Are You Playing it Safe?

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Dog trainer, Meagan Karnes plays tug with a Malinois outside as a drive building exercise.
Photo credit @Tamandra Michaels of Heart Dog Studios

If you’ve seen any of my videos or been in my courses, you know I like my dogs to be a bit pushy. I like a lot of drive and energy.

In fact, with my newest lab puppy, who lacks the drive of…oh, I don’t know…my Malinois, we’ve spent an inordinate amount of time building drive, motivation, and energy.

Here’s how it goes down.

When I’m with my dogs – even the lab puppy, they PUSH me to train.

Some will bark or jump up.

Some will cut me off when I’m walking and literally beg to do…something.

All are pushy in their demands.

And that’s exactly how I like it.

I want my dogs to be very ACTIVE and ENERGETIC in their engagement.

I love it that they beg me to just…do…something…already.

And I like a lot of drive and energy that I can then funnel into my work.

But here’s the truth about that…

I use that active engagement and drive for a very specific purpose.

I use it for training and teaching my dog to work in a dynamic, high energy way for dog sports.

I do not use it to teach my dog life skills that will magically translate to lazing about at the corner cafe.

In fact, if my dog thought that our drivey, sport style engagement was appropriate for a day about town, and they offered those behaviors, I’d be in serious trouble.

I could just envision Shank barking in my face…

Or Cuvee cutting me off and walking backward as we moved through town…

Or puppy Never leaping wildly through the air…

And this is where a lot of people go wrong with the concepts of drive building and active engagement.

A LOT of people see this and think…

“Those dogs are so focused…I need more ENGAGEMENT like that.”

They’ll say…

“My dog is reactive, but if I trained like that, they wouldn’t be.”

Or “My dog won’t take rewards on walks, but if I spent time building DRIVE, those rewards will be more effective…”

Or “my dog is fearful, but if I increased their engagement, our problems would be solved.”

Or in the sport world, “my dog is leaky, frantic and unclear. But hers aren’t…so I need to do what she’s doing!”

They equate active engagement and drive with more focus. And they think that if they build drive, they could more readily use rewards on their walks or in their training.

And this ends up getting many dogs and owners in trouble.

Here’s the story.

Malinois on leash barks on leash during training.
Photo credit @Tamandra Michaels of Heart Dog Studios

If you build drive and energy, you need to give it some place to go. 

As a science nerd, I’ll quote the Law of Conservation of Energy here, which says “Energy cannot be created, nor destroyed; rather, it can only be transferred from one form to another.” (I don’t think they meant it for a discussion on dog training…but hey, it works!)

And let me tell ya, if you spend time building drive and energy and you don’t give it a place to go and instead opt to laze about at the local park, you’re going to get yourself in a world of trouble.

Yet these terms “engagement” and “drive” continue to captivate dog owner after dog owner. They continue to enroll in classes, or they watch some youtube videos of sport dogs practicing flashy and precise obedience, and they begin the process of drive building.

They build drive for toys…

They increase motivation…

The use frustration to build excitement and energy…

They teach their dog to be active and pushy…

And then they lose momentum when they find their problems aren’t getting better, but are instead, getting worse.

Because they never needed to make their rewards more exciting…

Instead, they needed to decrease their dog’s excitement, stress, or anxiety so the dog would take rewards.

If your dog is out for a walk and unwilling to take rewards when another dog passes (but will take them at home, and on walks where there aren’t a ton of distractions) it’s typically not that those rewards need more value – it’s that your dog is too captivated or stressed in the presence of the other dog. So rather than building excitement for rewards, work to decrease the stress of the environment.

Truth is, if you are facing a problem other than a dog that needs MORE motivation and energy in training, you need to fix the problem…not amp your dog up with energy and drive in hopes you can win their focus.

If you want your dog to relax calmly at the cafe, train for that goal and that context.

If you want your dog to just chill out…

Or you want to lessen anxiety…

Or you want your dog to walk calmly on lead, not in a formal heel, but simply opting to be at your side for a long leisurely stroll, active, sport-style engagement isn’t what you want.

Here’s what you should know…

You should not build drive, energy or motivation if…

  • You have a leaky dog…a dog that vocalizes or can’t seem to focus because they are too excited when they anticipate a reward. You’ll make things worse. Instead, spend time teaching them to contain themselves.
  • You have a dog that redirects (tries to snap at you) when things get exciting or stressful. You’ll end up getting hurt. Instead, spend time teaching them to better manage their stress.
  • You have a reactive dog…You don’t need more energy. You need less. Instead, teach them how to relax. 
  • You have a dog whose brain melts at the sight of a reward. (I don’t need to build drive in my lab for food…she’s got plenty already).
  • And most importantly, if you have a dog with any sort of aggression, don’t build drive or teach active engagement designed for dog sports. Find a professional to help you.
Dog trainer, Meagan Karnes leads Malinois on leash while dog holds Bitework sleeve in mouth.
Photo credit @Tamandra Michaels of Heart Dog Studios

I say it often in my courses, and I’ll continue to say it here.

Before teaching your dog anything, you need to get clear on your end goals.

Do you want to chill your dog out? Or do you want to build energy and motivation?

Listen, I’m not going to cue active sport style engagement when I’m out for a hike with my dogs…

Or when I’m taking a long, leisurely walk…

Or when I’m visiting friends or going on some other dog adventure.

Because I don’t want my dog being pushy, active, energetic and drivey in those contexts. It doesn’t make sense.

I don’t want my dog pulsing with energy, gazing up at my face and holding a perfect heel on an hour-long walk.

I want my dog to just chill out and be a dog.

So that’s what I need to train for.

Engagement and drive building isn’t a magic solution. It won’t solve all of your problems and in some instances, it can make matters worse.

So before doing any sport style active engagement or drive work, make sure it’s going to help you reach your end goal. Because if your goal is anything other than building drive and energy to train, your hard work might be doing more harm than good.

(Note: You can still teach and reinforce engagement if your dog is stressed or reactive – just don’t add the drive, energy or excitement that we tend to like in drive sports and be mindful of how your environment impacts your dog. Help your dog remain thoughtful to reach your goals.) 


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.

    1 Response to "Training Goals: Is your engagement and drive work really helping?"

    • Mary Kay

      Great article for me and my mal

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