Probably the most important thing you can learn before or as you start training is how to motivate your dog. If your dog isn’t motivated, he won’t be connected to you or engaged, and you will both struggle with training. Not much fun!
But just wanting motivation isn’t enough. You have to learn how to motivate your dog–and it can be very different from dog to dog. But you will have much more fun and success training if you take the time to learn how to motivate your dog. And your relationship with your dog will improve enormously!
What Is Engagement?
I want my dog engaged with me. Focused on me, with that “What’s next?” ” What are we going to do?” attitude. It will look a bit different with each dog, but making eye contact, ears forward, wagging tail, eager expression–that’s what we’re looking for.
How Do I Get Engagement?
Some dogs have natural engagement. As soon as they see a person, they want to be involved doing something with the person. Other dogs are more interested in their surroundings, than in interacting with a person. Some dogs are high energy, and want to be busy. This can be awesome if you direct that energy into engaging with you, or can be very difficult if they direct their energy into other things–another dog, what’s out the window, etc. Other dogs have a lower energy level, and really just want to watch.
But all dogs can be taught to engage and be motivated to work with you. Some are a bit more of a project, but it’s really rewarding to get any dog eagerly responding.
What Is Going To Reward Your Dog?
Just like people, dogs have preferences. I love to read. Many people dislike it. I don’t like ball games (except with my dogs). A great many people live for ball games.
If you want to know how to motivate your dog, you need to spend some time finding out what he really likes. Treats are the go-to reward for many people, and most dogs like them. But it isn’t a given that treats are the best motivator for your dog.
Many dogs love toys. Other dogs are lukewarm about them.
Personal play with your dog–bouncing around with him, dashing back and forth–is great fun for some dogs. But other dogs would prefer not to engage in such play, and many humans aren’t fond of it.
Praise and petting are definitely rewarding to most dogs, but usually not a strong enough reward by themselves to get and keep engagement. Added to the other rewards though, they can be super.
Get Engagement Before You Start Training
I often see people asking their dog to do things when the dog obviously has his attention on something else. It will very much decrease your success! Imagine if you were in school, looking out the window at two dogs playing with each other, and the teacher was talking about a new math concept. (Hmm, I seem to remember from my school days. . . ).
As humans, we hopefully know that paying attention in class is important, and we will later wish we had. (Yep, really seems familiar). Dogs don’t have that concept. Dogs do what works for them. They won’t give you their attention when other things are happening, just because “they should”. You need to be more interesting than the distraction, and teach them that paying attention to you really pays off. It’s fun! If you spend some time getting engagement, at first maybe for a short period, and develop their desire to engage with you (because it works for them), you will get a dog eager and willing to work with you.
Some dogs naturally like toys. Others aren’t so turned on by them. Tug games are great for getting engagement, if your dog likes them. Many dogs can learn the joy of tug games, and we’ll talk about that throughout the rest of this post.
I often hear the concern that tugging builds aggression. Tugging involves energy and activity, so it is arousing. But we want that arousal, then we can direct it into engagement with us. Along with learning to take and tug with a toy, a dog needs to learn an off cue, to release the toy. There are many ways to do this, and that is a topic for another post.
I hear concern that dogs growl during play. Yes, many do. Think of it as them cheering. The same dogs often growl and vocalize while playing happily with other dogs–it’s part of their play style. And quite different from a dog resource guarding or becoming over aroused during play with another dog.
Pushing a toy into your dog’s face will actually discourage many dogs from playing. But dogs love movement. So jerk the toy away, make it “run” around like a rabbit, and prey drive kicks in and the dog will try to chase and grab it. Oh, no! Prey drive?
Yes, dogs come with prey and hunt drive built in. Originally dogs needed to seek out food or chase it down. It’s in the dog, to some degree. So let’s use it! Again, there is no reason to think it causes aggression! Chase that moving toy, grab it, tug it. And you are part of the game! Moving the toy, tugging on the toy, cheering the dog on. You and the dog playing together!
