Children and the High Drive Dog

Note: This article was previously published at It has been revised for publication here.

I recently received an email from a colleague out of state, in a quandary over a client who was looking at euthanizing their one-year-old Border collie due to incidents of nipping. They currently have four children, and the dog is nervous, and has nipped people on several occasions. From my understanding, based on the email thread that we exchanged, the dog has not caused any serious damage, and all bites where on a Level 2 of Ian Dunbar’s Dog Bite Scale. This means that the dog has caused minor scratches or cuts not requiring medical attention.

More recently, I received yet another such email from another rescue colleague who had to take a 6-month-old pup back from her adoptive home because the training that she had done with her when she was being fostered did not transfer to the reasonably experienced dog-owning family who was not quite ready for a high-energy puppy.

Concurrently, as many of you know, I recently adopted a now fourteen-month-old Border collie pup, whom I’ve been training along with my three-year-old daughter.

Tesla on the day we met her

The pup we adopted, Tesla, was at the Marin Humane Society, and had a note on her chart that stated she was recommended for households with children of at least 10+ years of age. As I mention above, we have a three-year-old, and yet we convinced them to allow us to adopt her due to my training experience.

The first week was a challenge as I, and anyone else who knows herding dogs, would have predicted:

    • Tesla jumped up on Shelby, and Shelby – to my proud surprise – turned away from her each time! Within a week, she stopped jumping up on her almost completely, with just one exception when Shelby was upset about something (unrelated to Tesla) and Tes saw her crying.
    • Tesla also exhibited herding behaviors, which included nipping at Shelby’s clothing and legs whenever she ran. I re-emphasized the rule: “No running when you are with the pup”, and between that rule, very close supervision, and several well-executed time outs, Tesla is no longer nipping at Shelby!! In fact, Shelby is now able to run around the yard with Tesla without incident – needless to say, they remain closely supervised.

I keep thinking back to the dogs that my colleagues have emailed about. I don’t have further information as to their dispositions, but my instinct is that these were just the wrong placements, and that perhaps, with more experienced high drive dog owners, the dogs could potentially thrive.

Recently, Kelly Gorman Dunbar wrote a fabulous article for Bay Woof magazine about how to choose your ideal dog. If you already have a high-energy dog and are experiencing challenges, contact a qualified trainer for assistance. But if you haven’t yet chosen your next pooch, please carefully consider your choice! If you do not have the hours each day that it takes to mentally and physically wear out a high energy Border collie, cattle dog or Australian shepherd, consider a quieter breed instead. Many calmer dogs can still make nice sports dogs while not requiring that your life revolve around them.

Tesla graduates from *yet another* training class

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to Tesla puppy before she finds something naughty to do…

Living with the High Drive Puppy … An update on Tesla

Just less than 14 years ago, I got my first high drive puppy, the Border Collie who came to be my second Heart Dog, Claire. She was spunky, happy, sensitive, and learned faster and better than any dog I’d ever had before her. She was also more work than any dog I’d ever had to that point. After all was said and done, with lots of very challenging, albeit fun work, she became the best working dog I’ve ever had. Out in public, I considered her to be a poor example of the Border Collie breed, because her training and amazing focus on me made it appear that she was easy to live with, and ideal for anyone wanting a well-behaved dog. Whenever I took her to work, my non-dog-savvy co-workers would say that they wanted a dog just like her. My reply: “Really? You want a dog that you have to get up for at 5:00 in the morning to take herding before work just so she doesn’t get destructive or problematic during the day?”

Claire moving the sheep

Fast forward 13+ years to Tesla, whom many of you met several weeks ago here in the HDDog Blog. While I will never expect her to get into my heart the way Claire has, I have to say that she’s turning out to be a wonderful working dog. Nevertheless, she is taking an enormous amount of my time and energy just to keep her out of trouble, her particular brand of which includes digging up the vegetable garden, trying to tear up furniture, and getting into our daughter’s toys. While I hope that she, too, will eventually be a “poor example” of the Border Collie personality, for now, it’s quite a challenge just to keep her sane and manageable.

Stick ’em up, Tesla!

