How To Find What Motivates Your Dog

dog motivation

Have you ever tried to train your dog, only to find that every training method in the book seems to fail? Spent countless hours frustrated by your dog’s inability to respond to your instruction? And perhaps you’re left wondering where all of these seemingly flawless dogs who listen to their owner’s every command are coming from? 

There are many reasons why dog training may be more difficult with some dogs than others. The reason could be genetic; it could be an event in the dog’s behavioral history; it can even lie in the methods used to train them. It can be tempting to blame our dog’s lack of training aptitude on the dog themselves, without looking to evaluate how we can take steps to make things easier for them. 

One common reason why dogs struggle to grasp new concepts or commands is something that humans can actually influence – the lack of a sufficient motivator. A motivator is a toy or treat that encourages your dog to perform a given behavior; this motivator is then given to them as a reward upon completion of the behavior. When it comes to dog training, choosing the right motivator can have a huge difference in the success you’ll experience with your dog.

Why motivators are important

When trying to get our dogs to respond to our requests – especially early in the training cycle – it is important for humans to think critically about this key question: why is my dog going to perform this behavior for me?

Usually, merely wanting our dog to perform a certain behavior is not going to be enough to get them to actually achieve it. Would you do extra work without extra reward? Sure, occasionally, you might feel inclined to go above and beyond. But without sufficient, consistent expectation of reward, it’s unlikely you would feel the need to go the extra mile. It is the same for our dogs.

Motivators can take several forms. They can be a particular type of food (such as treats), or a toy that your dog eagerly responds to. In the context of training, you are looking for something that will persuade your dog to go that extra mile. A treat or toy they receive regularly is unlikely to motivate them to perform new behaviors, so it is vital that the motivator is a) a high-value reward that motivates them to perform the behavior, and b) used infrequently so that the dog doesn’t become accustomed to receiving the motivator for mundane, everyday behaviors.

What works as a motivator in one context may not work in another. For example, in a group class where your dog is around a plethora of distractions, you may need a higher-value motivator than you would to stop them from charging out of your front door at home. It is worth keeping a mental note of the motivators that work for your dog in different scenarios. Occasionally, a combination of motivators used together can be the ultimate reward for your dog.

Motivators are used in all aspects of dog training. They can be equally applied to a puppy learning its foundational obedience, to a detection dog candidate who works tirelessly for its reinforcer. 

Different types of motivators

Every dog is an individual, and consequently, what motivates one dog may have no effect on another. This is where it really makes a difference to pay close attention to the preferences of your own dog – understanding what makes them tick can make the process of finding a motivator much easier. When you begin a training program with Synapse Canine, one of the first things we want to identify early in the program is what your dog will work for. 

Motivators can fall into a few distinct categories. 

Play motivators

Does your dog have a natural instinct to chase a ball or play with a tug? If so, then consider utilizing their drive to play by using the ball or tug as the high-value reward. 

Food motivators

Your everyday kibble or training treat might not cut it here. This needs to be an item of food that truly grabs your dog’s interest – consider chicken, cheese, or another foodstuff that will heighten your dog’s senses. Remember to use these sparingly (consider cutting these items into smaller pieces) and never use them outside the context of training.

Praise motivators

For some dogs, praise is the best motivator they can receive. Research indicates that dogs are generally more engaged and eager to learn in a positive training environment, so this is a best practice even if praise may not unlock more challenging commands.

Environmental motivators

Providing your dog with freedom to roam can also be a motivator. If your dog loves to spend time sniffing in the backyard, teaching them to be obedient and calm instead of allowing them to charge out the door can be a great reward.

english bulldog receiving treat

How to find your dog’s motivator

Nobody – not even your dog trainer – knows your dog better than you do. You’re the one who spends the most time with them. You’re the one who feeds and plays with them. You know best how they’ll respond in a particular situation. What do you think they respond best to?

For obedience students, typically, a play or food motivator will be best suited. Environmental motivators can be leveraged in certain situations for specific behaviors, but if you’re looking to teach obedience commands (particularly for advanced or complex obedience cues), a high-value reward like a toy or treat is likely to work best.

There are some nuances for finding motivators for working dogs. Detection or search and rescue dogs are typically reinforced using toys such as tugs or balls, because it can often be difficult to prepare food motivators in a situation where a K9 has been deployed at short-notice. There are also often other practical considerations with storing food during K9 deployments, and the fact that many working dogs prefer the engagement accompanying a toy.

After you’ve narrowed down the type of motivator (food, play, environmental, etc.), there is more work to do in establishing precisely what that motivator looks like. Just as humans have their own food preferences, our dogs prefer the taste and smell of different foods; in the same way that we enjoy certain hobbies, some dogs prefer activities like chasing a ball over playing with a tug. 

At first, it may be a case of trial and error. You’ve likely got into a routine with your dog, whereby you know – and they know – what they enjoy. The trick with motivators, as we established earlier, is to use the motivator sparingly and in training scenarios where you are looking to extract a certain response from the dog. This may mean experimenting with different types of food – or even removing certain foods from their diet – and preserving them only in training contexts. For example, if your dog loves chicken and you intend to use this as their motivator, make sure you aren’t feeding them scraps every time you carve up a chicken for dinner.

Help with motivating your dog

If you’ve followed the steps in this article, and are still struggling, don’t panic! We have worked with dogs over the years who seem impossible to motivate. Sometimes, it just takes an experienced, alternative perspective to get the right motivator for your dog. Feel free to contact our team for help.

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