A Tower of Babel, The Terminology
of Canine Behavior and Training

Jim Engel   Revised Jan 2012


Some of the ancient Greeks explained the world in terms of the "four elements " of earth, water, fire and air.  This was more or less made up “science” in that it represented very little real knowledge of chemistry, physics and biology as we know them today.  As time went on, men such as Newton and Einstein moved us forward to whole new levels of understanding.  But the tentative speculations of the Greeks and other ancient people was not in vain, for it was from these beginnings that our current knowledge evolved.

On a theoretical or abstract level our understanding of human and animal behavior and cognitive functioning is still relatively primitive.  We have very little real idea of how the brain actually functions and our understanding  of the forces shaping human or canine emotion  and social behavior is primitive. In reality, the “science” of psychology is at about the same level as the Greek understanding of chemistry and physics in that  it consists mostly of esoteric words to impress the layman which in reality often mean much less than might be assumed. 

Where the Greeks talked of earth, wind and fire dog trainers talk of abstract drives  and instincts such as prey drive, defensive instinct and fighting drive, as well as other attributes such as trainability, hardness and sharpness.  While these words serve the ordinary purposes of education and discussion, they are surprisingly hard to define and explain precisely in a manner devoid of subtle contradiction. 

Dog training is even today much more art than exact science, and has evolved an elaborate terminology used as often to paper over mystery and confusion as to express concrete knowledge.  But unless one chooses to start over at the beginning and attempt to rediscover the knowledge developed over the many thousands of years of domestication it is necessary to deal with the terminology in order to benefit from the accumulated knowledge.

Serious working dog training discussions, for trial systems such as Schutzhund or the Dutch Police trials, features terms such as “prey drive” and “defensive instinct” which are casually bandied about; used to explain every observation and to substantiate every point of view.  The novice quickly picks up on this and, equipped with a few buzz words, may soon come to think he is ready to enter the discussion on an equal footing with the experienced trainers.  This often has the effect of inhibiting further progress in understanding and in training, as a litany of buzz words takes the place of real knowledge, gained through work and experience.

What, exactly, are prey drive and the defensive instinct or drive ?  The answer, disconcerting as it may be, is the same as the one Alice heard from the Queen of Hearts when she entered wonderland through the rabbit hole.  These words, and most of the terminology of dog training and behavior, mean exactly what the speaker thinks they mean at that moment, which may certainly vary from person to person as well as from moment to moment in the same discussion.  Nevertheless, an appreciation of the commonly used terminology, imperfect as it must be, is a necessary prerequisite to learning about dog behavior and training.

Feeble as our theoretical knowledge of brain function and behavior might be, on a practical level the common man, until the advent of the automobile and tractor a hundred years ago, had to have a working knowledge of animal training and use in order to earn his living and support his family. The stockman, herdsman and farmer, in a world where most men were one or the other, needed to be competent  to breed, select and train his animal partners.  Until a brief century ago our very existence was totally dependant on this practical capability for animal husbandry, this ability to work the horse, oxen and dog.  Thus in a sense those of us struggling to sharpen our dog training skills are simply trying to recover the day by day knowledge of our great grandfathers.  While our “book knowledge” of animal breeding and training may be in many ways have been primitive, practical knowledge was immense, was in fact the legacy of the advent of agriculture some five thousand years ago.

The purpose of this circuitous approach to our main topic of the terminology of canine behavior and training is to put our present state of knowledge in historical context.  Would be scientists and medical experts have always had a strong tendency to create elaborate terminology as a cover for the fact that they are in fundamental ways as confused and uncertain as the rest of us.  By adapting a mildly condescending attitude to the layman and parading the esoteric vocabulary they are often given credit for much more real understanding than they actually have, which is exactly the point.  In a similar way, the arm chair canine experts, equipped with an array of buzz words can create the image of knowledge far beyond their real ability to deal with actual dogs.  The Bouvier world in particular has a set of pretend training experts who prattle on with the esoteric terminology and have hundreds of anecdotal tales designed to impress the novice, but who can never actually walk on the trial field and take a dog to a senior title.