Since adopting her just over three months ago, she has been enrolled in the following training courses:

So, in just under four months, she has completed 4 six-week training courses, and is currently enrolled in 3 more. Her typical work week looks something like this:

  • Monday – Agility training one-on-one practice
  • Tuesday – Agility basics class
  • Wednesday – Obedience for Dog Sports class
  • Thursday – Intermediate Training class
  • Friday – Flyball box turn training
  • Saturday – Flyball training with club in morning; Flyball or other training class in afternoon
  • Sunday – Day “off” to play in the yard with kid and our other dogs

In addition to the structured classes listed here, I spend time daily with her working on desensitization to running things (people, dogs, bikes) at which she likes to bark, puzzle toys for her meals, or between meals to work her brain, and numerous short training sessions to work on her many tricks including

  • Stick ‘em up
  • Bang! (lay down and play dead)
  • Spin and Twirl (both directions)
  • Roll over
  • Heel / Side
  • Tada (take a bow)
  • Look left (will add “look right” when this is solid)
  • Touch nose to the stick (flyball training exercise)
  • Touch nose to the target (agility training exercise)
  • Go around the post (agility training exercise)
  • Retrieve the toy
  • Retrieve the ball to the tug (flyball training exercise)
  • Turn on a wall (flyball training exercise)
  • Don’t herd the kid when she runs by (she and the kid have improved SO much!)

Did I mention that I’ve had her for just over three months? When I adopted her, the shelter staff actually told me that they didn’t think she had much drive, and they could not have been more wrong! Although she has what many trainers call an “off” switch, it will not function if she doesn’t get enough mental stimulation throughout the week. As I write this, after a morning play session, 2 puzzle toys, and a short afternoon training session, she is now snoozing in the sunshine on the patio. (The other dogs prefer the shade.) This evening, she will have her Intermediate training class, then most of her dinner in a Kong before bedtime.

I am fortunate to work as a professional dog trainer, so I can take her to work with me (which has allowed 13-year-old Claire to have her well-earned retirement.) I have colleagues who help me with her training, including working her in my classes so that I may be freed up to teach, and others who step up to watch her when I cannot give her the exercise she needs. I shudder to think what may have happened had she ended up in a pet home, and I’m reminded of many a client who has inadvertently ended up with a dog like her, ill-equipped to fulfill her needs and thus ended up with a big problem. And I hope that anyone considering bringing a high-drive dog into their home for the first time will give serious consideration to the time commitment needed to keep them mentally and physically fit.

Train on!!

Meet Tesla!

I have been remiss in writing for a couple of months due to a variety of personal and business challenges. Hopefully, I’ll be able to write more regularly again now that things have settled somewhat and my wonderful hubby has built a better, faster, stronger computer for me. (Cue Six-Million-Dollar Man theme…)
Besides, I now have a new pup to write about!

Tesla - pre-adoption

Tesla – convincing me to take her home.

You read that right! Here’s how it went:

At a flyball tournament hosted at the Marin Humane Society a couple of weekends ago, I show up at camp on Sunday morning, ready to race. As soon as I walked in, all of my teammates began to insist that I needed to go see this adorable, 10-month-old border collie pup in the shelter. Not completely convinced, I walked in with my daughter to look at dogs and… there she was. We locked eyes – what focus! Then, as my 3-year-old approached her window, her ears went back, eyes soft, and she stretched into the most adorable greeting ever. SHE LOVES KIDS!

To be clear, I had been looking for a new dog for quite a while. Been following the whippet lists (among my top choices for a next dog) as well as having feelers out to all of my colleagues at shelters and in rescue. I’d even looked casually at a few dogs that seemed like good prospects. I did not, however, go to the tournament planning to get a dog – or any other pet for that matter.

Other than not being a whippet, this pup fit all of my criteria: smallish size (she’s just 29 lbs at 10 months, so will hopefully stay on the smaller size of border collies); great focus’ short coat; friendly with dogs and people; and she loves kids. Now this last point may seem minor for a sports prospect for someone who specializes in working with children and dogs, but the fact is, actually loving kids the one thing that I really couldn’t teach a dog. I couldn’t teach it to anyone, actually. Either you love kids or you don’t. I could teach a dog to tolerate children, learn to avoid them if they become annoyed, and even condition them to like certain children. But loving children in general would be tough. As they say, you can’t make someone love you, and so I can’t make a dog really love kids.

