Recognizing what motivates a dog is mission critical for effective and successful training – oftentimes you have a secret weapon(s) at your disposal you aren’t even aware of. Every dog is an individual – with their own style of learning and motivation. The following refers to things that motivate a dog in a positive and pleasant way.
Take the time to determine what will best motivate your dog in various situations. You’ll need to adjust your reward (AKA reinforcer/motivator) for whatever you are facing in terms of distance, duration, and distraction(s).
In the house, Fido may be motivated by affection, but outdoors he may only be motivated by Grade A treats or novel toys. Use what motivates your dog to your advantage!
My all-American mutt, Saxon, will do just about anything for a ball in most contexts. You don’t even have to throw it, just handing it to him is motivating. Saxon does have a hierarchy when it comes to what type of ball he likes best – a ball that squeaks seems to be his absolute favorite. If we are out somewhere and he is off leash, a squeaky ball is a surefire way to get him running back if his recall fails (he isn’t perfect!).
For many dogs, nothing beats a Grade A food reward. Don’t be stingy if you’re working in a situation that is full of distractions and is new to the dog. Also, don’t expect a boring, dry, run of the mill treat or kibble to do the trick. I always tell clients to up the ante when training out in the world with a reward that is smelly and juicy. Steak, anyone?
Ensure that your secret motivator weapon holds its value by controlling access to it. At my house, no balls are left lying around. They are kept in a special bin in the garage and I am in charge of when he gets his prized item. Occasionally you will see balls scattered around the yard for him to do with as he pleases, which is usually hoarding or playing his own game of pouncing on them and picking them up.
Maybe your dog Alfie loves to frolic freely on the beach and is an absolute maniac until he is unleashed. Rather than unleash him when he is wild (which will only serve to reinforce his wild behavior), have him earn his freedom with good behavior. You may only be able to get a one second “sit” when to begin, then you'll progress to a longer sit that he maintains while you unclasp the leash and release him.
Again, you are controlling access to what the dog wants. Let’s say your border collie Gus loves greeting new people and dogs. Rather than letting him pull you to who he wants to meet, have him earn it with behavior that you find acceptable such as teaching him loose-leash walking, “with me”/ “heel”, or “easy”.
Now, some dogs find things motivating that we might not think they would. For instance, if you have a dog that jumps all over you and you don’t like it, keep in mind that the dog may find you pushing them off and fussing a fun and motivating game. Instead, teaching your canine jumping bean that all four paws on the floor is what gets rewarded.
Determine what it is that your dog loves to work for in various situations. This could be treats, toys, affection, play – the dog ultimately decides what is motivating. Work with this – knowing what motivates your dog makes training much more fun and a lot easier.
©Kate Godfrey, January 8, 2019