How many times have you heard, or maybe been told:
• Your dog’s not having enough fun
• You need to motivate your dog more
• You need better treats
• YOU need to be more fun
To understand training and become better trainers we need to understand what part we play in motivation and must be willing to “listen” to our dogs. We need to be willing to modify and even abandon our immediate goals. Persevering may get the job done, but at what cost if no one is enjoying the work?
In order to be successful in motivating your dog, you first must be willing to let your dog define the motivation, and you must rank your motivators in a high to low value order.
Motivations should strengthen and focus behavior.
Some dogs can learn to love things they may not have originally felt were motivators. Dogs can learn to love play, with or without toys. Dogs can learn to love their dumbbell. Dogs can learn to love touch and praise. All these and more can be motivational to the dog, but it is up to the dog to decide.
Our relationship with our dog, how we nourish and develop it and build upon it, is a powerful motivator to our dog. We must work to provide motivation and include our relationship as part of the motivation process. A shy or insecure dog may interpret silence or being neutral when an error is made as disapproval by the handler and will not try to solve the problem and, therefore, become even more stressed because the dog sees no solution. The dog knows he is not being praised or rewarded, but he does not know what to do next.
It is extremely important to design your training session to ensure as much success as possible. Just trying an exercise over and over again will not solve the problem. Starting out with a hard exercise to “see if your dog can do it” and then having to make it easier because your dog failed, actually teaches dogs to fail. When starting a training session, start out with an exercise you are almost 100% sure your dog can do. This gives you the opportunity to praise and reward and build confidence and gradually increase the difficulty of the exercise. Smart trainers are not looking to “test” their dog, they are looking to build relationship and confidence through thoughtful training.
We all know that in competition we cannot use food or toys as motivators in the ring. This is why we need to create a relationship where the dog can enthusiastically work for intermittent small praise and touch-based reward. This is why weaving your relationship into the reinforcement that you use in training is critical when the expected motivation is not immediately present. This is where verbal interaction as a familiar and valuable part of your reward system can build mental stamina and help your dog stay engaged under pressure.
Put yourself into the reward; don’t let the food or toy do all the work.
Carolyn Fuhrer has earned over 130 AKC titles with her Golden Retrievers, including 4 Champion Tracker titles. Carolyn is the owner of North Star Dog Training School in Somerville, Maine. She has been teaching people to understand their dogs for over 30 years. She is also an AKC Tracking Judge. You can contact her with questions, suggestions, and ideas for her column by e-mailing email@example.com.