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What Really Motivates Your Dog?

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There is a strong relationship between learning and motivation. Learning (and therefore, performing a behavior) does not occur without the proper incentive. It’s not the request, or cue, that yields results; it’s the “What’s in it for me? Why should I?” – the reward. 

Since behaviors that are reinforced are repeated, when you know what motivates your dog, you can more effectively use positive reinforcement to foster behaviors you like. Providing anything your dogs find rewarding, such as treats, petting, praise, and interactive games can help them learn to offer more of the behaviors you find preferable, perhaps even replacing ones you find trying. 

small terrier standing

Harnessing your dog’s motivation is key to training success because it can help: 

  • Establish a more enjoyable learning environment and encourage participation in training.
  • Build and maintain a mutually trusting canine-human relationship.
  • Strengthen your bond, providing opportunities for enjoyment and connection while you’re training together.
  • Keep your dog interested, curious and engaged with you.
  • Teach new, alternative behaviors incompatible with the ones you’d rather not see (such as a strong ‘sit’ to keep a jumpy greeter from jumping).
  • Develop a positive conditioned emotional response (CER+) to stimuli, such as a harness or nail file.

By identifying motivators for your dog – every dog is an individual – and applying some basic learning theory, you can easily work behavior coaching into everyday activities and have fun with it!

Discover What Motivates Your Dog

Be creative in thinking about how to be the best motivator for your best friend. Since you know your dog better than anyone else does, you’re in a great spot to observe what motivates, excites, and engages your canine pal. 

Food is a powerful motivator. And so is play! I recommend a variety of treats and other rewards that stimulate at least one of the five senses – sight, smell, taste, touch, sound: 

  • Experiment with different foods to use as reinforcement. Consider morsels that are easy to chew, easy to cut up and those that your dog really enjoys. Think “small, soft, stinky.” You can try any lean meats your dog is allowed to have, cheese, soft jerky, or healthy treats. (When in doubt, ask your dog’s veterinarian.)
  • What games and toys does your pooch absolutely love? A rousing game of fetch? Chase? Playing tug? Fuzzy toys? A squeaky ball?
  • Lavish attention – a belly rub, kissy-face with family members, petting.
  • Give access to a coveted space like the couch or bed.
  • How about something stinky to roll in? Remember to look at what’s rewarding from your dog’s point of view, not your own!
  • Let your pup choose to go “say hello” to another person or dog (as long as the other people and/or pets are OK with it!).

In short, a reward is anything your dog wants or enjoys. Of course, that will vary depending on the pet and the circumstance. Context matters! If Fido has just had a big dinner, your treats might not be worth as much as a game of tug. On the other hand, if you’ve got a fresh meatball in your pocket, the opportunity to greet a new person might not feel as rewarding to him as staying right by your side, nose glued to your hip.

Maltipoo coming when called

Additionally, as important as it is to understand what really motivates inquisitive canines, it’s equally important to understand what does not motivate them. Namely, the whole “dogs want to please us” fallacy needs to be replaced with objective data. The fact is that all behavior has a function. Animals offer behaviors to get something they want or avoid something they don’t want. Over time, with repetition and consistency, dogs figure out how to get more of what they want, and to avoid what they don’t want. Dogs wanting to please us being their motivation is a myth. If we place all that responsibility on our dogs and they don’t magically do what we want, we take it personally. That’s normal human behavior, but it sets us up for disappointment and can be damaging to the bonds we share with our pets.

Motivation Compared to Bribery

To bribe: Persuade (someone) to act in one’s favor by a gift of money or other inducement. The desired item is provided before the goal behavior is performed.

Reward: A return (anything considered ‘good’) that is obtained upon the successful performance of a task. 

Is training with rewards bribery? Well, if you’re delivering the desired item before the dog performs the behavior, then yes, it could be considered bribery. The difference between motivation and bribery comes down to timing. When rewarding behaviors you like and want, be sure to deliver reinforcement after the dog performs the behavior, rather than beforehand. If given before, then why would dogs want to perform the behavior? They already received what they wanted. 

Note: You can prompt your inquisitive canine using food as a lure. But you’ll want to deliver the tasty morsel after the dog performs the behavior, as a reward. 

Unleashing Adventure

Motivating your dog around distractions requires taking your positive reinforcement to the next level! If you find yourself competing against “Doggy Disneyland” when adventuring with your inquisitive canine, harness the power of motivation with these helpful hints:

  • The more challenging a behavior is for dogs, or the more you want them to do something, the better the motivator needs to be.
  • Use higher value rewards when there are triggers in the environment and you want your dog to stay quiet or come running to you. 
  • Use new or unfamiliar rewards when you’re in areas with increased distractions. Novelty is important!
  • Remember to also incorporate rewards other than food into your training games. 
  • Playing games that dogs find entertaining can help motivate them to stop what they’re doing and join you. Plus, games help expend energy while enhancing the bond you share. Kind of perfect, right?
  • Frequent rewards while out and about motivate your dog to stay interested rather than wander to the end of the leash, looking for something else to do. 
  • On a hike, reward Fluffy’s attentiveness by releasing her to go investigate a fascinating smell or sound.

Whether it’s food, toys, or real-life rewards like sniffing a favorite tree, the common denominator is that good motivators encourage learning and participation because they are things your dog enjoys. All animals need to be motivated in some way to perform a behavior. That’s why successful positive reinforcement training begins with discovering what really motivates your dog. After all, the idea of a well-mannered dog is pretty motivating to us humans, so a pawsitive approach for positive results ™ not only helps our dogs, but gets us excited — and proud — too! 

Happy adventuring with your inquisitive canine!

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for teaching/learning about play & rewards. My girl is 7 yr old Aussie. Her life before my adopting was: show dog, dam of 2 litters, etc. She was always with other dogs until she came to me. She & I live alone. She came to me in Dec2022. We walk daily, play ball, etc. Biscuit VERY food motivated—-she is counter surfer so I have learned to protect food. Biscuit has been great about going outside for potty until lately. Recently peed several times in house even when we have regular outdoor times. My question. Why?? I love this girl & I believe we are bonded. She is very friendly to visitors and dogs we see walking. I can’t let her off leash as her instant recall is Very poor. In house of course she has freedom.
    Questions://Why is she peeing in house; And. How can I train a “no fail” INSTANT RECALL? Thank you. A dog owner all my life but stumped now..Pat Klussman

    1. Hi, Pat! Thank you for joining the conversation and sharing your story about Biscuit – love the name! Team IC appreciates how in-tune you are with your inquisitive canine. To answer your questions, when dogs abruptly begin eliminating in the house when they’ve had a history of being reliably house-trained, the first step is a visit to your dog’s vet. She should be medically cleared. From there, following a house-training protocol would be recommended. Some simple tips would be to reward Biscuit for going potty outside and managing the environment to help prevent her from eliminating indoors. Remember to read her body language as well, looking for signs she needs to go outside. For recall, keep in mind that no animal is 100% all of the time. Check out this IC post for some quick tips: Here’s to much success for you and your inquisitive canine!

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