The dog will be engaged with you as part of this wonderful game. Then “done” or “drop it”, and all action stops until the dog drops the toy (I start this with puppies the first day I meet them). You may need food to get the dog to drop it right at first, but they quickly learn that by dropping it, play will soon resume. Then there is a pause, and you will see your dog fully engaged with you, with that “what’s next” expression. Engagement! Then a cue to resume play “get it”. And you are back to the tug game.
Look at what this teaches the dog. Engagement, this awesome tug game he plays with you. But also self-control or impulse control–to drop the toy when asked and not grab it again until told he can! This is a very important part of playing with toys. And you need to be consistent. If my dog won’t drop it while first learning, I gently take his collar, and I take all pressure off the toy. All action stops, until he drops (or allows me to take) the toy. Then his reward is “get it” and play resumes. You have just built in an on and off switch! How cool is that!
Of course, it takes many play sessions to get to this point. And you want to stay upbeat–this is a game to encourage your dog to play (work) with you. A sharp “drop it” cue will do the opposite. Trying to force the toy out of your dog’s mouth will build his determination to not let you have it. Not what you want!
Personal play is you and your dog playing together with no toys or food involved. Again, some dogs love this, and other dogs are less interested in it. You can build most dog’s willingness to engage in personal play, and it is an awesome reward when toys or treats aren’t immediately available, or in conjunction with toys and treats.
Some people really don’t want to bounce around with their dogs. And that’s fine, they have other means of rewarding their dogs. Each person who does do personal play with their dogs has his own style and boundaries. I prefer my dogs not put their mouths on me when we play. If children are going to be playing with the dog, I think not using their mouths to play with people is a good idea. But if you don’t mind, and your dog has a soft mouth, go for it.
When I initiate play I don’t mind my dogs putting their feet on me and jumping on me. Many people don’t want the dog jumping on them. And that is fine. If you are consistent, your dog will learn he can jump on you while engaged in play, but not other times. But it is probably easier to have an across the board no jumping up rule, if you really object to jumping. Your decision for you and your dog, but be consistent with your rules to be fair to the dog.
So what’s left, if you don’t want teeth or paws on you? Tons! Chase games, pushing the dog (many dogs love this, others don’t like it. Watch your dog, he’ll tell you). Jumping around, pretending to grab the dog (again, your dog will show if he likes it), really anything that your dog likes and you also enjoy. Just make sure the dog is aware that this is a game. For instance, never chase a dog because he won’t come, or has something he shouldn’t. But “I’mmm going to get you”, with you smiling and crouching, lets the dog know a game is coming.
Personal play is a developed skill in many dogs. Start with small doses, always try to stop while the dog is having fun, so you avoid having the dog run out of steam. We want to build his desire, not saturate him.
If your dog will engage in play, but is not very interested in toys, you can introduce toys into your play sessions and perhaps build his interest in toys. At first engage in play, and when your dog is fully involved, pull a toy out of your pocket and add it to the game for a few minutes.
Food As Rewards
Probably the most common reward for training is food treats. Dogs vary in their enthusiasm for treats, but most dogs are eager to have them. Treats are convenient for training, and really the best reward for many tasks. For instance, when initially training the “sit”, a food lure moving back over their head will get most dogs to sit, and then the lure is given as the reward. Using toys or personal play is harder for the dog to make the connection between the actual sit and that it earned the reward. Dogs learning to sit usually don’t have much experience with a marker (see Clicker Training), so the reward needs to be immediate and connected to the action.
Treats need to be ones the dog actually likes. That sounds obvious, but many people use the criteria that the dog will eat them. I want my treats to be ones the dog loves. In many situations (for instance, training class) dogs won’t really focus for lesser treats. But bring out a really high value treat (maybe cheese, or dried liver or a bit of roast beef) and you have the dog’s full attention.