We do know that a human being, and a dog, is born with genetically predetermined behavioral propensities, produced by the evolutionary process to make the actions and reactions necessary for survival a natural behavior pattern.  The fact is that these instincts or drives evolved over millions of years of hunter/gatherer existence and may present training opportunities as well as cause problems in our modern industrial and agricultural society.  The inborn potential for aggressive behavior, in most creatures, and especially pronounced in men and dogs, is a fundamental fact of our lives. 

In order to master dog training, it is fundamental to understand these drives and instincts as well as possible, for the training process consists primarily of harnessing them so as to create the desired response and behavior.

In the beginning it may seem that comparing the canine and the human is a stretch, that the human, with his technical knowledge, ability to speak and read and write, is an entirely different kind of creature  than the dog.  But the commonality is also compelling.  Both the human being and the wolf evolved in small, cooperating social groups to live by hunting and scavenging, often among predators much larger and more powerful than themselves, such as the big cats.  The social dynamics of the wolf pack and the primitive hunger/gather human band have much in common, which is why the human was so easily able to integrate wolves into his social structure and create the dog.  We are able to train our dogs because they have evolved within our social structures for at least ten thousand years, and perhaps much longer.

Our knowledge of the psychology of dogs is as or more primitive than that of human beings.  Over the past ten to thirty thousand years, perhaps more, men have domesticated wolves and by breeding selection created specific working types useful primarily in hunting, herding and for protection.  Throughout history the farmer and herdsman may have known and used very few esoteric words, but he could raise and train his horses and dogs to serve his purposes.  But over the past hundred years, the industrial and agricultural revolutions have separated most men from animal breeding and training.  Horse and dog training have become hobbies or professions for a small minority rather than the skills necessary for most men in their every day lives.

Thus Canine Psychology as a body of abstract knowledge is in the same primitive state as human psychology.  There are people such as the Coppingers  doing some interesting things and making potentially useful speculations.  But there are a whole lot more adapting the psycho babble for the same reason the psychology "pseudo experts" do, as a cover for the fact that they can bring very little to the party beyond the heuristic knowledge and skill of the common man.

As a final cautionary note, even though it has become fashionable to think dogs as simply domesticated wolves, this does not entirely line up with the current scientific view that man may not have directly domesticated the wolf at all but rather an intermediate and now no longer existing population of scavengers derived from the wolf.  Thus even though I and others continue to to explain many things in terms of the wolf does this and the wolf does that and the pack structure, it is good to keep in the back of your mind that this is more and more beginning to look like a substantial oversimplification and the wolf characteristics referred to may be more remote and thus less directly defining of behavior than we have tended to believe.

Thus, forewarned that it is inexact and sometimes contradictory, let us discuss the terminology of dog training. 


In nature there is a powerful inborn desire to hold and protect territory and the pack social structure and strong hunting instincts in order to provide the food necessary for sustenance as well as other natural behaviors which have come to be referred to as instincts or drives.  Dog training is largely a matter of understanding, often more on a heuristic or practical level than theoretically, and harnessing these drives in order to produce canines with the desired trained behavior patterns and responses.


Cat and mouse is an age-old game with a serious purpose.  The kitten is presented with an injured mouse to play with so as to bring forward its natural hunting or prey chase instinct so that it can grow up as an effective predator and thus secure the food it needs to survive and thus eventually reproduce and carry on the species. 

There is, however, a fundamental and very important aspect to the division of the canine protective motivation into this prey drive and the defensive instinct.  Prey drive is what makes a terrier kill a rat, a fox run down a rabbit and a wolf pack run the deer or the moose.  Almost any dog will chase a cat that runs, and if he catches him, kill him.  But if the cat stops and takes a stand he can sometimes back the dog down even though much smaller.  And just as the dog chases the cat, the cat naturally hunts the rat and the mouse.  There is such a strong element of play in this that cat and mouse has become a descriptive phrase for many of the games that human beings engage in.  As the phrase implies, there can be a great deal of maliciousness in game playing at any level.

