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

Conditioning Your Dog with Fun Tricks

Getting and keeping your performance dog in good condition pays huge benefits. He will perform better and longer, and the possibility of injury is greatly reduced. You can do these tricks at home — actually pretty much anywhere — and no special equipment is required. And since you will be teaching these tricks in a positive manner, your partnership with your dog will grow. Besides, teaching these tricks is FUN!

Rear End Awareness Exercises

Rear-end awareness is critical for performance dog success. They really do need to learn where their hind end is and to move their rear legs consciously.
This video shows 22 rear-end awareness exercises for dogs.

Give Paw, High-Five, Wave

Kickback Stand

Short video with step-by-step instruction on how to teach your dog to do a kickback stand from a sit position (as opposed to walking forward with the front feet).

Target with Hind Foot

Bonus: Teach dog to self-trim rear nails:

Back Up


Roll Over

Take a Bow

Part 1

and Part 2



and backwards


From Pam’s Dog Academy. Five-minute video on teaching dog to sidestep:

This video is for clicker-training junkies like me (and hopefully you). Twenty minutes long, detailed, showing how to train the sidestep from scratch using pure shaping, including pitfalls and so many minute details that could be required to get the job done right. Love the cue: Frrrrrront.”

Another video from Pam’s Dog Academy, training sidestep (using stairs):


Shaping a Behavior

Can your dog read your mind?

Of course he can! You’ll probably swear to it after you’ve shaped a few behaviors, and you can tell your friends this is the case. But you’ll know the truth – that he’s offering you behaviors because he’s been reinforced repeatedly for those behaviors – and he even figured out what works (i.e., what you want. There you go, he can read your mind!).

I like to “shape behaviors” because this method is 100% hands-off and the dog gets to decide what to do – or so he thinks. This method empowers dogs to use their brains – and they do have brains – to figure out how to earn the reinforcement. It’s the most rewarding method I’ve used to train dogs, and I’m talking about rewarding to me, as well as to the dog!

To teach a dog a new behavior, a good trainer will divide the behavior into small “slices” – pieces of behavior that when put together form the final action we want the dog to perform.

For example, to sit in front of you, your dog must first lift his head up, shift weight back, slide his rear legs forward while dropping his haunches… In shaping a sit, each of those pieces would be clicked and treated multiple times. The more pieces a desired behavior is sliced into and each of those pieces reinforced, the more solidly the dog learns the final desired behavior.

Playing the following game with your dog will give you an idea of how the act of reinforcing small behaviors will lead to a dog happily learning things you never dreamed of! Continue reading

Clicker Basics

Three things to understand about using the clicker –

    1. You will click one time when your dog does a behavior you like.

Timing is everything! Pretend you’re taking a snapshot of the desired behavior. Click at exactly the instant that the behavior is happening. This means you should start the click when you see the dog’s muscles tense to sit or move. A touch early will probably mean you’re clicking on time. And what you’re really clicking is the dog’s decision or intent to move.

    1. Each click must be followed by a reward.

The reward can be a treat, or play, or a ride in the car (rather time consuming), a sniff at a tree… The goal is for the reward to be truly rewarding to the dog, not what you think should be rewarding to the dog.

    1. The click ends the behavior.

As soon as he hears the click, the dog is “allowed” to get up, or change otherwise out of the position you were clicking.


To the dog, the click means the following:

  1. What he just did at the instant you clicked was what you will be rewarding him for.
  2. The click is always followed by a reward. Every time. 100%. The dog’s human must not fail!

To teach the dog these simple things, follow these steps:

  1. Put 10-15 small pieces of yummy food in one hand and a clicker in your other hand. Your dog is with you. You may attach the leash to a hook, stand on it – just secure it so the dog is safe and won’t wander away. Pretty soon he won’t even think of wandering away!
  2. Click once and give your dog a treat. Reach down and put the treat in his mouth. The dog does not have to do anything to earn the click or the treat; he just has to be there to eat it.
  3. Repeat.
  4. Repeat.
  5. Repeat until all treats are gone.

You’ll probably notice that at about click #5 or #6 the dog is looking at you sharply when he hears the click. This is good.

If the dog shows no interest in the food, he might be full from a meal, the food might not be yummy enough for him, he could be stressed by the environment, or he could be dead. You’d probably notice that. We can deal with these other issues.

You have just “charged the clicker,” i.e., “classically conditioned” the dog to anticipate a food reward when he hears a click. His association with the click is a good one. You will be using this conditioned response to teach him many things.

What next? See Shaping a Behavior

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