I often meet dogs that really aren’t that motivated by treats. They obviously will eat some food, or they wouldn’t be alive. There are many reasons dogs may not take treats. The most common is they are not comfortable in their surroundings. Many dogs won’t take treats in class at first, but will as they get more used to it.
The next most obvious reason is they don’t like that particular treat. It pays off to find what the dog really likes. In a situation that the dog will be getting a lot of treats, you may want to have a variety. I usually start with treats the dog really likes, and then part way through the session switch to treats the dog loves. Some have luck with mixing a variety of well-liked treats. This works well with many dogs. Others won’t take the others once he gets his favorite. Test different ways, see what works best for your dog!
You can actually “train” your dog to like treats better. If your dog doesn’t take a treat, don’t push it at him. Imagine how much you would like it if you turned down a piece of food, and it got pushed in your face! I like to deliver the treat a tiny bit in front of the dog’s mouth, so he has to reach forward a tad to get it.
If your dog looks as if he isn’t enjoying himself (isn’t comfortable in his surroundings) try to get him more comfortable before offering treats. With a dog who loves treats, you can use them in this situation with some calming or upbeat talk (depending on the dog and situation), to get him happier. But the dog who isn’t enthusiastic about treats in the first place will probably refuse them, and perhaps associate them with unhappy times! For this dog use other ways to get him more comfortable–perhaps moving further from the action, soothing talk and petting, toy or personal play if appropriate, etc.
Add movement to the treats. Dogs love movement. Once you have a marker (again, check out Clicker Training), mark and toss the treat. Or mark and pull the treat a couple feet away so the dog has to move to get it. Many dogs get much more enthusiastic about treats if there is an element of play involved. Maybe just play treat games for awhile–having the dog chase a treat in your hand, or chase a tossed treat. Again, that basic rule about stopping while the dog is having a good time. We want to build his treat drive, not saturate him.
If your dog is not enthusiastic about toys, but likes treats, you can use treat games to develop some toy interest. Toss a few treats one at a time, with lots of movement and enthusiasm on your part, until your dog is dashing after treats and coming back to you full of energy. Then use this energy to try to engage him in a game with a toy for a few seconds, or personal play, then back to treat games.
Praise And Petting
Verbal praise is awesome. I use it freely as feedback to the dog that he is doing well. Physical petting can also be very rewarding to the dog. It is especially useful for times you want to calm the dog or practice calm behavior.
Be sure your dog likes how you pet him! Does that sound silly to you? I can’t tell you how often I see people petting their dog in ways the dog is saying he doesn’t like. Very few dogs like having their head grabbed at ear level and ruffled. Many jump back to avoid it. Listen to your dog! Most dogs prefer to be ruffled on their necks or bodies. You are wanting to express affection–it will work far better if he likes the way you do it! There are certainly dogs who enjoy the head ruffling or vigorous head patting, but they are the minority.
Your dog will let you know what he likes. Many like scratching behind their ears, or calm head stroking, but don’t like having their brains shaken around. Try this: Pet, jostle, hug, whatever for 3 or 4 seconds. Then stop. Does your dog indicate he wants more? By moving into you, nudging you, looking expectantly for more? Or does your dog move away, or not make any attempt to reconnect with you? He just told you if he liked what you did!
I see many dogs in class that jump back when their owner goes to pet them. The dog will get a behavior right, and the owner will reach out to pet the dogs head, and the dog jumps away. These same dogs are fine if the owner reaches toward the dog’s chest or body. Watch your dog! He’ll tell you what he wants! Doing what is not pleasant for the dog will do the opposite of motivate him!