Thus in all predatory animals the inborn instinct to chase, hunt and kill is fundamental, and it is common belief that herding originated as an adaptation of this instinct in the original canines to the service of man.  When a dog bites and shakes an arm or a leg, it is natural to see this as a manifestation of this age-old hunting or prey instinct, in which the shaking motion is intended to break the neck of the captured prey.

This prey drive is fundamental to protection training, for the merely defensive component of the canine nature has no reason to pursue an adversary at a distance.  In nature it is almost always the natural, and correct, defensive response to break off the engagement when the adversary disengages and retreats, permitting both to survive another day.

It seems quite natural to think of as the dog willing to go out into a strange area, away from his handler, and attack an adversary which is not a direct threat to the dog, the handler or the home territory, as driven by this primitive hunting or prey drive.  And there is no doubt an element of truth in this.  But, as we shall explore under the heading fighting drive, there has to be more to it than that.  For the natural canine hunts to eat, and thus prefers the easy quarry, the old, the sick, the injured.  When the prey, such as the deer or other large animal, shows strength and the ability to defend the wolf with effective survival instincts backs off and seeks easier prey, because it is better to go hungry for a day rather than risk the injury that could end life, that is prevent the wolf from hunting.  Prey drive seeks out the weak and the fearful, but will tend to quit against the quarry that shows strength because natural selection favors this propensity.  Thus the effective police or patrol dog must have an extra dimension, beyond the natural hunting or prey drive, which enables it to go out the distance reliably in order to engage the foe willing to turn and fight.  

Play Drive

Prey drive is often treated as if it was identical to ball or chase drive, but this is perhaps an overly simplistic a view.  Many sport competition dogs will respond endlessly to the thrown ball, Kong or Frisbee, and many trainers use this as a reward and enthusiasm or drive building mechanism.  On the other hand, my first Bouvier and had very little ball or chase drive, and in fact would, on the second or third throw, take the object off into the bushes and bury it. 

The words play and prey describe slightly different focus points on the canine temperament and response spectrum, and it is in general quite difficult to define the difference in an unambiguous way.  But there is a difference and the individual dog, including dogs with great practical potential, will show significant variation with some excellent dogs exhibiting strong propensity to chase balls and Kongs, but other dogs, perhaps of even greater real potential for serious protection work, will show little or no interest.  There are many trainers who will proclaim a young dog a bad candidate because he does not react in an expected way, is not a replica of a previous dog.  But often the failure here is in the simple minded, one-track trainer rather than the young dog, and often a good dog is discarded because a trainer is limited in scope, unable to deal with the diversity of the working canine gene pool.

Many of our very best dogs exhibit very little ball or object drive, yet properly trained will pursue a human advisory at an extreme distance from the handler, gaining power and speed with every step.  This is clearly not a response to fear or the need to defend, and is not an extension of an object associated play drive.  Clearly, something more fundamental, and in a sense unnatural to the wolf, is in play here.

Just giving it a label, calling it prey drive or fighting drive (as we shall discuss in a moment) does not really bring fundamental understanding of the underlying phenomena.


Fear is good.  Fear is fundamental to the nature of the dog and man, and is a necessary survival mechanism.  The defensive drive, flight or fight, is rooted in pure fear, and serves well when an unexpected and dangerous situation presents itself.  Everyday garden-variety fear creates caution, is that quiet warning in the mind not to go to the unknown when there is nothing at stake.  Most men and dogs will step back at their first interaction with a rattlesnake, which is entirely the correct response.

But fear can be the double-edged sword, can be excessive, and the successful man or dog needs the capacity, courage if you will, to overcome an initial fearful reaction and react according to the situation.  While the confident, aggressive dog will certainly bite, and with good training can be a very useful partner, it is also well known that excessively fearful dogs also can and will bite, and can inflect great damage.  But the fearful dog may run if he can see a way out and will respond to imaginary or perceived threat as well as realistic fearful situations, making him a loose cannon on the deck.  Failure to distinguish between the confident, aggressive dog, the one with fighting drive, and the dog that bites out of fear is the greatest source of confusion and bad decisions in protection dog training.

