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Arousal vs Drive

grooming Mini Aussie Miniature American Shepherd puppy breeder Michigan Faithwalk

I wrote this after being inspired by a recent conversation with a dog trainer inquiring about my MAS. We talked a lot about various temperament traits in the breeds (MAS, Aussies, dogs in general) and especially about what many call "drive". We both agreed that for many dogs, it's "arousal" vs what some people think of as drive. Let me break that down a bit more.

To me, DRIVE is calm determination, tenacity, grit to get the job done even when it's not exciting or the dog is tired. A dog working out of drive can focus, turn it on and off, and is in "thinking" brain. And by that I mean they are in a mental state you can still reach and guide them with verbal cues, and they can also make appropriate decisions, calm themselves or turn it off depending on environmental factors. Pulling a definition of drive off the internet, it goes like this: It is a focused intensity, a desire to work, that makes dogs overcome all obstacles in pursuit of the goal.

AROUSAL is just that, the dog is wound up, often with dilated pupils, panting, often vocalizing, hyper focus but no impulse control, is reactive, experiencing a heightened emotional state. The issue with arousal is that the dog is more in reactive brain than thinking brain, so it can be VERY hard to "reach" the dog verbally, especially to turn it off, and hard to direct it. They can't think rationally when highly aroused. Dogs who work out of arousal have a harder time with impulse control and turning it off in an instant, where dogs with drive can focus, be directed, and stopped much more easily.

Drive is a conscious decision to complete a task no matter what. Arousal is road rage.

I remember nearly 20 years ago, shortly after I got into Aussies, an Aussie breeder who prided herself on having "drivey" dogs brought them to visit. She unloaded them and it was like a bomb went off in my yard. Dogs were bouncing and zooming all over like balls in a pin ball machine. It was chaos. I thought "wow, if this is drive, it sucks because these dogs are out of control". Having lived with quite a number of Aussies and later MAS, I really began to see the difference between the two. Some of these dogs are truly frenetic and some people call that "high drive." Before Aussies I ran sled dogs and saw the difference between drive and arousal though most mushers didn't use those terms.

Years ago I was sold a show prospect Aussie pup and she was what I called truly frenetic. Much of her waking hours, her pupils were dilated, she was "gone" in the sense she was just frantically reacting to any an all movement and waited for it to happen. She couldn't relax. She was hard mouthed and chased and bit any other dog that moved. She tore the ear of a friend's dog when she was at her house. Her breeder said she'd be "a great stock dog" and nothing is further from the truth. This dog was not thinking, she was reacting and was highly aroused. She couldn't turn it off and short of physically restraining her or removing her from the situation, a human couldn't make her stop either. (And that is NOTHING I would EVER breed!) I have seen other Aussie and MAS like this too. I know breeders mean well and no dog is perfect, but if we can see the difference and see these dogs tend to be born with this predisposition, we can select away from it. These dogs that get this highly aroused so easily are not easy dogs to live with, are not happy dogs, and can hurt other dogs or humans.

I have heard it said many times that drive can be built, but I have to wonder if it's more arousal that is built. I tend to see drive as something they are born with - a character trait. Yes, maybe we can move it up or down the scale a bit, but like all traits, how we raise them seldom profoundly changes it. If so we wouldn't need dog breeds, we could just raise any dog to be what we want or need. I had truly drivey sled dogs, they were calm but would power on once the initial rush of getting to run was past. They'd pull up hills, pull when it was boring and on the same trail we ran every day. They were not screaming harness bangers.

Another example of high arousal dogs are the ones that go nuts at a fence or window when they see something they can't get. That is not drive, that's pure arousal.

I also think if an individual dog is really easily aroused, but is also anxious or fearful, it's going to be one of the hardest kinds of dogs to live with, and will take a very dedicated, experienced owner and/or professional intervention. Dogs are highly prone to redirected aggression when aroused too. It's why I think it's so important for breeders to truly understand this topic.

I hope we can change the narrative about these two traits and help breeders and owners be able to tell the difference. I can't imagine dogs who live in a constant state of arousal like some do are happy, and it may take a toll on their health having stress hormones (cortisol) pumping through their bodies full time. And that may be another topic for an article, since many novice owners think for a dog to be "happy" it has to be aroused - meaning bouncing around, tongue out, very "up". That's not happiness.

For further reading on arousal here is a good link:


"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy." 

Matthew 5:7


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