So Let’s Get Back To How To Motivate Your Dog
Let’s put this all together. We have found what our dog likes, and are building on that. Treats, toys, personal play, praise, petting. In order for your dog to be motivated to work with you, he first has to be comfortable in his surroundings. For many dogs, at first the main emphasis in a group class has to be adjusting to the situation and being around so many distractions. It may be frustrating to you to have to be working on your dog settling, rather than the lesson of the day. But it might be best for the dog to be further away from the group, or behind a visual barrier, and just work on remaining calm–click, treat for calm behavior. Asking for the sit or down may be like asking you to do a complicated math problem while crossing a street in New York City! First you have to be used to city noises, then you have to feel safe that traffic is stopped, and then this example falls apart, because you really should be concentrating on your surroundings!
For the dog, he needs to feel he is safe. If he is shy, or nervous around strange dogs or people, or worried about new noises, he won’t be motivated to work with you. But if he really likes treats, and they are coupled with calm talk, he will become more comfortable. Or maybe just your voice and quiet stroking will help him. But understand that you need to be helping him feel more relaxed. When you get home to your dog’s usual surroundings, you can work on the class material. And eventually your dog will be comfortable enough in class that you can be working on whatever the lesson is for that day.
Distractions will also keep your dog from focusing on you. So work on motivation in calm surroundings, then gradually take it on the road to places with a few distractions, then more and more. You need to develop motivation and engagement in calm environments, and gradually move it to higher distraction areas. In other words, don’t try initially to teach your dog to come during an off leash walk through the woods. Start in your living room teaching him that coming on cue gets the greatest rewards ever! Whatever those rewards are for him.
What’s In A Name?
The first exercise I do with a dog is getting him responding to his name. It’s a great way to get started on motivation!
Say your dog’s name in a normal but upbeat voice. Just as if you were getting a person’s attention. If the dog looks toward you, mark with a clicker or a “yes”, and reward. If the dog likes treats, give or toss a treat. Treats are probably the best reward at first, but toys and play also work well. Especially after the dog gets the idea.
If the dog doesn’t look toward you, don’t repeat his name. Make a different noise, or move, or clap your hands. When the dog looks toward you, even a glance, have a party! Be sure to mark the glance with a click or “yes” so he knows what the party is about.
When the dog catches on that looking toward you for hearing his name always gets him something good, he’ll get better and better at it. Practice first at home, with no distractions. Then in the yard. Then on a walk when he is relaxed. Then on a walk when he is intent on something else. This is a game that really pays off!
How Do I Motivate My Dog?
So back to our original question. How do I motivate my dog?
- First spend some time finding what your dog likes, and work on building his enthusiasm for it. Find yummy treats, play treat games (adding movement to treat delivery), encourage tugging or personal play.
- Next work on having your dog respond to his name eagerly with a good reward party. I do this throughout my dog’s life.
- Before you ask your dog to do anything, be sure you have his attention. Call his name, when he responds reward. Now you have his attention. Spend a few moments interacting with him–jolly talk, play, pats.
- Now you are ready to start training! If you keep an upbeat attitude, and reward in ways that actually motivate him (a treat tossed may be better that one handed to him, or a treat he has to chase your hand for may be better than one slipped into his mouth), you should maintain his engagement with you.
- If you notice his attention slipping, either re-engage him with your energy and play, or end the session with a last bit of engagement and an “all done” cue.
- Always, always, always acknowledge when your dog responds to a cue. If you start ignoring your dog, he will start ignoring you!
You want to motivate your dog. You have found what he likes. You have worked to increase his enthusiasm for his rewards. Now you want to be sure you pay as much attention to your dog as you want him to pay to you!
As you and he get better engaging with each other through practice, you will find you can do more training between rewards. In other words, at first your dog gets a reward for each sit–reward; down–reward; back up to sit–reward. Soon you can do sit, down, back to sit–reward. Watch your dog, and he’ll let you know how often he needs rewards to stay motivated.
Keep your training interesting. In the middle of your training session, just play for a bit. You and your dog will get energized, and you both will be ready for more training. It should always be FUN, for you and your dog. Don’t make it a chore for your dog, make it the best part of his day!
If you have any questions or comments, you can leave them below. Or feel free to email me directly at email@example.com.