How To Motivate Your Dog

Canine Communication Basics

Have you ever wondered how to communicate with your dog? Maybe you want them to listen to you, or be more obedient to your wishes. In order to do this, you need to get inside their head. How do you do this? By tapping into their motivational drives.

At the most basic level, dogs respond to their environment in order to fulfill their basic biological needs. These include maintaining life (air, water, food), and pain avoidance. Think about it this way: We often use monetary value to make ourselves feel good. Dogs, on the other hand, work on a more simplistic, need-driven system. They ask “what will keep me alive? What will feed me? What will make me feel good? What will satisfy me?”

We ask these same questions of ourselves all day every day, but we do them naturally. Dogs pursue these concepts because they were programmed to do so by their instincts. When we train our dog, we exploit the dog‘s desire to feel good by requiring them to obey the command or perform the behavior as we instruct,  before we allow them to indulge in one of these basic motivating behaviors. Think about it this way: You ask your dog to sit before you give them a treat (supply them with food). Keep in mind that all needs (air, water, food, and pain avoidance) are equally important for conducive canine learning.

The best way to determine the effectiveness of the specific motivation is to see how much effort the dog will go to in order to get the chance to engage in a specific behavior. For example, eating food or chasing prey. Determine what motivates your dog in that moment, and think about how they react to, say, steak vs their kibble.

Kodi’s Motivation

When in the military, I worked with a dog named Kodi. We were in San Antonio in the middle of summer, and she wasn’t listening to my collar corrections (i.e. momentarily depriving the dog of air). I was working with her on sit-stays; she was breaking the stay, which resulted in a collar correction. I then let her pull me where she wanted to go, and she pulled me back to the air-conditioned dog trailer. She had figured out that “the quicker we got through training, the faster I get back to the air conditioning and comfort.” In this instance, comfort was a higher motivator than not being able to breathe.

In order to get Kodi to listen, I pulled her out of the trailer, gave her a sit command, and once she obeyed, immediately put her back into the air conditioning. Over time, she began to respond faster to my commands, since I’d shown her that I knew what she wanted, and would pay her fairly. This is the beginning of partnership through focus, which is the foundation of our focus-based training method.

How To Create Focus

In order to create focus, you need to determine what motivates your dog. Most of the time, we start with food. Pairing the food with a marker such as “yes!” or a clicker is a powerful tool. The marker takes a “snapshot” of the dog’s behavior, and tells them that “you did something good, and a reward is coming!”

In order to create the desired response, we need to start with loading the marker, and creating an emotional response to a word or sound that otherwise has no meaning to the dog. We do this by making the sound (click or “yes!”), then immediately feeding the dog. At this point, you can hand-feed them their kibble, and/or use a higher-value reward. Once the dog associates the sound with the reward, you can use that to snapshot any desired behaviors, such as walking on a loose leash, sitting automatically when you stop, etc. The possibilities are endless!

In addition to food, you can use prey drive in training. Prey drive is defined as “the instinctive inclination of a carnivore to find, pursue and capture prey.” For example, you can use a tug as a reward for your dog when they focus on you instead of, say, the squirrel or deer running across the trail!

Meeting Your Dog’s Needs

When training your dog, there are four basic needs that you can manipulate. Air, water, food, and pain avoidance all play a part in training. For example, you can use a pinch collar to temporarily restrict air flow, or reward your dog with food or play for obeying a command. That said, water is NEVER to be used as a reward – dogs need access to fresh, clean water at all times!

Motivational Drives

Motivational drives work as a secondary reinforcer. In addition to using primary needs, like food and pain avoidance to communicate with your dog (or get their attention), your dog has other motivations that are not necessary for them to live, but but can make the training environment more conducive to learning. We can exploit those drives, which provide us with other ways to reinforce and reward their behavior beyond merely correcting the dog or rewarding them with food. For example, if your dog is getting excited, you can ask them to sit, and once they relax, release them and play tug with them. This is an example of play drive and bonding with your pup.

Putting It All Together

We’ve touched on a lot in this article, but at the end of the day, it comes down to knowing what your dog is motivated by at that particular moment, and manipulating their environment to get the desired outcome. This may sound Machiavellian, but it positions you as a strong leader in your pup’s eyes. Dogs need a pack leader, and by putting yourself in that position, you’re telling your dog that “I got this.” This then allows them to relax and be more confident, knowing that you’re able to help them handle any situation.

If you have questions, drop a comment below, or contact us. We’d love to hear your thoughts