Understanding motivation should be simple. Most people can recognize what they and others around them find motivating. Then we take a closer look at the choices made and we wonder.
With dogs, it can be as simple and as complicated. Fortunately, relative to people, dogs’ lives are fairly simple so the choices for motivators, while they can vary, are ultimately limited to a few options. As simple as this may sound, it gets a bit murky. Some dogs might prefer a certain kind of attention or from a certain person more than another, other dogs might be very motivated by some toys or food but completely bored with other choices. Some dogs may not seem to be very interested in anything you offer. So within the scope of practical motivators (its not like you can offer your dog a trip to Disneyworld for every down/stay they perform well), how does one build a dog that is interested in working, learning and communicating with you?
Well, once a day for as many days as you can come up with ideas, take a few minutes to find out your dog’s interest level. Only try one idea a day! If you ply your dog with 5 different games using 8 different toys, odds are you won’t have a very clear idea of which were preferred if any. So check out calling him/her to you and offering a cube of cheese or a favorite toy. Another day, try giving them a bit of warm praise with a scratch behind the ears or a good back rub. In addition to determining what gets your dog’s motor humming you will probably also determine what gets them revved up versus calmed down, clearly very valuable when training becomes part of the exercise.
So, maybe you think you were lucky cause you came up with a long list of things your dog loves. Maybe, on the other hand, you will likely have new challenges as you dog might find the motivators available from others to be as interesting than what you are offering! Everyone has seen the dog in class that is ignoring its handler while drooling over the toy or treat offered by someone else nearby to their dog. Anyway, this is just to put into perspective that the highly motivated dog is not necessarily a better dog to train than another, just different.
Regardless, this next exercise is great for building a strong motivator. Did you dog like a couple things? Like a favorite toy and say a treat or attention? If so, try combining them to build an even stronger motivator. Let’s say your dog loves to bring his toys to you, but after three times, he’s over it. Ok, well now, that toy goes up in the closet or on a top shelf, except when its time for your motivation seminar. Bring down the toy and play for a few moments or toss it for him/her to retrieve and then offer the additional motivator whether it be a tummy rub or a cookie. Do it one more time. Then, the toy goes up and out of site until tomorrow. Kind of a bum deal, isn’t it? But you left your dog wanting more, and as any entertainer will tell you, that is a path to celebrity! Sure enough, in a few days, you’ll be able to get 5 reps out of your dog with them being disappointed when its over. Even so, don’t keep building, start varying it. Some days do it just once and others do it a few more times. If you really feel guilty you can have more play sessions, but still with few repetitions. Ultimately you will be able to remove one of the motivators (like the food) and still have a super-enthusiastic dog that is motivated by the hope and promise of the original motivator (like the toy).
With that in place, you can then start using the Motivator (that great drive we just developed) and pair it up with less desirable activities to build up a willingness. For example, after building on the strong retrieving drive of an 8 year old dog, her owner began to touch her foot with the nail clippers. When she stood calmly, the owner then threw the ball. Soon the dog would offer her foot to her owner who could clip a nail in exchange for a nice little game of ball. She had been successful in building the dog’s desire for the ball to something that exceeded her hesitancy about nail clipping! It is important when using this technique to move in small steps though that are at a level the dog comfortably accepts.