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  • Courteous K9

Motivation- and why it is important!

Updated: Apr 19

Motivation is a very important aspect of dog training. There are generally two ways we can train a dog- through reinforcement with motivators or by the application and release of pressure. The vast majority of the time, we would much rather train with motivators over force, so it is important that our dogs find something highly motivating. Generally a motivator is something like their food, treats, or even a toy. But a motivator can also be anything that the dog finds rewarding. Remember, dogs repeat behaviors they are rewarded for. We hear from quite a few people that their old dog or their other dog was/is much easier to train. While some dogs tend to be more biddable (willing to learn), mostly it boils down to how motivated the dog is. The more motivated the dog is the more willing they are to learn and focus on you in a distracting environment.

Types of Motivation:

The most common type of motivator used in dog training is food/treats. This also tends to be the most easy to build because dogs need to eat, so we can manipulate when or how they are fed to make them more motivated. But, not all food carries the same value. A dog will generally be less motivated for their kibble than they are for steak. So it's important to keep in mind the type of environment we will be training in and adjust the value of food accordingly. But you also should make sure to not rely on the highest value food to keep your dog focused on you. Once your dog is getting more comfortable in the new environment we should work towards using a lower value food if your dog is successful with the higher value food. This will help to progress towards not having to use food all the time to keep your dog focused on you.

Dog eating a treat

Another type of motivator that we can use are toys. Some breeds tend to be highly toy motivated naturally. Others tend to take some work to build motivation for toys but once the motivation is there, the behaviors taught using toys tend to be more enthusiastic. When using toys as a motivator you should keep in mind what behavior or state of mind we want our dog in. For example, I typically wouldn't use a toy to reward a stay, especially if I want my dog to be calm and relaxed in a stay. If they are anticipating getting their toy at the end of their stay, they are going to get more and more excited as the stay goes on and might break or the excitement/anticipation of the toy will make it much more difficult for the dog to relax.

Another type of motivation is using pressure and the release of pressure. This is a little different than using food or a toy as a motivator because they are motivated to avoid the pressure. Whereas with food or a toy they are motivated to get the food or toy. The level of pressure can be increased or decreased depending on what motivates the dog, just like the value of food can be increased or decreased. This type of training, is a much faster way to increase reliability while also significantly reducing the time using rewards. This method of training also works well for dogs who are not motivated by primary reinforcers like food or toy. However, you typically aren't going to see as much enthusiasm in the dog if primary reinforcers (food or toy) were not used at all during the training process.

A third type of motivator we can use in our training is called a secondary reinforcer. This is something that your dog can do after doing what we ask of them- like sniffing the tree, running around, getting to say hi to someone if they like people, or going back to what they were doing before we asked them to do something. This type of training is called the Premack Principle and can be very useful in training dogs, especially those not motivated by primary reinforcers like food or toys. However, depending on the situation we are in, it isn't always the most practical way of training and takes much longer to get in the same number of reps.

Why Building Motivation Is Important:

There are multiple benefits of building motivation for food or toys. It helps tremendously in introducing training into new environments, building reliability in skills, and training new skills. If the level of motivation for the primary reinforcer is not higher than the level of distraction- you are likely going to struggle with getting any focus for learning new skills or reliability in known skills in that environment unless you are using pressure and the release of pressure or the premark principle. Another benefit is that it really helps build your relationship with your dog since you are the one giving them the thing they want (food, toys, secondary reinforcer). If a dog is motivated by what you have, they are also likely to focus much more readily on you rather than their environment.

Having proper motivators can significantly help with shy/nervous dogs or aggressive dogs. Again, we are constantly competing with our dogs environment, especially if they are nervous, reactive or aggressive, and we need to make sure we have something that they really want so they choose to focus on us rather than fixating on their trigger or whatever is making them nervous.

Benefits To Building Food Motivation:

If your dog is highly motivated by their food, they tend to adjust to new environments that you want to bring them in, or when they are boarding, much more quickly. It's not uncommon for dogs to not want to eat their normal amount of food when they are staying in a new place. This generally stems from some nervousness. But, if a dog is crazy about their food they tend to overlook the newness of the situation, therefore they adjust much faster and are much more excited about being in the new environment.

Another benefit is that we are able to keep our dog at a proper weight. If they can work for their kibble, that means they aren't getting any extra calories from treats. It also helps us keep an eye on how they're feeling. For example, if my dog usually eats their food within 30 seconds and all of a sudden they are leaving food behind or taking much longer to eat, I know they might not be feeling well so I can monitor them or take them into the vet if needed.

Check out our free online class to learn how to build food drive!

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