A dog is a dog is a dog? Yes--within limits

Canine character test indicates dog's pack and defense attitudes

The Martins brought home the cutest German Shepherd puppy several months ago, and the children named her Cheyenne--just like their old shepherd who died last winter.

Cheyenne grew as shepherds do, and before long she weighed 50 pounds and was a handful at the end of a leash. And she stole food, off the counters, off the table, even out of the children's hands. This Cheyenne was nothing like the other Cheyenne. This Cheyenne chased the neighbor's cat, shredded the children's socks and underwear, and liked nothing better than a romp through the neighborhood with Mom and kids chasing behind, calling frantically for her to come back. The Martins were baffled--they bought a second German Shepherd because they liked the personality of the first, but they didn't know that within breeds, individual characters can vary widely.

During the last decade or so, dozens of books have been written and hundreds, maybe thousands, of seminars have been offered that focus on understanding learning style or working style as critical to getting the most out of a student, a subordinate, a colleague, or a spouse. In the last few years, dog trainers have incorporated the same principles into training programs. First, they determine the learning style of the dog based on his personality or drives; then they tailor a training program to fit that style.

The technique of recognizing dog drives--the inborn attitudes towards the stresses of life--is an old one, but until 1991 when Wendy Volhard put it down on paper, the knowledge was passed on from trainer to protege. A founder with husband Jack Volhard of the so-called motivational method of training, Wendy Volhard attended a Schutzhund seminar taught by German trainer Jorg Silkenath. She became intrigued with the concept of drives and did further research before writing a series of articles for Off-Lead Magazine.

The concept is simple--dogs have different personalities and therefore different learning styles, and techniques that work with one may not work with another. Thus some dogs obey with almost whispered commands, and others need firm words and stern expressions. Some dogs panic at quick movements and others stand their ground. Some dogs need wide space and others are not happy unless leaning against the master's leg.

Drives defined

The four drives outlined by Volhard include prey, pack, fight, and flight reactions.

The prey drive includes those behaviors that highlight hunting and foraging behaviors. Dogs that hunt and kill their toys (or objects of clothing, pillows, etc.), chase anything that moves, steal food, stalk the cat, and pounce on toys or other animals are probably high in prey drive.

The Pack drive involves a dog's affinity for humans or other dogs. A dog with a high pack drive cannot get enough of people; he barks or cries when left alone, solicits play and petting, likes to touch, enjoys grooming, and loves the sound of his master's voice.

The Fight drive is defensive and indicates a dog's self-confidence in stressful situations. A dog with a strong fight-defense drive stands his ground, walks high on his toes, guards his territory and his family, may guard his toys and food, tolerates petting and grooming but does not really enjoy these activities, enjoys tug-of-war, and seems ready to fight.

The Flight drive is also a defense drive and indicates a dog's lack of self-confidence. A dog with high flight drive is unsure in new situations and may hide behind his person, is stressed when separated from his person, crawls on his belly or urinates when reprimanded, and may bite when cornered.

What they mean:

A dog with a strong fight drive may be described as dominant; a dog with a strong flight drive is often described as submissive and can become a fear-biter if not trained appropriately.

Although each breed exhibits a general character, individuals in each breed can vary. Akitas, Rottweilers, Dobermans, and German Shepherds are guard breeds and are expected to be high in both prey and fight drives and moderate or low in pack and flight drives, some individuals in these breeds have a high pack drive or a high flight drive. Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Standard Poodles, and other companion breeds are expected to be high in pack drive and moderate in prey and fight drives, but some individuals may have a high defense drive and become either aggressive or excessively fearful. Problems can arise when a breed is chosen for its general drives but the individual dog differs from the prevailing character of the breed.

To determine the strength of these drives in an individual dog, Volhard devised a simple 12-question test for each. Each question is answered by "yes" or "no"; the number of "yes" answers detemines the depth of the drive in the dog's personality.

Training tips

All dogs should be taught the meaning of each command and should be given the benefit of the doubt until the owner is certain that the command is understood. Once the dog understands, corrections can be used for mistakes, beginning with guidance back into position then progressing to voice correction in a soft tone, then a harsher tone, then a leash or collar correction. Dogs that are high in flight drive should not be corrected harshly; even a loud tone of voice is too much. Dogs that are high in fight drive can be handled more firmly, with a deeper, more forceful tone of voice.

However, the least amount of correction is always best.

Rambo is high in prey and pack drives and continuously pulls on the leash during a walk. He constantly sniffs, marks with urine, and is ready to chase cats, squirrels, or kids on bicycles. So Bob Jones teaches his pet to watch his every move by combining the "sneak-away" attention-getter and a new focus for Rambo's prey instinct. Jones carries a strip of liver (see recipe) or a squeaky toy in his pocket during the walks and gives Rambo plenty of leash for wandering. Then, when the dog's nose is to the ground, Jones turns to the right and walks briskly away. His momentum forces Rambo to follow, and when the dog gets close, Jones rewards him by giving him a bit of the liver or tossing the toy for him to catch.

Sunny is high in pack and flight drives, so Susan Smith knows that her pet is likely to hide behind her and even urinate submissively in new situations. On their walks, Smith also carries a strip of liver, which she asks strangers to offer the dog.

The Volhard method of training is based on motivating the dog to perform, not on punishing the dog for making a mistake. The Volhards have written several books about training that are available at local bookstores and also tour the country offering their seminar. If you're interested in attending contact a local dog obedience club for more information.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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