There is a great deal of bluff in the unconfident or fearful dog, and he often learns that by putting on a show people will keep their distance, giving him an element of control over his fear laden world.  When he is pushed beyond his ability to retain his composure he bites in a panic driven mode, or runs, thus becoming unpredictable and dangerous.

The useful protection dog is confident rather than fear driven, intelligent, driven by the love of the fight and the desire to protect and defend his handler as well as himself.  His bite is controlled  and focused by his trained reactions and in that the handler can bring the attack to an end with verbal command.  He is reacting to real threats rather than primitive fear of the unknown.

It is true that clever training can to some extent mask or redirect deficiencies in a dog's basic character.  Fear and confidence are a continuum with examples at every point.  All training to some extent is directed at overcoming fear; allowing the dog to react predictably and usefully in the face of fear. 

A problem with this is that a dog may be trainable to the point of doing well in known situations, such as a trial, but at some point revert to a fear driven response in the face of an unexpected, new situation.  This is a difficulty in all training, for it is impossible to foresee what an individual dog might see in a working career.

Thus while a reasonably confident dog can be acclimated to work through natural fears, there is always the potential, in any dog, that he will revert to a fearful reaction in a new situation.  This is why it is important that the handler understand the nature of his dog rather than just a few commands, so as to the extent possible foresee and deal with such situations.  (This is of course not limited to dogs; none of us know for sure how we will face and respond to a sudden, fear provoking situation.)

Defense Instinct Or Drive

When the cat puffs up and dances sideways, making himself appear as large as possible, when the cobra spreads his hood, when the rattle snake alerts, when the dog growls and postures, it is not out of desire for a fight or violence, but rather a strategy for self-preservation, a tactic to make the opponent retreat, to avoid a fight where neither side has anything to gain proportionate the risk of injury or death.

Defense is fear under control, directed at self-preservation, social group preservation and in the big picture the survival of the race.  In nature fighting, as opposed to hunting for food, needs to be a last resort, is in general a no win situation and is usually to defend food as in a carcass in the face of a determined scavenger, sexual precedence or territory.

In dog training this instinct to defend, referred to as the defensive drive, is a fundamental aspect of the canine physiological make up which needs to be called upon and used, but in a most careful and restrained manner.  Old-fashioned area protection dog training, that is, the proverbial junkyard dog or the primitive military sentry dog, tended to rely very strongly on building up the fear of the dog in the face of intruders and in breaking down the inhibitions of aggression.  Control, other than the ability of the handler to place, remove and care for the dog, was not a requirement.  This primitive form of training is less and less useful in society today, where there is emphasis on control and restraint in non-threatening situations, in developing discretion in the dog.  (Reasonably priced electronic surveillance technology and expanding legal liability has played a role in the reduced need for such dogs.)

Defense drive is based in fear.  Fear is a powerful and necessary response to what is perceived as a serious threat.  In men, dogs and most other advanced creatures there are powerful physiological reactions, including the release of adrenalin into the blood stream.  In this state, created by nature for literal fight to the death or flight for survival, creatures are capable of physical and mental feats otherwise beyond their potential.  There are risks and costs to this process, which is why in nature it is reserved for the extremely serious situation.

The old fashioned junk yard dog training, where the dog learns through unpleasant experience that every human being except a few handlers are the enemy, to be feared, to be attacked preemptively at every opportunity.  Just as this style of dog has become much less common because of the liability, cost and the emergence of video and electronic surveillance, this mode of training, based in fear and unthinking, preemptive attack response, is also rapidly becoming obsolete, along with the old fashioned pillow suit.

In protection dog training, creating a situation that will bring forth a defensive reaction in response to purposefully created fear is a double-edged sword.  It can make a dog bite, and bite hard with great determination.  But the extreme manifestations of fear reaction are reserved by nature for the emergency, and the routine inducement of pure fear for a desired response in training, in a trial or on the street is difficult to produce, stressful for the dog, the handler and the helper and fundamentally unreliable.  Fear can also make the lesser dog run, and once the dog runs this may become the natural response, easier each time it occurs. 

The defensive instinct is in play at some level, and necessary, in all protection work; but it needs to be used minimally and with restraint, in an ancillary and supporting role rather than as the primary motivational force.  In society today, it seems reasonable that those dogs that can only show aggression in response to purely defensive instincts should not be trained at all, and furthermore that for the primarily protective breeds such individuals should not be bred.

