Many trainers believe that the optimal form of learning for dogs comes when they're calm. That when a dog is highly stimulated he can't concentrate. Others say that some commands, like heel and the recall work better when the dog is active while commands like sit, down, and stay are learned much quicker if the dog is not active. However new research suggests that dogs learn best when they're in a high-energy emotional state.
It's true that puppies aren't able to handle strong emotions very well, so expecting them to learn and pay attention while energized can be very stressful (which is why we don't teach puppy classes). But adult or adolescent dogs learn much better, plus the lessons are learned deeper and last longer, when the dog's prey drive is highly aroused before or during the learning process. It has nothing to do with whether the desired behavior is active or not.
For instance it's actually much easier for a dog to learn to stay if he's highly stimulated by a toy before you teach the command. That's because the stay is tied directly to a predatory motor pattern called the "eye-stalk," where a wild canine gets low to the ground and holds perfectly still while approaching a prey animal. In fact most obedience behaviors are based on the predatory motor patterns found in wild canines.
Another recent development comes from researchers who found that dogs who played tug-of-war with their owners were more obedient and open to learning new behaviors immediately afterwards. And tug-of-war is the ultimate predatory game for dogs. In fact tug-of-war, which is about as far as you can get from calm, is a great training tool, both as an inducement and reinforcement for obeying.
Whatís so special about activating the prey drive that makes it so important in dog training? Well, imagine that youíre a cheetah hunting an antelope. It takes a lot of focus and energy to take down your prey, plus an enormous amount of emotional flexibility. You have to be able to adjust your movements, your emotions, and your level of energy instantly whenever the prey animal changes course or the terrain goes from open plain to a riverbed or a stand of trees, etc. And when you get in close enough for the kill you also have to be extremely aware of the prey animalís hooves and horns.
Now imagine that youíre a wolf hunting a deer. You canít do it alone so youíve got some of your buddies along with you. Unlike the cheetah you donít have enormous muscular power in your shoulders and haunches, you donít have claws, and even though youíve got sharp teeth, your jaws arenít as powerful as a big catís. A cheetah doesnít need help with his prey, but for if youíre a wolf itís very unlikely that you could kill such an animal on your own. (Itís been done, but only very rarely.) So even one-on-one with the deer, youíre at such a disadvantage that your ability to adjust your movements and emotions, your focus and your energy, while hunting has to be double that of the cheetah. Now add the fact youíre hunting as a pack, which means you also have to focus on what everyone else is doing. The pack canít succeed if no one is paying attention to how the others are behaving. You have to be able to adjust your movements, emotions, your focus and energy by another factor of two for each additional pack member involved. In terms of the level of energy exchange taking place and the emotional flexibility necessary to succeed, it could require ten times more than when a cheetah or other big cat is hunting its prey.
ďWhen I talk about flexibility, I donít just mean the individualís ability to react to change; I mean that all the members adjust to change as a group. This kind of collective coordination is the bedrock of sociability. Normally this might be thought to fall more under the realm of communication, learning, and intelligence than instinct. My premise, though, is that the prey instinct coordinates behavior and controls the learning process. It exerts an influence that exaggerates slight differences in each individualís temperament into gross differences of behavior, thereby producing the phenomenon of specialization. As an individual learns one role in the hunt, indirectly heís halfway to learning another. Each job is not so much a skill as a different emotional state of uninhibited-ness. In such a flexible system of learning, where each job is emotionally linked to another, there can be social migration through Ďranks,í both upward and downward, as the emotional environment of the group adapts to retain the overall balance and synchronization. Therefore, while learning is dynamic and responsive to outside elements, it is also predetermined [by the prey drive].Ē
So the prey drive is vitally important in creating emotional and social flexibility in wolves. And if wolves and dogs share a genetic history, this applies to them as well.
If you still believe the prey drive isnít important in training, think of the way a dog behaves when he sits for a treat. He wags his tail and certainly acts happy, but his primary motivation seems mainly just to get the treat. Correct? How about a dog who obeys a command because heís learned to ďsubmitĒ to his owner. In that case you can tell fairly easily that his heart really isnít in it. Heís primarily focused, more often than not, on avoiding a negative experience. Now think of the way a dog behaves when you take him to the park and he finds another dog to play with. Thatís pure joy. And think of the way your dog greets you at the door, perhaps with a toy in his mouth. Or maybe thereís a dog you know whoís been trained with a tennis ball or Frisbee as his primary motivation and reward. In all three instances, as you look at each dogís behavior, you can tell his heart is fully involved in what he does. Thatís how obedience should be taught, in a way that energizes the dog and uses his whole heart.