog reasonable calm keeps their head in it more. My girl was so hype I don’t even think she knew I was with her.
      It felt wrong to me to keep my dog in such a high state of arousal when she is quite happy to “work” whenever she can!

    • Christine

      This is a GREAT article- well written by someone that understands this! To quote you- “As a result, the handler regularly struggled with control, the dog escalating from frustration barking, to redirecting, and eventually unloading, lashing out at his handler and anyone who got within arms reach when he was in drive. ” This is exactly what happened to me. I had no idea that I was even building frustration in my dog until I got a redirect on me. I now know what to look for and have a better understanding of this. Thank you for sharing it!

    • Louis Best

      The last paragraph is bang on!
      I see these dogs in agility as well, whipped into a frenzy and the handler trying to rein in a frenetic dog….I always feel bad for the dog.

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