Harnessing the Power of Motivation in Dog Training

By Joan Hunter Mayer

Are you and your curious dog ready to take your dog’s training to the next level? Did you know that finding out what motivates your dog is an important key to success, from teaching the basics to mastering more advanced skills? By identifying your dog’s motivations – every dog ​​is an individual – and applying basic learning theory, you can easily incorporate training into daily activities and have fun doing it!

Training is all about teaching dogs what you want them to do, when you want them to do it. And, a loving and very effective way to teach dogs (or any animal) is to use rewards to reinforce desired behavior. Rewarded behaviors are repeated. So what is a reward? In short, a reward is all your dog wants. Of course, this will vary depending on the animal and the circumstances. Since you know your dog better than anyone, you’re in a great place to observe what motivates, excites, and engages your canine companion.

Think outside the box (treats):

Good motivators encourage participation in learning because these are things your dog enjoys. It’s so simple. So wherever you are in your training journey, we invite you to take a minute to do a fun little exercise. Make a list of treats your dog really likes – and get creative! Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Food Rewards – Food isn’t the only reinforcer we recommend, but as we explored in a previous article, there are many benefits to using treats during training – especially the bits that are ” small, soft and stinky”.
  • Toys – such as fluffy toys or a squeaky ball.
  • Interactive games – a game of fetch, play tug.
  • Actual rewards – sniffing a favorite tree, the opportunity to go investigate an intriguing smell or sound, the opportunity to “say hello” to another person and/or a dog (as long as they – the person and the dog – are ok with that!) or even a car ride. Tip: If you have to spell certain words to keep your pup from getting too excited, that could be a great reward!
  • Caresses, belly rubs.
  • Congratulations – Consider verbal encouragement in combination with one or more of the above. Would you like to show up to your job every day for a “Nice job!” from your boss instead of a paycheck? We ask for a lot of companion dogs living in our human world. The least we can do is reward generously, right?

Then, with your list of good motivators in mind, brainstorm various training scenarios and how you could use those rewards to bring out the best in your best friend, keeping in mind, like mentioned earlier, that rewarded behaviors are repeated.

Helpful tips for harnessing the power of motivation:

  • Look at what is rewarding from your dog’s perspective, not yours.
  • Reinforce the behaviors you like and want, even when you don’t ask. Capture (notice, then reward) and teach the behaviors you would like to see repeated.
  • Refer to the list you created and use whatever motivates your dog to happily engage in training activities and focus on your cues.
  • Food Suggestions: Experiment with soft, easy-to-chew, easy-to-cut foods to see what your dog really likes. Try dog ​​food rolls, any lean meats your dog is allowed to eat, cheese or soft jerky, and your dog’s regular food. (Consult your veterinarian about what foods to give and what to avoid.)
  • Again, don’t forget to incorporate rewards other than food into your training as well. Playing, exploring, adventuring, and greeting friends can be powerful motivators for many dogs.
  • Context matters! If your dog just had a hearty dinner, your treats may not be worth as much as a tug or fetch game. On the other hand, if you have a fresh meatball in your pocket, the opportunity to greet a new person might not be as rewarding for your dog as standing by your side with his nose glued to your hip.
  • Innovation is important too! Use a variety of treats and other rewards. Mix it up to keep learning interesting and engaging.
  • Use new or unfamiliar rewards when training more challenging behaviors or when you want to keep your dog’s attention on you, especially in areas with increased distractions.
  • Beware of unintended motivators, such as physical or verbal interaction with a dog jumping on you, as this interaction is often reinforcing, even when it’s not meant to be.
  • Avoid rewarding certain behaviors and punishing others. This confusing approach can cause dogs to fear training sessions and can harm your bond, trust, and relationship. (For example, in addition to management and prevention, a passive approach to dealing with unwanted behavior is to teach another incompatible behavior. For example, it is physically impossible to jump on a visitor and sit down at the same time So, teach Fido to sit really solidly, then point out and generously reward this behavior when guests walk through the door.)

Whether it’s food, toys, or actual rewards, the common denominator is that providing positive reinforcement (which your dog finds rewarding) helps establish an enjoyable learning environment. If your goal is to share your life and home with a family dog ​​who is willing to listen to you and provide the behaviors you want, you can start by establishing and maintaining a canine-human relationship of mutual trust.

Have fun and achieve dog training success by incorporating lots of enthusiasm, creativity, love and motivation!


the curious dog was founded by Santa Barbara canine behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer Joan Hunter Mayer. Joan and her team are dedicated to providing humane, peaceful and practical solutions that work for the challenges that dogs and their humans face in everyday life. Let’s bark with the dogs, encourage the humans and have fun!

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