Let’s start with you. What motivates you to learn? Is it the desire to earn more money, the glory of a new certificate or because you’re just so eager to please the teacher (so to speak)?
I’m guessing it’s not the third reason!
I’m sure you’ve heard people say that their dog is ‘just so eager to please.’ You may have said it yourself! You’re not wrong. Most dogs love engagement with their human and will relish the opportunity to interact. That doesn’t necessarily translate to effective teaching and training.
Finding out what motivates your dog is important. If you have a list of their favourite things, that’s a good start. If I asked you to tell me the top three things that motivates your dog, I imagine that a couple of these things would be on the list:
- Squeaky Toys
- Tennis Balls
- Tug Toys
What else? What if we broke down these areas and looked at, for example, the different types of food. Would your dog choose chicken over cheese… liver cake over hot dog sausages… roast beef over a knuckle bone? What is at the top of your dog’s food hierarchy? For games and regular training rewards, you can happily use the treats that are around the bottom of a hierarchy. Maybe not a knuckle bone…! Then, the rewards at the top of the hierarchy can be reserved for cues that have to be consistent. Games like recall!
Like with us, food preferences can change so your dog will keep you on your toes. You might notice than in warmer weather, your dog isn’t as keen on their usual favourite food.
What about toys? Most dogs have a favourite, but again, that can change. You can also look at your dog’s breed when exploring toy choices. Terriers will often love a tug toy to shake around, collies will often enjoy a toy they can chase and rotties love a teddy bear that they can cuddle up with – or is that just mine?
Will your dog walk away from food for their favourite toy? If they will, it’s worth thinking about a game with their favourite toy being the ultimate reward for important cues. Does your recall sound mean the start of a game with their favourite toy?
What about other motivators? Other rewards? Our youngest team member will do anything to get to water. I mean, anything! So, if that’s his favourite thing, we can use it as a motivator. We can play recall games and his reward is to play in the river. We can then play recall games where he’s called out of the river and his reward is being able to go back in.
Another of his favourite things is scent work. He’s amazing at it. He will turn away from a knuckle bone to play a game of ‘find it’. That’s how much he loves scent work! So, after an awesome recall, he doesn’t just get paid with some smelly cheese and liver cake, he gets paid by having to find them with a quick game of ‘find it’!
We have also learnt that in the house, he will learn tricks and love engaging with fuss and less exciting treats as rewards. However, as soon as we step outside of the house, fuss means nothing to him! He’s like a teenager who’s embarrassed by his parents.
Writing down all the things that motivates your dog means you can be prepared for different environments, have their favourite things to hand and have little low-value treats too.
If you’re using games and toys, then make sure that you’re part of the interaction so your dog is reaping the reward and engaged.
Have some fun with your dog while you’re working out what their reward hierarchy is. They’ll certainly be having fun showing you their favourite things… and you might be surprised. Watching Mr Bear ignore a knuckle bone for a game of ‘find it’ with a low value treat was a surprise to me!
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