Needless to say, I’m enjoying the training, and I plan to be chronicling it here periodically. As of today, we’ve had her for 12 days, and she has learned sit, down, stand and hand targeting. We also learned that she has amazing drive in restrained recalls, and on Wednesday I had the opportunity to work on distraction recalls away from a fence that is adjacent to a dog park where several dogs were romping. I was amazed at how well she did! In this video, the other dogs had pretty much stopped to rest, but her recalls away from the playing dogs was almost as good as you see here.

One of the things that I’m enjoying most is the play training. Like most of the dogs that I’ve had, she is actually more motivated to rush to her toy than to a treat, so I was using the tug toy for the recalls with great success. Here’s the process so far, from the beginning:

  1. Sunday, adopt!! Thanks to the Marin Humane Society, who allowed us to have a flyball tournament at their wonderful site in Novato, I came home from the competition with a wonderful and energetic, 10-month-old border collie puppy by the name of Tesla. Although she is possibly a mix, she is everything I’ve been looking for in a new dog, including incredibly attentive and great with my daughter. First night went fine, as I started teaching her that her name is Tesla by calling her and giving her treats repeatedly. She learns quickly!
  2. Wednesday, teach her to tug. I personally love the article on “How to Create a Motivating Toy” by Susan Garrett. I didn’t have to go quite that far with young Tes, since her age makes her playful by nature; simply teasing her a bit with a wiggling tug sufficed. She looked at the toy and pounced on it a few times without biting down, and I marked each time and rewarded with happy play. (She likes to lean into me and get belly scratches.) When she finally clamped down hard on the toy, I tugged ever so gently while smiling and telling her how good she is.
  3. Sunday, restrained recalls. After a few days of tugging practice, she was tugging like a champ, and even growling in that high-pitched play growl that tells me she’s having fun. So, we upped the ante with restrained recalls. I had a friend and flyball teammate hold her while I waved the tug in front of her and then ran away. When I called her name, they let her go and she raced toward me at full speed, then grabbed at the tug. I engaged in a good game with her all the way back to my friend (starting at about 20 feet, then working up to about 50+ feet). By the end, she was running at me at full speed, and I could hear her play growl 10 feet before she reached me.
  4. Wednesday, recalls away from distractions. Today, I took her to the training field that I use, adjacent to a private (members only) dog park. There were 2 large dogs romping around, and they immediately came to the fence to meet Tes. Since I knew from experience that she is fine greeting dogs through the fence (and in person, for that matter) I allowed it. On this first pass, I called her as soon as the other two dogs disengaged from the greeting to go back to their owners, who were calling them from the fence. SUCCESS. On subsequent passes, I called her from higher distractions, at first with the dogs trotting nearby, then working up to them romping hard while I called Tes and ran away from her, waving the tug. I could see that it was not an easy choice for her, but she did come running and engaged in great tug games each time! I ended this session with her wanting to continue to tug, then traded her the tug for a treat as I leashed her, tugged a bit more, then left the park.
  5. Next steps. In the coming weeks, the process will include increased distraction recalls as well as recalls in a wide variety of settings and situations. I learned on Sunday that she was not yet ready for a recall adjacent to a distraction, when she ran past me and the tug to greet a teammate’s dog. We finished off Saturday recalls with her running alone. As we progress, I’ll put a long line on her for safety when we are doing recalls with any type of distraction in an unfenced area. Her reaction to the ground squirrels adjacent to the practice field is still an unknown, so we’ll have to be mindful of that.

Needless to say, I’m super excited about our new girl. She is getting along fine with the rest of the pack so far, though she’s had a couple of barky arguments with the other BC’s over toys. The good news is that she mostly backs down to the older dogs’ rebukes, and responds well to time outs as well. Meanwhile, she is only with them closely supervised and without high value toys.

Keep a lookout for updates on Tesla! I’ll be posting info on her basic training as well as her Flyball and Agility training, which I’m starting simultaneously. Note that, although I won’t be jumping her until she turns one year, there is still a lot that I can work on in both sports with her for the next couple of months.

Chill Out!

