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SHARES

Motivation is used in all of the training you do with your dog. Unless your dog has a reason to do something, it’s hard to get him or her to actually do what you are asking him to do. What will your dog work for? What motivates him or her? That’s one of the first things to figure out after a new dog joins the family.

Motivation can vary greatly and you can use it in all sorts of ways, good and bad. Your dog could be motivated by food (it’s tasty and he’s hungry), could be motivated to have fun (chase a ball), wants to get close to you because you’re fun (emotion and relationship), wants to get to safety/you (fear of something else), motivated to experience excitement (get to that park he knows is at the other end of that walk!), chase that squirrel (prey, fun, instinct, hunger!), or could be motivated to avoid pain (not get yanked on the leash, hear your yell). If you want your dog to do something, you need to work with motivation – positive forms of it.

What motivates your dog?

Motivation varies greatly between dogs, even dogs of similar temperaments. For some dogs, food is the greatest reward you could provide so it is highly motivating to use during training sessions. For other dogs, a toy is better than food. For some exercises, freedom could be the motivation (such as with “wait”, “stay”, or “heel” exercises).

And sometimes, the activity itself is the reward for the dog (you may have heard the terms, “self rewarding behavior” or similar). For example, for some dogs running through an agility tunnel might be fun all on its own – that fun is the motivation, and running through the tunnel is the reward.

This dog really REALLY wants to play with toys!

This dog really REALLY wants to play with toys!

Some motivators are even too much! For example, Mort is so motivated by a frisbee disc that he doesn’t focus enough on what I’m asking him to do. But a disc or ball works very well when he is so bored by being trained using food that he starts looking around for something more fun to do (play).

The most important thing is to watch every muscle, move, and facial expression of your dog while you are working with her, and notice what draws her attention the most. Play with different kinds of food, so you know what to use when you really need to get your dog motivated to learn something new and hard, vs low-calorie bland treats for activities when your dog mostly knows what to do. Similarly with toys – figure out low motivators and extremely motivating. This will vary not only on the type of toy, but the texture, size, color of the toy, if it squeaks or not.

Frisbee balancing on head

The right level of motivator is important depending on what you’re working on! Although frisbees are his highest motivator, this particular frisbee is not as highly motivating, so I could teach Mort to balance it on his head with food as the reward. Food kept him calm enough to balance.

Again: watch the face and all of its expressions. Dogs watch your face for clues, so make sure you watch theirs. An old saying goes “You know you have a room full of dog trainers when all of the eyes are only looking at the dogs.” So remember that, and watch your dog every second you are working on training!

Make things more exciting, whether you are using food or play and toys (and especially when you are using praise). Be loud, happy, boisterous to get the excitement level up (and when they know the behavior, you can be calm and quiet to draw in attention and focus). If he starts getting bored or frustrated, stop, take a break, and then do something else with a different reward. The main thing is to always make sure your dog is happy to be doing whatever the training activity might be – this is the main path to success. Watch DOGthusiast.com for a future post on excitement and acting while training your dog. It can make a world of difference in helping your dog understand what you want! Does your dog have no interest in toys at all? We’ll have a post on getting your dog interested in toys too (not always possible, but sometimes it is – especially if your dog is young!) Make sure to join our newsletter so you don’t miss it!

Do you always have to reward your dog to motivate him?

Yes, but it doesn’t always have to be food or a toy! At first, learning a new behavior will be more work for your dog. Your dog might be a bit confused until she figures out what you want her to do. Your dog has to think, and remember what the correct behavior is. This means that what you use to motivate your dog should have higher value. Once the behavior or command is easy for your dog to do, you can reduce the reward to a simple smile and “thank you”. I believe it is always important to at least offer this simple reward to remind your dog that she accomplished the expected behavior even if she knows it – praise is certainly a motivation, and helps build, strengthen or maintain a great relationship with your dog.

bronwyn

But what about using avoidance as motivation?

Some trainers use avoiding punishment as a motivation. This form of training – rewarding a behavior by not inflicting some kind of punishment – relies on fear. Your dog fears an action, and is motivated to avoid that thing happening: you popping the leash, getting mad, getting poked in the neck by a prong or hurt with a zap of a shock collar. Think about when you got really sick from a certain food, and you then no longer feel like eating it. Or you accidentally touch a hot stove, and then are wary of repeating that mistake. It’s kind of like that.

This kind of training can seem pretty effective at times. You might see results quickly, especially if you get the timing “right”, and think it’s working. But there’s a problem: it can backfire, big time. You’re relying on fear and anxiety to train your dog. Your dog will stop whatever behavior, but fear-based training is a slippery slope. While it can seem effective at first, your dog’s fear and anxiety increases and can cause a whole host of other problems. Anyone with a fearful and anxious dog knows that these are not easy behaviors to modify.

Using fear or pain avoidance as motivation often results in a few things:

  1. You damage your relationship with your dog. The fear or pain involves you, so she trusts you less.
  2. The fear and anxiety can manifest in stress behaviors due to excess stress hormones in the body, that could involve OCD-like problems, lashing out, fear-aggression.
  3. You may notice unpredictable responses to seemingly unrelated situations, where your dog feels the need to be defensive due to the elevated stress hormones present in the body most of the time.

There are many other risks involved with fear-based motivation. Essentially: it creates a less-predictable, unhappy, fearful, and stressed dog on a regular basis and that’s simply not a good or safe combination of elements. And again, these are often behaviors that are extremely difficult to change after you instill them.

Not really outright fear, but he had no clue what that thing was around his neck. Crazy new family!

Where to go from here

To get your dog excited and motivated to do something, and also to have him understand what you’re asking, acting is a key tool to keep in your belt. It can also be particularly challenging to motivate fearful or generally “unmotivated” dogs (I have one of these at home!), so I will discuss some tactics in regards to this issue in an upcoming post. So stay tuned and join our newsletter so you don’t miss it!

Oh My Shih Tzu

This is part of the Thursday Training Blog hop! Go check out the other great posts here:

About Author

Jen deHaan is graphic designer, small business owner, and dog person living in Bay Area, California. Jen enjoys learning about dog training and behavior, and has taken several courses and seminars since 2010. She also contributes articles to leading websites, such as Victoria Stilwell's Positively . It all started with a great dog called Mikey (aka "dude"), loved and lost but remembered forever. Jen also runs a freelance business focusing on graphic, web, and UI design at FoundPixel, and a small business creating hand crafted dog products at Stylish Canine.

  • Awesome post! When it comes to training, there’s nothing more important than knowing how to motivate your dog! I agree that using aversives during training isn’t necessary. But I do believe aversives can have a place in rehabilitation in some cases, and that aversives can be used without pain or instilling fear. I’ll be writing about that in the next couple of weeks.

    I love that you mention several ways to give praise and affection – I like to switch it up. When I used too much food it decreased Kayo’s drive for play. I realized how important it is to understand the many ways you can motivate your dog and to know how to use training and games to increase your dog’s drive. Really great post – thank you for being part of the hop!

    • Thanks for having such a great hop! That’s a great point about aversives not needing to involve pain or fear. I certainly do use them without pain and fear too – for example, tone of voice and facial expressions are great ways to let a dog know what you’re after, and they could be considered an aversive. I know some “purely positive” trainers that don’t even allow “no” or “ah ah” in their classes due to it being an aversive. I can’t wait to read your post! I think the next one I’ll do will be on the acting, so I’ll make sure to mention something in that post.