Motivation. Every animal (humans included) is motivated by something. People work with the motivation to get paid. Work out with the motivation to be healthy. Save money with the motivation for a nice retirement or 70 inch TV. Just as humans, dogs also have their own motivations for why they do things. Understanding their motivation and ensuring they stay motivated, will help get the behaviors you want.
“My dog isn’t food motivated.” Trainers hear that fairly often but I can assure you, your dog is food motivated. If Rover gets up, walks to his bowl, and begins to eat from his bowl, he’s food motivated. They need it to live. When I work with clients, I want to ensure Rover has skipped a meal or not eaten yet. Seems cruel but I want him hungry… motivated. Some trainers recommend only feeding during training. If you can do that, go for it! It’s a great idea but for the average family, it may not be a realistic option. There are other alternatives using puzzles and food dispensing toys but mental stimulation is a whole different topic.
Dogs are animals driven by many things but they generally focus on the here and now. Unfortunately, due to that fact, dogs need immediate gratification. This is a major difference to humans. We have the ability to delay gratification (savings accounts, retirement, goal weight, etc.). Dogs on the other hand need immediate feedback with immediate reinforcement. If we don’t provide that, we lost that opportunity.
“Watch me” – Say Rover is mildly distracted and the handler gets a split-second of eye contact, reinforced it. The dog actively made the choice to look at you in an environment that may be extremely interesting. If the handler doesn’t reinforce in time or at all, something in the environment may take their attention away and the dog learns to desensitize the food. This especially happens when trying to lure them. If this happens often enough, the food becomes less important, even irrelevant. Food becomes your SPAM email. None-important. So used to seeing it, that you don’t even care. “X” it. Delete it. Move to Trash.
Since dogs are behavior driven, we have to ensure that we reinforcement behaviors to keep them motivated. Food (primary reinforcer) in training is something that we take for granted. We too often use food to lure the dog into position but don’t always give it to them for the behavior or we are too late in our timing. If the dog doesn’t get that immediate reinforcement, we could be teaching them that the treat isn’t valuable. Food or motivators have to be given at the proper time and appropriately. Sometimes we focus on the promise of food but don’t actually give it to them. GIVE THEM THE REINFORCEMENT! ‘High Priority!’ ‘Time-Sensitive’ ‘Immediate Action Required.’
On a side note:
I can honestly say that I have only met 1 dog that truly was not food motivated. Her name was Tulip. She was a shelter dog I met while volunteering a few years ago. She was a sweet, easy-going dog that adored her handlers. She preferred strictly relationship-based training. Treats were optional to her, even high value ones but she did love her handlers’ affection. To this day I think about a time when I had to do a presentation for a group of kids and she refused to do anything. She was fluent in behaviors like “Sit”, “Down”, etc. but she refused to do any behaviors when I asked. Hindsight is 20/20. I look back on it now and see that we failed to generalize the behaviors in new environments or with new people and maybe she was food motivated? Maybe she didn’t feel safe or was stressed with different handlers? A dog has to feel safe before any learning can happen. She was luckily adopted into a wonderful home with another dog and has since become a therapy dog. I truly believe it is a perfect fit for her.
When working with your dog, find what motivates him and keep that motivation going. Is Fetch life? Teach obedience with a fun game of fetch. It pairs beautifully with something he loves while teaching self-control. Does your dog looooove sniffing the environment? Work on nosework games! “Find it” is fantastic for dogs that love nosework or just need to build some confidence. Does your dog love chasing squirrels? Who doesn’t?!? Make a flirt-pole and like Fetch, pair the love of chasing with obedience.
Your dog is an individual with their own motivations. Be creative. Tap into their motivations and don’t SPAM them!