Fighting Drive

The common explanation of protection behavior in a two dimensional world of prey and defense is in many ways limiting and overly simplistic, for there is more to the protective functionality of modern service dogs than a simple extension of the primitive instincts to hunt, establish rank, secure breeding rights or hold territory.  In the primitive natural state, the wolf had no real reason to go into unknown territory and attack a creature presenting no immediate threat.  But the fundamental purpose of the police service dog requires that, when the situation arises, he must pursue and subdue a man at a great distance or search deep into a large, dark, unknown building such as a warehouse.  Clearly something else is in play.

The term fighting drive has come into use to describe this capability and willingness to pursue and fight at a distance.  In a certain sense, this fighting drive can be thought of as the addition of mankind, as a necessary extension through breeding selection of those drives present in nature created for the motivation of the good protection dog.

Be aware that fighting drive has become one of those things dog trainers endlessly argue about, almost a sport within a sport.  Some think it is imaginary and just obfuscation, people making things more complex than they really need to be.  Others think it is the holy grail, the key to the understanding of the protective canine.  The truth is that words mean nothing and everything, and even if the dog god were to come down to every training field worldwide, erect a stone pillar and inscribe the perfect definition of fighting drive it would still be of little help because when someone uses the term it will mean what he thinks it means, and he may have never taken the trouble to read the pillar.  My advice is to not to get too wound up in all of this, words by their very nature are imprecise and vary in meaning according to the circumstances and what is going on in the speakers head at that particular moment.

A key point is that fighting drive is not a blind propensity to attack without provocation or reason.  In the relentless world of natural selection animals fight only out of necessity, that is, to preserve territory for feeding and to produce and raise offspring, for mating precedence, to drive off other animals from a kill to obtain food, or to defend a kill.  Most engagements are in a sense ritualistic, almost always broken off short of death or crippling injury when the outcome is clear, or when one participant quits to live for another day.  Any other mode of life is inefficient in the process of natural selection and carried to extreme can lead to extinction.  So fighting drive most certainly does not and cannot mean a propensity to fight on any pretext, with nothing to gain, to go out on hunt and destroy expeditions with no specific purpose like some young male specimens of homo sapiens prowling bars with an obnoxious attitude to provoke a drunken fight just for the fun of it, or to establish masculinity.

Why do men engage in violent sport?  Today there is of course money to be made, but this was not the purpose in the beginning.  Men engage in boxing or football as controlled outlets for aggression.  Since society has always endorsed, glorified and supported this, it seems reasonable that maintenance of a certain level of fighting drive has been necessary for survival.  Pups and young dogs routinely engage in mock fights and roughhouse play, and much of this propensity carries over into the adult.

While there has been a tendency to invent new drives as a substitute for real understanding, authors sometimes inventing a drive in the middle of a paragraph to make a point and never mentioning it again, my tendency is to believe that fighting drive is something latent in the dog, and that in selected breeds has been greatly enhanced through breeding selection.  Indeed, this enhancement of the capability for the strong distance attack is one part of what we do when we create a police patrol style of breed.  While this may not be the drive the initial training is based on it is the fundamental defining attribute of most if not all top level protection dogs.

Caution is necessary here, for much of this is speculation and perhaps even the invention of abstract terminology as a substitute for real understanding.  We must not read too much into contrived terms which can only approximate the complex process behind canine behavior and training; since our understanding is limited our words can be much less than precise.  It may be that fighting drive is in a way a more mature and focused manifestation of defensive drive.  Or it may be that these things are more separate.  Indeed, some tend to view the entire concept of fighting drive an exercise in speculative abstraction, perhaps like string theory in particle physics.

One way of looking at this is to view fighting drive as nothing more or less than the primitive prey and defense instincts empowered, combined and matured by confidence and good training.  At any rate, the concept of fighting drive has for better or worse come into common usage and no matter how imperfectly created or defined needs to be part of every trainer's working vocabulary.

