A motivated dog is far more willing to deliver the behaviour you are asking of him. But what kind of motivation and how much? Eric Brad looks at ways to create a winning relationship with your dog.
Motivation is not something people generally associate with dogs. After all, there are no doggy motivational speakers. We just assume that our dogs want to do what we ask of them without considering things from their perspective. But what’s in it for them? Companionship? Adventure? Tasty snacks? Fun? Nothing at all? The answer is more complex than you might think.
We do lots of things with our dogs, from going on long drives together to taking walks to just sitting and watching TV together. Training is only one aspect of our relationship with our dogs and every household has its own idea of how much time and effort to put into training. Training itself can mean different things in different homes. Some people may see teaching their dogs as work only to be done if necessary. Others may find it a complicated, frustrating chore that they go through because it has to be done. But in our house, training is a game full of laughter, creativity and good feelings for both dogs and humans. That doesn’t happen by accident.
Getting in the Game
There’s an old saying: “You have to be in it to win it”. Certainly, you can’t win if you don’t play. Getting your dogs to learn, whether it’s in the context of a training game or a more structured environment like training classes, presents you with the challenge of getting and keeping your dog’s attention. And that gets to the heart of motivation. How do you get your dog to work with you? The answer: you need to get your dog in the game.
I’ve mentioned before in this space that I think there are two different views of this in the current dog training environment: the “Do It or Else” school and the “Do It for This” school. For this article, we won’t be dealing with the “Do It or Else” philosophy that basically uses threats and intimidation to motivate the dog to cooperate. Instead, let’s look at ways to motivate your dog to work with you because they actually prefer that over other options available.
The next time you look over at your dog and say “Sit”, realize that he can walk away, ignore you completely, or do as you asked. My dogs have done all three at various times, by the way. In the moment when they hear your cue, they make a decision about what to do.
What does your dog base this decision on? If you think he bases it on what you just asked him, you’re fooling yourself. He is actually considering all the other times you asked him to “Sit” and what happened AFTER he did it for you. Did he get a cookie or treat? Was he released from the car for a fun hike? Did you throw the ball for him to have a good game of fetch? So really, what your dog is considering is the likely consequence of his response to your request to “Sit.” Your job as a trainer is simply to influence that decision.
If my dog LOVES roast beef and I’ve given her a bit of roast beef dozens of times for sitting when I ask, she might believe the chances are good that she’s going to get roast beef if she sits. So she’s pretty highly motivated to sit because: a) she knows what to do; and b) in the past she’s gotten yummy roast beef and it’s there’s a chance that she could get that treat again. Something even more interesting can happen as well. She LOVES roast beef. She gets roast beef for sitting. After enough “Sits” earn her the roast beef, the “Sitting” itself will be pretty motivating because of all the pleasant memories associated with that action over time.
Initially, my dog’s motivation for sitting was to obtain the roast beef. After a time, she began offering the sit when I asked because of all the times I was good to her in the past when she sat. Still further down the road, she even began to sit when asked because she knows it’s something she knows and does well. It’s hard to make that last claim with any certainty since I can’t actually ask my dog what she’s feeling. All I know is this — the more times I reward my dog for sitting, the less she minds those times when I don’t give her roast beef for sitting.
“But,” you may say, “my dog isn’t the slightest bit interested in roast beef.” While that would surprise me, I’m sure there must be something in your dog’s life he is passionate about. Maybe it’s his ball, or going for walks, or playing a good game of tug. The key is to discover those things that your dog values and turn them to your advantage to keep him motivated to work with you.
However, knowing what your dog wants is not enough if you don’t make that highly-valued reward something he can easily get. The amount of roast beef or how often my dog gets it will affect how motivating that treat is to her. If the roast beef only comes out after my dog does dozens of behaviours or has to work very hard to learn something new, then my dog could reasonably decide that even roast beef isn’t worth that much effort.
So another aspect of motivating your dog to work with you is making good rewards obtainable, and that’s going to change as your dog gets better at what you are training. Teaching your dog to “roll over” may be very difficult in the beginning and you may need to reward very frequently to keep your dog trying and training with you. But after several hundred successful “roll overs” with great rewards, it’s a lot easier and doesn’t need such a high pay rate (and maybe kibble will be enough instead of roast beef).
A common mistake dog trainers can fall into (myself included) is assuming too quickly that a behaviour has moved into that “easy” category and doesn’t need that high value or high frequency reward. You might begin to tell yourself that “my dog knows what to do” and doesn’t need the reward of a good tug game or give them a treat to keep him motivated. This is where training can start to break down, and it happens slowly. You might not even realize that you have been “under-motivating” your dog until it appears that your dog isn’t listening to you when you say “Sit”.
You might think your dog is being stubborn or defiant but he are really just showing you that you haven’t been making it worth his time lately. That’s important information. That’s something you can do something about. It’s time to give him a bit more play or a few walks or cookies to increase his responses to your requests. Even people will only volunteer for so long before they want something in return for their efforts.
Fairness: Take it to the Bank
Most of us have a good sense of fairness. We know when we’re getting back enough for what we give out to others, whether it involves our jobs, our marriages, or our friendships. I think we should also have this sense of fairness in living and working with our dogs. Our dogs are only too happy to work with us if we just make sure we’re giving enough back.
Think if it as a “good will” bank account. Each time you reward a behaviour, your balance goes up. The more frequently you pay into that good will account for your dog’s cooperation, the bigger your balance gets. The higher the value of your rewards, the faster your balance grows.
But each time you don’t reward, you are making a withdrawal on that that good will account. Just how much is taken out depends on what you are asking for and how often you have rewarded it in the past. Life happens and we can’t always reward behaviours but the trick is to keep that balance substantially in the positive.
There are some other factors that can affect the balance of the “good will” account you have with your dog but we’ll talk about those in future columns. For now, take a look at how you go through your day with your dog and consider how you motivate them to do things with and for you. Are you generous or are you stingy? Are you a Tony Robbins motivator or an Ebenezer Scrooge task master? Then look at how interested your dog is in doing things with you.
If you’re like me, you are trying to get that smiling, happy face with the bright eyes to look up at you every morning. I’m more successful some days than others, I have to admit. But keeping my dog in the game and keeping her motivated is something I have consciously worked at — and that “good will account” has paid HUGE dividends for both Tiramisu and me.
Until next time, have fun with your dog!
Buddy – Mike Baird 2009 from Flickr
Billy – Pete Markham 2010 from Flickr
Toys – Chris. P 2008 from Flickr
Lola – Matt Reinbold 2006 from Flickr