What Motivates your Dog or Puppy?


What motivates your DOG or PUPPY?

A well-trained dog does not work for free!

Why is it important to motivate your dog?  Many think that dogs should just want to please us and the truth is that dogs do what benefits them and what earns them reinforcement.  Pulling to sniff a bush is reinforcing, because he pulled and received the benefit of sniffing the bush.  What if he could also get to sniff the bush if he first did what you want?  Let’s say, he walks on a loose leash, then you could reinforce him by allowing him to sniff a bush.  This is just one example of reinforcement.  There are countless ways one can reinforce a dog.  Keep in mind that dogs are always learning.  They can either be taught the right behaviors or they can learn bad habits all on their own.  “You can’t blame him, if you don’t train him”, so ask yourself, “is he learning the right behaviors?”  Are you teaching him what you do want, rather than punishing what you do not want?

How do you teach him the appropriate behaviors?  First, determine what it is that you want your dog to know.  Next, find things that your dog finds reinforcing.  Now, use those reinforcers to reward all the behaviors that you like.  Soon your dog will choose to do what you like, because he is earning what he likes.  In other words, good things happen to the dog when he does the proper behaviors.

Positive reinforcement is not about becoming a cookie pusher.  Comments such as,  “I do not want my dog to get fat” or “I do not want to always have to give my dog treats”, are not true if reinforcement is used properly.  Many use treats as bribes to elicit a behavior.  I am not suggesting that you bribe your dog with a reinforcer, but rather wait for the acceptable behavior and then reinforce.  Reinforcement is much more complicated and important than just giving dogs treats.  If reinforcement is used properly it can have a long lasting effect on the dog’s behavior.  I always say, “Reinforcement drives behavior” because the more a particular behavior is rewarded the more the dog will offer and perform that specific behavior.  I like to think of reinforcement as a paycheck for a job well done.  I would not go to work if I did not receive a paycheck. I love training dogs, but would not train my client’s dogs for free.  Do you work for free?

What is reinforcing to a dog?

When a trainer says they use reinforcement, the first thing people think of are treats or food, but reinforcement could be food, toys, play, or environmental rewards.  Think of reinforcement as something valuable, a reward, or motivator. Being able to get in many repetitions in the beginning of training is important because it will help the dog build muscle memory for that particular behavior, which is why many use food rewards in training.

Why should one use reinforcement or rewards when training a dog?

Well as I mentioned earlier, “Reinforcement drives behavior”.  What exactly does that mean?  It means that if a desired behavior is rewarded many times, then the likelihood of the dog doing that behavior will increase.  From the day I brought my puppy home, I rewarded him for being next to me.  Whenever he chose to be next to me either on or off leash, I would give him a piece of food or play tug with him.  Now, he is a permanent fixture at my side, which is just one great example of how reinforcing a behavior really works.

Food Rewards

The great thing about reinforcing a dog with food is that all dogs need to eat. Some dogs are more interested in food than others.  Using food as a reward is simple for dog owners.  In addition giving treats, allows for many repetitions to take place of a desired behavior in a short amount of time, which is important in the beginning stages of training.

Training Tips Regarding Food Rewards:

  1. Use treats that are more valuable than your dog’s daily dinner when training a new behavior. Here are some examples: chicken, lamb, beef, cheese, kibble, lunch meat, hot dogs, canned chicken, salmon, and cereal.
  2. Prepare the treats ahead of time and make sure they are about the size of a pea for large dogs and smaller than a pea for small dogs.  This will prevent the dog from filling up quickly and will allow for more repetitions of a given behavior.
  3. If the dog gives you an outstanding effort (faster, snazzier, or around distractions) feel free to give the dog a jackpot.  A jackpot consists of about ten treats given one right after another along with praise, which tells the dog that he did an amazing job.  Dog’s, like a human sitting at the slot machine will remember that jackpot.
  4. Food rewards should be easy to chew and swallow.  You do not want your dog choking.
  5. If the environment is distracting, then the food reward should be of higher value and worth the effort for your dog. When you are training a behavior in your kitchen you might get away with using kibble, but when training at the park you will need to bring out the high value rewards.
  6. Use a variety of food rewards in training.  This will help prevent the dog from being bored of that particular food and will keep the dogs attention.  When you vary the reinforcement, you will become unpredictable and this will keep your dog engaged.
  7. To prevent weight gain, make sure that when doing a lot of training, you cut back on the dog’s daily food intake.
  8. If your dog is more toy motivated, you could give a piece of food as a reward and when he eats the food, he gets to play with his favorite toy.  This will build the value of the food.