Competitiveness is a fundamental aspect of the canine character.  The inborn drive to dominate in the struggle for food, to mate, that is, for sex, for the dominant role in the pack hierarchy were necessary attributes in the successful wolf and carry on in the work of the dogs we work with today.  In this context, it seems reasonable that the wellspring of fighting drive is the inherently competitive nature of the individual dog.

Clearly, the hunting or prey drive is the initial wellspring of the pleasure of the attack, and when the dog has the confidence in the pursuit the aggressiveness of the adversary will bring forth the defensive instinct which will bring the dog to engage effectively.  When the helper strikes with the stick, it seems reasonable that the one on one conflict is part of what helps the dog persist.

And when the dog releases, he must stay focused on the helper. The good dog believes that he has won, and is challenging his adversary to continue the fight. This is, of course, the picture that makes the judge want to give the dog every point that he can.  And, even more importantly, it is the picture in the police patrol dog that makes the suspect just want it all to come to an immediate end, puts him in the frame of mind to surrender.


The term hardness refers to the dog that is very strong in the pursuit and bite and, particularly, responds to overt aggression on the part of the adversary with even more aggression and drive.  Hurt the hard dog and he will come back to hurt you more rather than disengage.  In a general sense the opposite of shyness in the protection work.

In some contexts the hard dog can tend to insensitivity to handler correction or even evolve into handler aggression.  Usually the dog very hard in fighting the helper is also less sensitive to physical correction, and if not brought along with care can become handler aggressive.

For this reason, with very hard dogs it is important to introduce the out early and with emphasis on the concept that the best way to the next bite is the quick out and intense guard.  A dog with extreme hardness can be very difficult to force to release and once the dog becomes habitually disobedient to a release command the quick, clean, reliable out can be very difficult to achieve.  The guys hanging around at the club may be impressed, but the trial judge or the judge in a court of law will tend to be much less understanding.


The sharp dog is the very intense dog, very quick to bite.  This tends to be the primarily defensive dog, rather than the high prey and / or play dog.  The sharp dog sometimes has a tendency to be an insecure or fearful dog and such dogs are often perceived by inexperienced people as desirable police or protection dogs, which very often is not the case at all.

On the other hand, a sharp, confidently aggressive dog can be an extraordinarily impressive and effective dog in the right situation, in the hands of a really good police handler for instance, and there are trainers who find such dogs exhilarating and just plain fun to work.  The problem can come if the dog needs to be taken over by another handler.  If, for instance, there were to be a police administrative decision to transfer the dog where the person making the selection was not an experienced canine smart person, the dog might wind up in the hands of an inadequate new handler.  This is not necessarily a matter of an inferior or poor handler, but just a mismatch between the dog and the man.  Such a dog has the potential to be aggressive to a new handler if the acclimation and training adjustments are not done in a very careful and confident manner.

For me personally, a little bit of sharpness goes a long way, for a little bit of delay between the perception of the threat and the engagement of the dog can give the handler the moment he needs to rein in the dog and avoid biting the wrong person in the wrong situation.

Of all the aspects of the canine nature, sharpness is certainly the most aptly compared to the double edged sword, and most of us would tend to prefer slightly too little sharpness to a little bit too much.

The Sharp / Shy Dog

The dog both fearful and tending to sharpness will be prone to make quick, perhaps unprovoked, lunging attacks, and then retreat ready for another strike, or to run.  This dog is in general most undesirable and unless handled very carefully can be quite dangerous.  Such dogs should not be trained or bred, and if the propensity is extreme it may be appropriate to put the dog down.


The confident dog is the secure dog who will tend to react only to a clear provocation and will retain composure and demeanor under stress.  Where the overly sharp dog will tend to the preemptive bite, which may be inappropriate, the confident dog will give a strong warning and hold his ground.  The confident dog is relaxed among strangers because he is not inappropriately fearful.  He may or may not be social, that is, may or may not want or accept touching or familiarity by strangers.


The social dog is one at ease among strangers and in new and different places.  He can be walked in a crowd of strangers on a loose lead.  This is in general a desirable attribute in moderation.  On the other hand most trainers will deal with a less social dog who is hard, strong and otherwise controllable. 

