When training dogs, it is common to hear the terms “motivation” and “reward” mentioned and rightly so, in that they are probably the most important element and tool in our training kit when we are working with our dogs and training them to comply with us and our commands.
A motivator is basically something that gives the dog a good reason to carry out an action or behaviour.
A reward is what the dog gets when it has carried out an action or task that we have asked it to do.
So really they are one and the same – the dog is motivated by the reward that is waiting for it!
A motivator or reward must be something that the dog really likes and wants more of.
For example, tasty treats or a good game with a ball may well be very motivating to most dogs.
Breed disposition can often influence what motivates the dog – for instance, a collie or a German shepherd dog will usually LOVE to chase a ball, whereas a labrador or rottweiler may well prefer the offer of a tasty morsel! Whatever it is, it must be a worthwhile reward!
It is a common thought that use of motivational rewards is bribery and less experienced trainers or dog owners can often be concerned that use of rewards will mean that the dog will never do anything without the offer of the food or toy.
However, this is incorrect. The young or untrained dog NEEDS to have a reason to work with us and learn our language.
Imagine doing your job and working really hard in the belief that it was going to be worth your while – then at the end of the month you find that all you get is a pat on the back and nothing in your bank account!
Would you continue to work after that? We doubt it very much!
Ultimately, once the dog is trained, the reward can be reduced or changed as behaviours are learned and set.
We would never advocate removing reward completely as everyone and everything needs reward and encouragement to maintain behaviour but the requirement changes. It is no longer necessary to reward so quickly and frequently.
This is probably the most common and easiest way to reward a dog for giving us the right response. It is easy to manage, carry and quick to give immediately the dog complies with our request. It is the best form of reward to give within a class environment as use of toys in a group of dogs can cause over-excitement in all of the dogs whereas use of food means that your dog concentrates on you, not the surrounding handlers and dogs.
When we talk about food reward or tasty titbits, we do mean tasty! It’s the difference between paying someone minimum wage (ie giving the dog a piece of dry kibble from his normal daily food) or a nice big fat wage (ie a really tasty bit of food that he doesn't get in his everyday dinner bowl – examples of recommended tasty treats are below).
The higher the wage, the more attention the dog will give you, enabling you to carry out your training with the greatest benefit.
Recommended tasty training treats:
Before you use any treat, make sure it passes the “Three Second Test” which means:
a) does the dog really WANT it
b) can the dog actually eat the treat and be ready for the next in less than three seconds?
If yes, use it! If no, then give it a miss.
As a quick reference, the “give it a miss” group of treats includes any sort of biscuit – the dog will need to crunch and chew a biscuit.
This means that firstly it is unlikely to be completely consumed within three seconds and secondly, often the dog drops crumbs on the floor which then means its attention goes there, rather than back to you!
Other examples of “treats” (and we use the word loosely) that have been brought to our classes in the past and have not been high in the motivation stakes are:
You should always make sure that you have more than enough treats for your training session. It doesn’t matter if you have too much – you can always put them back in the fridge to use the next day (because of course, you should be carrying out your training on a daily basis!).
Remember as well that the dog should be hungry for the treats before you start your training. It is not sensible to feed your dog his normal dinner and then expect him to work for food rewards.
Finally, we always get the argument that people are worried their dog will get fat. Well, if you are training regularly, walking the dog at least once a day (and training during your walk) then the dog is getting plenty of mental as well as physical stimulation and it is highly unlikely that he or she will get fat.
But if you are worried, you are better off reducing their normal dinner slightly so that they can get their full quota of training treats – if you have a pup or a young dog, you will NEVER get this time again! Don’t waste it!
The ball is probably the most common toy used to motivate a dog. Dogs generally like balls as they are comfortable for the dog to pick up and they move really quickly! Great to chase!
And let’s be clear about what we are dealing with when we have a dog that loves to chase a ball.
Basically, this is the dog behaving naturally and being a predator! The ball is the prey, running away as fast as it can and the dog is chasing it, hunting it down! And remember, the faster the ball moves, the better the dog likes it.
So this means that if you are training out in the field on your own, then a good long ball throw is a bigger and better reward for your dog than a little short boring one. Once the dog really gets into this game, your recall also starts to improve dramatically as the dog realises that the quicker he gets the “prey” (the ball) back to you, the quicker it will begin to “run away” (the throw) again! Everyone is a winner!
Use of the toy is the same as with food - we ask or lure the dog into a position or into carrying out an action for us and when the dog complies, we IMMEDIATELY reward the dog with the ball throw.
Some dogs may not be motivated by the “chase” but may like a game of “Tug of War” and this too can be used as a motivational reward by using a ragger or another type of “tug” toy.
A lot of terriers like this kind of game BUT you do need to train a controlled “Leave” before you utilise this method of reward. It is also important that the dog “wins” the game sometimes, otherwise it will cease to be fun!
Finally, whatever method you use to motivate your dog, you must be prepared to reward frequently – a generous trainer whose timing of the reward is swift and relevant will make fast and rewarding progress and earn the trust and willingness of their dog, thus the dog will consider them to be the most important person to be with and strive to please at every opportunity!
Enjoy your dog and your training!
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