It’s all about the right motivation

By: Wendy Beasley


It’s all about the right motivation

As dog trainers, we are often heard talking about motivation or lack of it, and of late courses have been held and well attended by those who want to increase this very important aspect of a dog’s drive for work. There is no doubt that without motivation no one, neither human nor canine, would have any desire to do anything, so in its purest form it is just a reason to do something. 

  Looking in my dictionary I see that motivation is defined as incentive, inducement, incitement or stimulus and even as goading or provocation, and yet in dog training circles it is often seen as an attitude, or state of mind that affects behaviour, and so something that can be taught. Whereas I believe that to the dog it is more akin to wages and thus the motivation is triggered by the age old principle of ‘What’s in it for me’.

  In breeds such as the collie that are by nature hyperactive, this trait has been bred for and resulted in highly driven dogs that often need very little reason to do anything other than for them the task itself is fun to do, which probably explains why the breed has become so popular in competitive dog sport. Some other breeds may take a bit more convincing that the job we are asking them to do is fun and enjoyable, and so motivation is usually encouraged by a system of reward. Obviously not all collies run for fun, and some other breeds may be motivated by the exercise itself, so this is a generalisation, but it does prove the point that the method of building motivation can be unique to each and every dog.


A ball obsession

I have had some experience of training ‘sniffer’ dogs, and here the ball is the motivator. The dog is taught that if he uses his nose he can find his ball, and from this basic beginning the dog with the right attitude will search diligently and learn to identify whatever substance we require in the belief that by finding it he will acquire his ball. There is no doubt that the motivator could be anything the dog desires and the result would be the same, but for the organisations that use these dogs only the ball is used, and so dogs that do not have an obsessive desire for the ball are rejected. This is a case of the motivation suiting the trainer rather than the dog, and the dog’s motivation is judged purely on its desire for the ball or ‘ball-drive’ as it is termed. 

  This method obviously works as dog after dog is successfully trained this way, and I do understand that for this purpose it is really the only thing that works, as you can’t have a dog that is motivated by food for instance, searching in an area which may well have food lying about. It is also true to say that this obsessive desire for the ball is what keeps the dog working for long periods without success, and is a good indication of the dog’s natural drive and determination. When we go to look at a dog that might prove a suitable candidate for this type of training, it is the one that doesn’t tire of the ball play that sparks our interest, rather than the one that will fetch a ball a couple of times and then drop it and go wandering off. So in this we are taking the short cut and choosing the dog that is already motivated.

  Obviously in our sport we have to work with the dog we’ve got, and unlike these professional services we don’t usually reject a dog for lack of drive, but try to find what motivation is likely to persuade the dog to work. Food and/or toys are usually employed, and offering greater rewards for longer periods of work can achieve the desired result. We have the luxury of being able to find out what motivates our individual dogs, and we are not restricted to a single reward. There are some trainers that believe that getting the dog’s state of mind right before commencing work by means of highly charged exciting games will carry through into their work and produce a happy and stylish performance, while others are more inclined to calm the dog down and ensure it is ‘thinking’ to produce better results. Either method will work with the right dog, but can have the opposite detrimental effect if the method is not right for the temperament. So trying to encourage a dog to play and tug can have little effect on the dog that is thinking of its stomach, and teasing with tasty treats will not work with a dog that is highly excited and obsessed with movement. It takes time and effort to work out what turns your dog on but it’s worth the effort. 


Individual rewards

I am therefore a little sceptical about offering motivational training to a group of handlers and dogs that are all individual. There is no doubt that the clever and exciting trainer will elicit some response in even the calmest dog by means of play and tugging but I’m unsure if this will have any lasting effect on performance. For me motivation is all about reward which in its simplest form means the dog does this because it results in that. Now ‘that’ can be a physical reward such as a toy or food, or a pleasurable reward such as fuss, play or just the sheer joy of doing the exercise. 

  If we look at a PD round the dog does all the exercises in the hope of getting a bite, this being the reward. However, there are only three bites in the test, the chase, the test of courage and the attack on handler although the judge can of course increase the number of bites by splitting the tests. In all other parts of PD there is no bite but the dog performs the required exercises because in training they do sometimes lead to a bite, and so it lives in hope. Similarly in the other stakes all exercises can be rewarded in training, and such things as sendaways, jumps, search squares and tracking all give opportunities for dogs to learn that they lead to a reward of some sort, and even the dog with very high drive will benefit from the joy of its treat whatever it may be.

  So in my opinion lack of motivation is usually caused by lack of reward and the handler that believes that once the dog knows its job there is no need for reward will be the one that suddenly realises their dog is not as motivated as it used to be. I realise that at a trial the dog is not rewarded and perhaps the bright dog will figure this out, but if we constantly reward in training, and we do sufficient training, the exercise will become habitual, and the dog will do it because that is what it does. If we then reinforce the exercise with reward after every trial the habit is maintained and the dog continues to believe, so only too many trials with too little reward will break the habit.