Transformative Dog Training in Salt Lake City, Nashville, and Charleston, SC

Making the Cut: Intelligence Versus. Drive


Today I want to make a distinction between intelligence and drive. These are two very different concepts, but they are often confused with each other to a certain degree. People often have incorrect expectations for their dogs based on this misunderstanding.

About eight years ago I was invited to do a demonstration with my dog, Rocco. He was a great protection dog, and I was asked by a rescue dog event to come and show off his protection abilities. I had a client put on a big bite suit and let Rocco attack him. It was a lot of fun, and was witnessed by thousands of people. After the event, people came up to me and emailed me to say things like “I’d really like for my dog to be able to do that too.” Unfortunately I never worked with any of those dogs, because none of them were actually capable.

Time and time again, they also added that their dog was very intelligent. A man approached me after the event and said that he was sure his dog could do the same things that Rocco had. My question for him was, “Okay, so what about his drive and character makes you think that he could?” His response? That his dog was really intelligent.

What I had to explain to this guy—and what I’ve had to explain to many other owners over the years—is that intelligence and drive are two different things. An intelligent dog might be able to solve problems better than other dogs, or might only need five repetitions to learn a command that might take most other dogs twenty-five repetitions. Those are indications of intelligence.

But drive is what pushes the dog, their inner impulse. That’s what you need to train a protection dog. Is it great to have a smart dog? Of course! But the most intelligent Malamute cannot be trained to retrieve ducks, and the most intelligent dog in the world simply can’t be trained for protection duties if they don’t also have the drive to do so.Intelligence simply dictates how fast the dog will be able to learn something that he’s capable of learning. But if the dog doesn’t have enough drive, if he doesn’t wantto do that thing in the first place, then intelligence won’t matter.

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Recently I was speaking with another owner about the possibility of turning their dog into a service dog. This person said: “My dog is extremely intelligent, and I can teach her anything, but I really struggle with her in public. She gets so distracted and into things that she has problems.” This is also an intelligence versus drive issue. When in public, this dog’s drive to go say hello to other dogs or to be mischievous was very large. Intelligence might be important in this case: perhaps once the owner dealt with the dog’s drive, she would be able to learn a bit faster. But how smart or not smart your dog may be is not the most important part of the equation. Intelligence is just one piece of the puzzle.

I’ve noticed that the same thing is true for humans. I look at some people that I admire and respect—people who’ve been successful, or grown large businesses—and some of them just aren’t terribly bright. Why have they succeeded anyway? It’s because they have a strong drive. They don’t quit. When things get tough, they just keep going. Maybe if they were more intelligent they could achieve their goals faster, but intelligence alone rarely dictates success. Drive does.

If I want a hunting dog who can retrieve ducks in the field, then I need to find a dog who is driven to do that action. If I want a dog who can herd sheep, I need a dog who want to do so. If I want a protection dog, I’m going to want a dog to protect my house, I want to find an animal who’s driven to perform those tasks well. Hopefully that dog is smart as well, and I can channel that intelligence toward his natural drive.

So I always joke with people who say their dogs are smart. “I’m sorry,” I say. “Smart dogs are sometimes harder to train. They look for all the loopholes!” But at the end of the day, intelligence may or may not be a factor in what you’re trying to train your dog to do. You need to look at your dog’s drive. Building up that aspect of your dog’s character is what will set you up for the most success.

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