Motivation in Training

Motivation in Training

By Carolyn Fuhrer


According to the dictionary, motivation is defined as an inducement or incentive to act or perform a behavior.

When we ask our dogs to work and perform behaviors consistently and accurately, we need to have motivators that are valuable to the dog.

The key to successful training is how do you weave your relationship with your dog into the motivational process? If you only reward with food or toy release and are not part of the reward, you can expect performance to decline when the motivator is not present. We need to become part of the reward through touch, praise, body language, and expression, in other words, things in our relationship that our dog values.

Dogs are social creatures and most enjoy attention. Some will even exhibit “bad” behavior to get attention. If we really observe which of our behaviors our dog finds rewarding during the time we spend with him, we can then use these behaviors to help motivate our dogs. Certain tone of voice, gestures, touch, and body language will encourage a dog to move into our space and engage with us. If you are working to build a relationship with your dog, try to get rid of all behaviors that cause the dog to move away or become defensive. These behaviors are not motivating to your dog.

If we are having problems in training, we need to ask ourselves some questions:

1. Is the motivator something the dog finds valuable and are we part of  it?

2. Are we using motivation frequently enough or does each session  become harder and harder because “he knows how” to do it?

3. Are we sincere with our rewards, or are we frustrated with lack of  progress?

4. Are we reluctant to go back and simplify the task so the dog can  succeed and the reward appears for success?

5. Are we careful in planning our session to build on success and not  just try to fix failures?

Your dog should want to engage with you because he knows how to win. Structuring your sessions for success is your responsibility. We need to be constantly aware of our dog’s feelings and make sure that we are willing to modify or abandon our training plan if we can see that our dog is becoming overly stressed. We may have continued for too long a time or external pressures have increased (proximity to ring gates, people, or other dogs). Maybe we need to take a play break or modify the situation so that our dog can succeed.

We do not need to accept mistakes, but we do need to try and understand why they have occurred. Is it an effort error, lack of attention, or does your dog simply not know what you want? We must communicate that the wrong behavior will not be rewarded, but that you want your dog to stay “in the game” and try again, and that you will help if needed.

Successful motivation is a two-way street. You must pay close attention to your dog and provide timely information to reinforce behaviors that you want, and your dog should have full trust in this partnership.


Carolyn Fuhrer has earned over 125 AKC titles with her Golden Retrievers, including 3 Champion Tracker titles. She is also an AKC Tracking Judge.

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. You can contact her with questions, suggestions, and ideas for her column by e-mailing

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