Most trainers want a dog who will become suspicious and alert when there is a potential or overt threat.  Suspicion and reserve can be thought of as the opposite of sociability, and the totally social dog will often not take his protection work seriously enough.

Sociability is perhaps the most desirable attribute in the passive family pet where the owners want a safe, easy to deal with dog and do not expect any protective functionality.  Thus the highly social dog is the best dog in the vast majority of situations.  But this level of sociability, to the point where a real threat does not alert the dog, is inappropriate for dogs of the protective heritage such as the Bouvier or Malinois.

Sociability more than any other attribute is established and controlled by the imprinting processes in the critical stage of puppy development, approximately from when the eyes and ears open until about sixteen weeks or four months. 

Handler Aggression

One of the fundamental issues of protection dog training is bringing forth the aggression against the appropriate foe while at the same time maintaining the leadership of the handler in restraint and control of the dog.  Powerful, aggressive dogs are naturally those destined to rise to the top in the social structure, which means that it is the most natural thing in the world for them to seek to dominate the handler, to perceive themselves as boss and be in control.

In addition, strong dogs will from time show a propensity to dominate the handler and to a correction with an escalating correction.  This must be dealt with in appropriate way so as to bring control to the relationship but leave the hardness and aggressiveness there for the protection exercises.  Achieving this balance with a good dog is in fact a fundamental skill necessary for successful training. 

Beyond the initial training, this can arise as an issue when a new handler is introduced, as for instance when a dog is sold.  More than one handler has been severely injured when, upon taking over a previously trained dog, assuming that a bold and forceful manner will quickly bring the dog under control.  A team is a partnership, and the partnership does not exist in the beginning, but must be built based on mutual confidence and respect rather than brute force.  Ignoring this can produce a beaten down, ineffective dog or a dog who will, when the moment presents itself, show dominance by attacking the handler.

My style of training is to seek to become the dog’s leader, but by a thin margin, that is, be able to direct his work and make the decision to out or restrain without diminishing the dog’s potential to be dominant over the decoy.  One must lead, but the gap between the leader and the working dog must be narrow enough to allow the dog imitative and the ability to make the decision to respond to the unexpected situation.  This can be a serious conflict between the needs of the sport trainer and actual police service, for all trials are highly structured and the tendency to train for the pattern for sport success through compulsion and pattern repetition is in many ways counterproductive for effective real world service.  The highest scoring sport dogs are not necessarily the best for practical service or as breeding candidates, and understanding this distinction is an important mile stone on the journey to real knowledge of working dog training, application and breeding.

Passive Aggressiveness

The dog who is surely and only minimally compliant to command under duress, perhaps growling at a low level and subtly threatening the handler without going to the point of overt aggression, and who may lash out in an unpredictable way, is referred to as passive aggressive.  Unless this attitude reflects fear and uncertainty which can evolve into confidence and cooperation through low-key training, not always a good bet; such dogs in general make for frustration and disappointment in the training.  In general I tend to dislike such dogs; will discard one for training and particularly from a breeding program.

Aggression Levels

There is an entire range of aggressive propensity in individual dogs of all of protective heritage breeds.  At one extreme is the very aggressive dog that is only truly safe in the hands of his trainer, who is 100% of the time aware of his surroundings so as to avoid the wrong situation.  This dog is often a kennel kept dog.  Such dogs can be high scoring and a valuable breeding resource, but could never be put in the hands of a casual owner without serious risk. 

A much broader range of dogs are those whom the  trainer can and often does keep as a house dog, with the dog serving as a companion as well as a competition dog.  Such dogs can be placed in very carefully selected general homes.  This is in general the dog I prefer for myself, and most trainers spend a good part of their lives looking for such a dog to own and train. 

A broad middle range of dogs is truly multiple purpose, that is, probably capable of a title, possibly capable of realistic police service and a good fit for a large number of homes. 

One more level down is a broad spectrum of dogs that,  while only perhaps capable of a title, and not a good  police or serious guard candidate, make reasonable  companion animals in a broad spectrum of homes.  This is probably the broadest category in the Bouvier, and on the whole a bad thing in that it represents a serious lack of balance in the genetic pool.