Teaching your High Drive Dog to have some impulse control

I recently met with a client with a very high drive dog, whom she is training as a service dog. The large, adolescent dog is pretty much everything that I look for in a sports or working dog: high interest in interacting with humans, great play drive, good energy level and mental alertness, and she appears to have a decent structure. Yet, the owner is completely frustrated. The dog has a hard time focusing on her in the presence of distractions (did I mention the dog is an adolescent?) and does not seem able to relax when she needs to. She appears to be always on edge in public, and this has her owner at wit’s end with her.

Many people get these very high drive dogs with specific purposes in mind such as working jobs or rigorous sports, but then find themselves exasperated when the dogs are unable to settle down. This “settle” is something that I teach my dogs as a matter of course, from the early stages of puppy training, but many people don’t realize that, with high drive dogs, this topic requires more attention than it might for a calmer tempered dog. Following are several exercises that I recommend to my clients to help their dogs learn the much-needed skills of settling down, impulse control, and calming in the midst of high levels of distractions.

Reward Calming Signals This is one of the first orders of business for many of the consults that I do with nervous or anxious dogs, but it can apply to all dogs. (Certainly applies to all of mine!) Calming signals are specific communications by a dog to say that they are stressed out and are trying to calm or settle themselves. (Many are also used to try to convince others around them to calm down.) Among the most common that you may see in these high distraction contexts are the shake off (as if wet, but the dog is dry), the yawn, and the deep breath or sigh. Mark and reward every time the dog offers any of these signals; soon you’ll start to see them more often. Claire Shake-off

Claire “shakes it off”

Settle on cue – On the surface, this appears as nothing more than a physical behavior, but the training goes much farther than that. First, to define the settle position, it is actually a “down” where the dog is lying either on her hips (as opposed to in the upright and ready “sphinx” position), or for some wider-hipped dogs, with the rear legs spread out, frog-style. Note that these are positions that dogs typically take on when they are relaxed and not planning to get up very quickly. Both of these can be lured, shaped, or captured, and then put on cue. Following is how I would lure them.

Hip settle – from a “down” position, lure the dog from the nose toward the hip until they roll their hip out. Mark and reward this position, and eventually give it the “settle” cue.

The active “down”

The hip “settle”

Frog settle – from a “down” position, lure the dog slowly, straight forward from the nose until their legs push out straight back. Note that I will *only* teach this settle with dogs that already have a tendency to lie down in this position.

The frog-style “settle”

In both positions, the “settle” should be taught as a sort of “stay” command, in that the dog is to remain in settle until a release cue is given.

Advanced “Settle” training – Once the dog is readily settling on cue in quiet settings, start practicing amid mild distractions. Ask for a settle, and reward then wait, keeping the dog in settle.  Whenever the dog offers any sort of calming signal – such as a yawn or a deep breath – reward with more treats. If the she flops over onto her side completely (an “extreme settle”) quietly praise and give more treats.

As a variation on this advanced settle training, another great exercise is to go someplace with mild distractions and just stand there. Reward your dog for spontaneously deciding – on her own – to lie down. Do this often enough and your dog will eventually learn that down is where you want her if you are not in motion, and she’ll learn to settle herself, even amid distractions.

“Patience” games – Self control is another major challenge for many high drive dogs. To teach them to have more of it, I recommend lots of work with “Leave it”, “Drop it” and “wait” for food, as well as stays in general. Another patience exercise that I use (ONLY with dogs that show no food guarding related aggression is to hold a treat at a short distance from their snout and ask for a “wait”. If they move even the slightest bit, the treat goes away. If they manage to keep their nose away and sit still, they get the treat. This teaches them that patience pays off, and impatience does not.

Rev it up and then Settle – Once your dog is getting good at the above exercises, you can incorporate play into your settle down exercises. Start this out at low levels before working up to very high drive play. First, play with your dog to get her excited. Then abruptly stop playing as you say “stop”, and drop the toy. (This game works best with tug toys, but can also be practiced with any interactive people+dog toy.) When the dog sits or lies down (I prefer the down), give a treat and quietly praise, then return to the game. Over time, you can also start to wait for a calming signal after the “stop”, before resuming the game.

High drive dogs often need more mental and physical exercise than the average dog, but they also need to learn to calm down. If you keep your dog on a routine of mental and physical training and practice these exercises often, you too could have a high drive dog that actually has an “off” switch!