What Motivates YOUR Dog?

Motivation is critical in training dogs. We need motivation, and so especially do our dogs. What motivates most of us best is seeing our dogs learn and love learning.

For the dog, there can be a huge discrepancy between what you think is motivating and what your dog actually finds motivating. Sometimes, depending on circumstances or surroundings, motivators that have been top in the dog’s opinion become mundane and uninteresting — sometimes even annoying! Thus, it’s very important that you know what drives your dog and that you have a variety of these things available when you train.

Use the list below to help make your own list of what your dog loves; you’ll probably have items that are not included in the list (tell us about them!). On the other hand, you may find some new ideas here! Think like your dog, and rank them in importance. Be sure to include at least 10 items in your list.

  1. Steak
  2. Liverwurst
  3. Frisbee game
  4. Tug
  5. Canned catfood
  6. Back scratch
  7. Peanut butter
  8. Car ride
  9. Chase game
  10. Sniff around a tree

Rewards are not all — or always — created equal

Think about how your dog will react to your choices in different circumstances: training at home, coming to agility or obedience class, playing with his friends in the park, etc. You may notice that some of your reinforcers are not suitable for certain activities (e.g., hard to use “go for a ride” at agility class, at least not more than once per session). You should also consider, if using food, that a variety of food choices taken from higher and lower rankings might be more useful than only one food type, even if it’s the top choice. For instance, if your dog will KILL for chicken, you may want to bring it to class to use for “superior” performance, especially of a difficult task, but that you also have some jerky treats to use for “good” performance, and even alternate those jerky treats with a “lesser” treat in order to keep the dog guessing — and interested!

If your dog is having problems focusing on you — he continually puts his nose on the ground and wanders out to the end of the leash, or keeps trying to visit a nearby dog to socialize — just isn’t interested in what YOU are doing, definitely rethink what you are using as motivators. A high-powered motivator delivered frequently for a job well done should be sufficient to keep the dog with you. Be sure that your working sessions are short, especially in the early learning phases, so the dog doesn’t become overwhelmed with the job you are asking of him. Understand that sometimes the environment is just too stimulating for a dog and he is unable to focus. That is when you might move him away from all the activity or ask to have a barrier between you and the other dogs. Alternatively, you could lower your expectations for the time being. Often a dog will be overstimulated the first time he is in a new place (especially a training class) but is a totally different dog, able to focus and work, at the next class session.

Alpo treats Basketball Back scratch
Apples Ball on a rope Barking session
Baby food Boat bumper Belly rub
Bacon Boomer ball Ball game
Beef or other bones Braided tug Car Ride
Bil Jack Burlap sack Chase a laser spot
Bologne Cow milker toy Chase game
Canned cat food Fleece tug Chasing tail
Carrots Frisbee Clapping & cheering
Cat treats Furry mouse Cuddling
Charlee Bears Gumabone Flyball
Cheerios Hockey puck Get in the kennel
Chicken Jolly Ball Get out of the kennel
Cheese Kongs Go into the house
Cooked pasta Leashe Get out of the car
Croutons Nylabone Howling session
Crackers Protective sleeve Hand targeting
Dinner Puppy tug Heeling
Dog biscuits Riot Tug Herding (sheep, children, leaves)
Dried liver Rocks Hose – chasing water
Drinking water Rope tug Hunting rodents
Fish flavored treats Rubber chicken On the furniture
Freeze dried liver Sock with ball Trip to the park
Greenies Snowballs Pee on a tree
Ground beef Squeaky toy Play with other dogs
Ham Squishy ball Play with the cats
Hamburger Stick Play with children
Hard boiled eggs Stuffed Animal Pulling a sled
Heart, kidneys, liver Target stick Playing in Sprinkler
Hot dogs (chicken, beef) Tennis ball Running off leash
Ice cream Tug toy Praise
Ice cubes Retrieving
Jerky (beef, turkey …) Tummy tickle
Go outdoors
Liver cookies Meeting other dogs Hand targeting
Meatballs Ratting Heeling
Oinker Roll Shredding paper Herding (sheep, children, leaves)
Peanut butter Swimming Hose – chasing water
Pizza On the furniture
Popcorn Trip to the park
Pureed liver
Play with other dogs
Pupperoni Go for a walk or ride Play with the cats
Rawhide chews Wrestle with you Play with children
Red Barn or similar Clicker session (free shaping) Pulling a sled
Sausages Weave legs Running in sprinkler
Sardines Bow Off leash hike
Steak Jump in arms Praise
String cheese Roll over Retrieving
Venison Back up Soccer game
Right side heel Pee on a tree
Shake hands Agility
Play dead Tracking
Spin Tug game

Stay to Play

Here’s a fun game to play with your dog that will help teach her impulse control, develop a more solid stay and an enthusiastic release.

Tug-N-Treat toy, available from Clean Run, helps teach your non-toy-motivated dog to lust after toys Search for it at cleanrun.com

This exercise will help teach your dog what a release cue is and will build in anticipation for that cue. So be sure you know what word you’re using as a release, and stick with it!

You can use a special toy, but if your dog isn’t crazy about toys, you can use a Tug-N-Treat toy, or even her favorite treats.

Tease the dog with the toy (or food) and ask her to sit.  Immediately release from the sit (OK!), CLICK, and then run with the toy. When the dog catches up, play (or feed). If you’re feeding, add plenty of praise; feeding should be more than merely dropping a piece of food into the dog’s always ready maw. Be excited!

Start out with the dog right next to you.  Work both sides.

If the dog gets up before your release, just don’t play. (“oops!” and back into a sit)

The dog has to sit and remain sitting, and wait for the release to play the game.

Gradually add distance from the dog, but don’t worry too much about duration. She must, however, hold it while you walk away and wait for her release.

Early in teaching the game (after your dog understands that you expect her to stay until you release her), start to tease her with movement. Start this when you’re still close to her. Look like you’re getting ready to run (rock back on your heels slightly, tense to spring, wiggle, move your feet – you’re adding both duration and distractions here, hopefully building her anticipation – and control). If she breaks, just start over without any comment. Remember, it’s a game! Keep it light, and fun!