I would be remiss if I didn’t start this article by giving credit where credit is due. Everything I talk about in this article, I learned from Dr. Stephen A. Mackenzie, either through discussion with him or having read about it in his book Decoys and Aggression 2nd edition, which is available through Amazon. I highly recommend reading this book. Dr. Mackenzie is a professor of animal science and a North American Police Work Dog Association, Master Trainer. I believe that anyone with his credentials is worthy of my attention.
It didn’t take me long to realize that this is a very controversial topic. Any time somebody offers a differing opinion, other than what has been accepted for decades, there is bound to be some uproar over it.
Each time I have attempted to discuss this topic with handlers or trainers, they look at me like I have three heads and quickly change the topic. I had the same reaction when I first began discussing this with Doc, but I also had an open mind and realized that I was speaking with not only a veteran, well respected dog trainer, but also someone that holds a PhD in animal behavior. With that in mind, I must warn you that I will attempt to explain this topic in layman terms and the way which I understand it. I can, in no way, explain it in the depth and clarity that Dr. Mackenzie can.
The definition of “drive” within a dog is “a dog’s natural reaction to a stimulus”. That’s a pretty good definition of the word. So, let’s apply that definition to a human being’s reaction to a stimulus. Let’s say that I walk up to you, the reader, and tell you something like, “I’m going to punch you in the face.” How do you react to that? This is a fight or flight scenario. You have a limited number of choices of how to react to that statement. You can run (flight), punch me (fight), or a third option is for you to try to talk me out of fighting. Any of the three could be defined as your “drive” in that instance. The term “drive” is an attempt to define an observable behavior. But, what causes that behavior? Is there something going on within you, the reader, which influences your reaction to my statement?
Now, let’s apply that same scenario to a dog. If I present a physical challenge to a dog, like a decoy would, the dog also has a limited number of choices as to how to react to my challenge. The dog basically has the same choices that you, the reader, has. The dog can either choose to fight me, run away, or bite me out of fear or defense, which is completely different than what we have come to know as “fight drive.” Although dogs can’t talk, the dog in this case could also tell me he doesn’t want to fight by using certain body language, which is also covered in Doc’s book. Those are the possible observable behaviors in this scenario. But, what is causing those behaviors?We, as humans, readily accept, for the most part, the explanations of a psychiatrist and other mental health professionals, when they give very technical explanations as to why humans behave the way they do given certain circumstances. They will talk about things like genetics, chemistry, early childhood experiences, and how/what that human learned in life. We listen and say, “Ah, that makes perfect sense." If a psychiatrist were to explain a human behavior, no matter what that behavior may be, by simply saying something like, “Bob was just driven to punch Larry” we would ask, “What does that mean? What “drove” Bob to punch Larry?”. We would want to know what was going on in Bob’s mind.What was Bob thinking? What was going on inside of Bob chemically? What early experiences did Bob have in life that may have caused him to think hitting Larry was acceptable? What adult experiences did Bob have that may have taught him such behavior was acceptable? We wouldn’t accept the over simplified explanation that Bob was just “driven” to punch Larry. Why do we accept it for dog behavior?Well, guess what? A dog is not unlike a human when it comes to reacting to stimulus. If I present myself as a physical challenge to a dog and he chooses to fight me, most handlers and trainers would say that is “fight drive.” In the accepted dog training world, they would be correct. But, what would they say if we asked them to explain what causes that “fight drive”? Is there some mysterious force pushing the dog into fighting me? Or is there a more scientific explanation for what is happening within the dog’s mind and body when presented with a physical challenge? Do dogs possess “drives” or do they present observable behaviors? What causes “drives”? Is it a mysterious force pushing the dog into something? Or is it a much more explainable behavior?In the example given throughout this article, I am presenting myself as a physical challenge to a dog, which is an example of aggression.
“Aggression, like many other behaviors, is affected by four major factors: genetics, chemistry, early experience, and adult learning.” (Mackenzie, 47). For handlers and trainers to explain a behavior by simply calling it a “drive” is inadequate. If you’re still reading, I applaud you for having an open mind. You have come to the same understanding that I have, which is that I don’t know everything there is to know about dogs and their training and I never will. I have accepted the fact that there are much smarter people out there than me and they know things that I don’t. When I come across such a person, I want to know what they know. Again, when somebody with more knowledge and experience than I have, that is willing to share with me, begins speaking, I will choose to listen. This is the point when I will reiterate that I fall well short of an adequate explanation of this topic.
I highly recommend that you read Decoys and Aggression 2nd edition. (No, I am not getting a cut of sales).
So, let’s pretend, at least for a moment, that there is much more to a dog’s reaction to stimulus than just it’s “drive”. A dog’s behavior or reaction is based upon four things. The first is genetics. We, as handlers and trainers, have really nothing to do with the genetics of our dogs other than the selection process. That really isn’t anything to do with genetics itself. We are simply “testing” dogs in an attempt to find one with the proper genetics to be a working dog. So, the best thing we can do is to find a breeder/vendor that understands what we are looking for and that we can trust to provide us with that. We must also develop a solid testing process that will eliminate genetically weak dogs from the possibility of them becoming a part of our training group/LE agencies. We simply test dogs and look for the dogs that displayed the strongest behaviors we are looking for.