Below this you get into the dog who may show aggression which is based on fear.  This dog may bite, and may be dominant in a situation with a weak handler, but is on the whole not of much use and in many situations potentially dangerous.  Many inexperienced people think such a dog is much more than he is, and mistakenly think of this type of dog as good police or protection candidates.  A broad spectrum of dogs in this class should be put down when they are rescued because they are potentially dangerous and a liability to those placing the dog as well as  those receiving it.


From time to time there will be entertaining articles in the press comparing and rating the relative intelligence of various animals or of various breeds of dogs.  This is mostly nonsense, for at root it relates to the subservience, the willingness to perform tricks for praise or reward, rather than fundamental differences in cognitive power.  Dogs such as the sight hounds or herd guardian breeds often rate poorly, but this reflects that their nature and drives are those useful in their application, and the chase and the defense of the herd are functions much more independent of human interaction, where the dog must act on his own. 

Intelligence in the canine is difficult to define and quantify because our tendency is to relate it to human modes and reactions, largely verbal in nature and thus not entirely appropriate to understanding the dog. Bernie Brown, famous Golden Retriever AKC trainer, has commented that you need a fairly stupid dog to put up with the nonsense in this rote sport. Intelligence is perhaps the most difficult thing to gauge for in the trial, because to a large extent the obedience to the handler provides a great deal of the decision making. On the other hand, the dog I am currently working seems to understand that the quickest way to the reward is to figure out what is required and to do it. Clearly the intelligence makes the dog much easier, and more fun, to train.  The trap in all of this is the "Well, my dog is much too intelligent to put up with all of this crap, but if the time ever came, he could do it."  This is of course nonsense, because not training and testing always leads to a loss of the fundamental working character which, since it is a modification by man of the original canine nature, must be incessantly the basis of breeding selection in order for it to be maintained.

Trainability or Working Willingness

Trainability is the essence of the usefulness of the dog.  The dog is useful to the man who, through natural or learned ability to channel the dogs natural drives and instincts to perform work useful to his human partners.  Beyond the elements of simple stability and safety, trainability is the single most important attribute in a working dog.

The behavior of the successful wolf is the result of his inborn propensities, his instincts and drives, focused and brought forward by his interactions as a pup and young dog with the senior pack members.  Thus trainability, the willingness to accept a human leader while still maintaining the potential for aggression and event initiated reaction, is something added, or at least greatly enhanced and emphasized, in the domestication process as manmade wolves into dogs.

In the Schutzhund training, as a practical example, training the dog so as to instill reliability and control is fundamental.  At the beginning of the obedience exercise two-dog handler teams report to the judge.  The two dogs, placed in close proximity, must remain impartial.  During the obedience one dog is on a long down with the handler at a distance or out of sight, while the other dog does his exercises. 

This is a necessary part of the test because to be of use a dog must be around other dogs as well as people and other distractions.

Intensity or Activity Level

An alert dog with a high activity level, energetic and always ready to go, is most desirable for the service and sport trainer.  But this is, like so many of the other concepts discussed here, more complex than might first appear.

Think of the Bloodhound.  Big droopy expression; would no doubt do obedience like the grass grows, get there eventually but no visible motion, etc. etc.  But put a good dog on the trail and he will go more miles than most of us can walk to complete the trail.  Or dogs like my old Gambit, not very enthusiastic about obedience, but lit up like a torch when the sleeve came on the field.

There are a number of elements that contribute to a desirable activity level, one that translates into trainability and excitement in execution rather than just hyper, sometimes unpredictable reactions.

One element is good health and good physical structure. Another is motivation and drive to work, some of which comes from within the dog, but must be let out and nurtured by the trainer.  When I turn in the driveway to the training field, the whole van rocks and the barking and excitement brings the dogs alive.  They cannot see anything, but the sound of turning up that gravel road brings them alive.

To get this you have to have the right dog, but you also have to be a good trainer in that you can build the drive in this dog. And there is no formula that will work for every dog.

Jim Engel, Marengo    © Copyright Feb, 2012