If your dog is not “food motivated” then I would suggest cutting back on the dogs daily food intake.  Sometimes dogs are just over fed and are not hungry when training.  By decreasing the amount of food the dog intakes and putting the dog on a food schedule, you will find that the dog should be more interested in the food as a reward.  In addition to limiting a dog’s daily food intake, you could use their regular dinner for training.  Lastly, if your dog is normally food motivated, but will not take food it could be that he is too stressed to eat.  Move to a different location or create more distance between your dog and the distractions until your dog is able to eat again.

Check out this dog training enrichment product called the “Snuffle Mat”

Toy rewards

Some dogs are very motivated by toys and play, so you should definitely use toys as a reward anytime you can.  You should vary the reinforcer and alternate between toys and treats to prevent boredom as well as teach your dog to work for many types of reinforcement.

For dog’s that do not prefer to play, you can train him to like it more by associating play with treats.  Get the dog interested in the toy and for playing he gets a treat.  Eventually your dog will enjoy playing and you can use play as reinforcement in training.

Start playing with your dog or puppy to build the desire to play and keep using play as a motivator.  Put the toys away and only bring them out during training and when you are playing with your dog.  This will increase the value of the toy and help build a positive connection with you.

The great thing about play is that it really allows the dog and owner to build a strong connection and bond.  This wonderful relationship will grow the more you get to know and spend time with your new shelter dog.  Playing is also good exercise and mentally stimulating.

Many are afraid that too much play will cause the dog to stress or become over aroused, which could be true depending on the situation.  However, if you make sure your dog knows the rules of the game and acts appropriately by taking it, dropping it, bringing it back to continue play, and does not to put his teeth on you, then you are probably just fine.


Use a variety of toys such as: tugs, balls, Frisbees, and squeaky toys.  The variety of toys that you can find at a local pet store is astounding.

Environmental rewards

There are many things in the environment that dogs find reinforcing.  So, use those things as rewards.  This method is called the Premack Principle and basically can be used with anything that your dog finds exciting.  In short, if the dog does something you like, he gets something he likes.  You ask your dog to walk on a loose leash and he gets to sniff a bush.  You ask your dog to come to you and then he can go back and play with his doggie friends.  You ask your dog to do agility obstacles and then he can go and sniff gopher holes.  I personally use a clicker or a word to mark the behavior I like and then a release cue such as “Ok, Break, or Free” to tell the dog he can go to his reward.  Every dog finds things in the environment rewarding, so why not use them in training.

Some environmental rewards might include: playing with human family members, sniffing (bushes, grass, dogs, sidewalks, gopher holes), playing with another dog, swimming, and running.  By observing your dog you can figure out what he really enjoys.

Your homework

It does not matter if you just rescued a dog or if you have had your dog for years, it is never too late to find something that will motivate him to learn.  The best way to find out what your new dog will go nuts over is to try out many food items, toys, and to observe your dog to find out what he likes to do.  I challenge you to find at least five food, five toys, and five environmental rewards that your dog loves.  Once you find out his favorites, rank the items and know which ones are more valuable than others.  You can rank them according to one being the most valuable and five being the least.  Now you are ready to use these rewards to train your dog.

For learning to take place, it is important to know what motivates your dog.  Every dog is different, just like every human is different.  What works for one, may not work for another.  So, experiment and find the perfect rewards for your dog.