The second thing that dictates a dog’s behavior is chemistry. Again, read the book because I certainly am not a chemist and will do a poor job explaining this. However, I do have a very rudimentary grasp on the concept, which I gained through reading the book and speaking with Doc. So, here goes my attempt at explanation. Like humans, dogs experience a dopamine dump when undergoing something that is pleasurable. They will repeat whatever behavior they think led to that pleasurable experience. Adult learning also plays a role in this component of aggression, which is what we are talking about in this article, for the most part.
An example is a working dog that must be neutered. If the dog has been rewarded in the past for showing aggressive behavior, neutering him will not make that aggression disappear.
He has experienced pleasurable chemical reactions, has been rewarded for the behavior, and will repeat that behavior in the future even after having been neutered. Again, we have basically nothing to do with the chemical reactions within a dog.
Early experience is the next thing that affects a dog’s behavior. Have you ever had somebody in the public come up to you and say something like, “I have a German Shepherd at home, but it would never bite anyone. Why is that?” Well, that particular animal may not have the genetics necessary to peak it’s curiosity enough so that it will try new things, in this case, biting a human. Another case maybe that the dog was never taught that it was OK to bite a human. As a matter of fact, early in life, they were probably punished for doing so. So much of what we do is simply operant conditioning. We reward a desirable behavior with a pleasurable experience for the dog and we punish bad behavior with a negative experience for the dog. Early in a puppy’s life, from the age of about four weeks to twelve weeks, is known as the socialization period. It is during this important period that we, as trainers, seek to imprint a puppy with the behaviors we desire in them as adult dogs. We expose them to new experiences that they will deal with as adults. We teach them that it is acceptable to bite humans under certain conditions. We expose them to new environments. We socialize them with other people.
We should have the younger dogs watch older, more experienced dogs work, especially in bite work. We do everything we can to expose the dog to new things. We mold and teach them what we want them to learn. We reward good behavior and we correct unwanted behaviors. There are also all kinds of things chemically going on within the dog. But again, I’m no chemist or animal behaviorist, so read the book.
The last component that affects behavior is adult learning. I will quote directly from Mackenzie here (52-53). “…when genetics encourage the dog to exhibit a certain behavior and that behavior feels normal due to proper imprinting and socialization, the last factor to contribute is the chemical change, if any, that occurs in the brain.
When the behavior results in the neurotransmitter dopamine being released into the part of the brain known as the mesolimbic reward pathway, it creates such a pleasant feeling that the dog feels rewarded and becomes motivated to repeat whatever behavior he thinks leads to that feeling. If, on the other hand, the situation results in a release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine into the part of the brain known as the “punishment circuit,” such an unpleasant feeling arises that the dog feels punished and will often try to avoid whatever he thinks led to that sensation. This will often stimulate what is known as the behavior inhibition system, which decreases the occurrence of behaviors that are undesirable in certain situations. This system enables the dog to conform productively to things such as the rules of the pack. …”If you do not start with a dog that has the correct genotype to show aggressive behaviors, you are at a severe disadvantage and should search for a dog with a better genotype. “
So, as you can see, we are a huge influence in the development of our dog’s behaviors. We start with an adequate testing and selecting process wherein we observe candidates in a variety of settings and conditions. It is up to us to have the knowledge necessary to interpret the behaviors of the dog in those given environments and conditions. We then select the dogs that are displaying proper behaviors which were formed through good genetics and chemical make-up for the type of work we are selecting them for. Those solid genetics and chemical make-ups are brought out, first in early experience, which we may not have had anything to do with, and adult learning, which we will have everything to do with. The fact that we don’t have anything to do with the genetics and chemical make-up of the dog, is why it is important to select a breeder with a good reputation for producing the types of dogs that are fit for our type of work.
Again, we may not have
that socialization period between four and twelve weeks of age, which is why it is important to develop a solid relationship with good vendors and trainers that have a reputation of understanding the importance of early experience and that know how to properly develop a dog for our type of work. Again, we will have everything to do with adult learning. We must understand that everything we do with our dogs is an act in training. We have to understand that desirable behaviors must be properly rewarded and that undesirable behaviors must be fairly punished (a topic for a future discussion, perhaps). If the dog has the proper genetics, chemistry, and early experience, we will be off to a good start for a successful working career.
There is much more to a dog’s reaction to stimulus than just it’s “drive”. It is not simply a matter of verbiage. It is a matter of understanding that behavior, no matter what that behavior may be, is not made up of some mysterious force that is making the dog behave a certain way. It is a matter of understanding that behavior goes much deeper that just “drive.” The behaviors we are able to observe are made up of many different factors that come together in something we can see and explain. Don’t accept an oversimplified explanation. You owe it to the dog, yourself, and your program to delve deeper into the issue and understand what you are seeing. Every day is a good day to learn and a good day to train! God bless!