Learning is motivational. Here are some facts:

  • Those who are engaged in a subject matter by the instructor will enjoy the process and learn more than those who are bored to tears during instruction.
  • Motivation (and learning) is enhanced when the information to be taught is organized in a way that is meaningful to the individual.
  • Feedback and reinforcement increase motivation.
  • Incentives motivate learning.

So, what do these facts have to do with training dogs? Read on……

As trainers, our goal is to keep dogs in their homes (and out of shelters) so we work with clients and their dogs on a daily basis to help bring harmony between the two species. Before working with the dog, we will ask the client what are the dog’s favorite things that he or she would want to work for? Usually the answer is food or toys and so we explain to the owner that we will use those things to reward the dog for good behavior and to motivate the dog to continue to work for us. It is at this point that some owners start to object and tell us that they do not want to use food (or toys). They will say things like, “I want my dog to do what it is asked because I expect it to”. Or, “I want the dog to do what it is asked out of a desire to please me”.

It is unfortunate that the importance of motivation is not recognized between species. If you think about it, everything we do is influenced by motivation. We do things because it brings intrinsic value, it avoids conflict or harm, it gets recognized (rewarded) by others, it provides for us or our families, it moves us closer to an end goal….the list goes on. So why should it be any different for our dogs? The answer is it shouldn’t be and it isn’t.

Our dogs do “love” us, but they are motivated by the consequences of their actions, not by their love for us. If the consequence of listening to a command brings them our squeals of praise and a generous petting, (assuming that the dogs finds this a pleasant thing), then the dog will continue to listen to our commands. If the consequence of not listening to our commands brings them a time out away from us, or a harsh reprimand, the dog will learn that not listening does not pay off. Think of it this way: Dogs will repeat behaviors that are followed by something they find pleasant; Dogs will not repeat behaviors that are followed by something they find unpleasant or that result in nothing happening at all. In other words, reward your dog for doing things that you like; ignore or reprimand those things that your dog does that you don’t like.

So let’s talk about rewards. What exactly is a reward? It is anything the individual (in this case, the dog) wants at that moment in time. It is something immediately meaningful to him or her. Yes, sometimes that might be a food reward; sometimes a toy, a petting, a walk, a drink of water, a word of praise, chasing a squirrel….the list could be quite lengthy. But one thing a reward is not: It is not a bribe. A bribe is offered before the requested behavior is performed. For example, you tell your young son that you will buy him an ice cream cone if he cleans his room. Likewise, you show your dog a yummy treat before you ask him to sit. Both of these are bribes because the individuals receiving the bribe know about it before they perform any behavior asked of them.

Now let’s look at it another way. You ask your young son to clean his room. To your surprise, he immediately goes to his room and tidies up. When he is done, you tell him that because he did what you asked so willingly, you are going to take him out for an ice cream cone. Likewise, you ask your dog to sit. After your dog sits, you walk over to the cupboard, grab a treat and give it to him. In both of these cases the same things (i.e. ice cream and a treat) have turned into rewards because they are produced after a behavior has been performed and without the individual having any knowledge that they were coming.

Ok, big deal, huh? Yes, it is a big deal. When you resort to bribes, you get stuck having to use them all the time to get a desired response. When you fail to produce the bribe, you fail to get a response. It makes sense: if the individual knows you aren’t going to pay out, there is no motivation for the individual respond. However, when you use rewards, the individual learns that when they behave as you expect them to behave (or do what you ask them to do) good things often happen, so they learn that it is in their best interest to do as requested so that something good will come their way. And, it usually does. It may not always be an ice cream cone or a treat, but it will be something desired such as your praise or a big thank you for your child, or praise or a pet for your dog, and these simple things then motivate future behavior.

People who do not want to use rewards when training their dog have typically fallen victim to using bribes or have been influenced by people who confuse the two or who fail to understand the importance of motivation in getting behavior. But hopefully now you have been enlightened and see the importance of using rewards to motivate learning and behavior. So back to the beginning:

  • Those who are engaged in a subject matter by the instructor will enjoy the process and learn more than those who are bored to tears during instruction:
    • make the training fun for the dog and the dog will want to work for you.
  • Motivation (and learning) is enhanced when the information to be taught is organized in a way that is meaningful to the individual:
    • by rewarding behavior you want, dog learns what behaviors payoff and which do not and will repeat only those that do.
  • Feedback and reinforcement increase motivation:
    • dogs, and people, like good things to happen and are thusly motivated.
  • Incentives motivate learning:
    • each reward provides incentive for future learning as a way to earn more rewards.