Workin’ Hard or Hardly Workin’?

A word about motivation and how you can build more in your dog this coming New Year
By: Brittney Frazier, CPDT-KA
Found Chicago Boarding and Training Center

No living being on the Earth does anything without reason. Human beings, for example, rarely work for free. Animals are no different and act on impulse much more than their human counterparts (although that point could easily be challenged by your average toddler or teenager on many occasions), however it seems we are all driven by one concept if the reason for our impulses are truly examined. That concept is motivation and it is the sole secret behind any well-trained being, human or animal.

Most dog owners seek advice from professionals wondering why their dog has done a specific behavior. Or, even worse, they feel there is no rhyme or reason behind their dog’s bad habits. This is when feelings of hopelessness creep in and leave an owner at the end of their rope. What they may be failing to consider is that there is a way to control any dog and that is finding what truly motivates them to perform the desired behaviors they have always dreamed of.

Consider the average dog owned in America’s daily routine. The dog casually wakes up each morning and waits patiently to be let out for a bathroom break. The dog takes its time before it is done sniffing every inch of the yard and barks in order to be let back in the house. The dog eats breakfast after sitting briefly and lounges on the couch while its owner is away at work. When the owner comes back home, the dog wakes up long enough to repeat the entire process and may even go for a 20 minute walk around the block before lounging on the couch prior to bedtime.

The dog I just described may be what we would call “content” and “happy” in its home. While this is the type of wonderful life any shelter dog could only dream of, this is not a motivated dog willing to please its owner, and some dogs on this same type of routine can become very destructive without any challenge or work embedded into its day. This dog has a less-than-difficult life and will not be motivated by food or toys to the degree it should be because food and toys come regularly and freely.

To find a dog’s motivation, one must be a detective of their own relationship with their pet. You must examine your interactions with your dog and closely observe the subsequent outcomes. You must be willing to use your dog’s biggest motivators, depending on their personality, to your benefit so that your dog is able to actually want it badly enough to give you the kind of obedience you long for. And, most importantly, you must be willing to do more with your dog than your average walk in the park each evening will allow for.


The kind of lifestyle I am describing is actually less time consuming than the amount of time the average owner spends with their dog. As with most things in life, quality is much more important than quantity, and purposeful interactions with your dog is a must. Below are some specific motivators you can use to your benefit, and how to use them.

  • Food! – A dog’s primal instinct to eat is a pivotal way to increase your dog’s motivation to work. While earning every kibble may not be a viable way to live with your pet, ensuring your dog is not overfed and is actually hungry for their training time is essential. An overweight dog will never work for food to the degree that a healthy and fit dog will. Exercise is an excellent way to build a dog’s food drive. Try working with your dog directly after exercise and see how it affects their motivation to work for food. Substituting your dog’s kibble for high value nutritious treats on an empty stomach is also a way to build your dog’s willingness to conquer the task at hand.
  • Toys – Using your dog’s natural prey drive to your advantage is another way you can work with and build their primal instinct. Utilizing a dog’s toys as a reward only works when said toys are not readily available. Try limiting your dog to two or three durable toys meant to keep your dog occupied when you’re not around. When it’s time to work, bring out your dog’s favorite toy and make sure there is an identifying characteristic about it that creates natural excitement in your dog, such as a bright colored tennis ball or a toy that squeaks loudly. Making that specific toy only available to the dog when it is time to work creates an association that will allow you to keep your dog’s focus in a way you may not have experienced before.
  • Praise and Affection – Humans are not a natural reward to the dog. We become a reward to our dogs based off of our dogs’ social desire and association with food and other motivators. However, for those of us who really love our dogs, it is easy for us to give our praise and affection away for free. Remember that eye contact, petting, and even talking to our dogs in any way is rewarding and dilutes the moments we truly want our dogs’ focus. Try only speaking or interacting with your dog when you want them to do a specific task or command for a week. You will probably notice your dog working to “earn” your attention by the third day all on their own. If this is the case, get to work! When working with you in training becomes the best part of their day, you’ll know you have truly changed your dog’s association with you.

Along with changing your lifestyle to counter-condition some of your dog’s biggest motivators, keep your training sessions short and exciting. Your dog’s interest in training is also under your control by working to end on a note that leaves your dog intrigued for more. If your dog is frustrated, find your dog’s threshold and then work to stay within it to keep them focused and in tune with their leader.

This lifestyle is not for everyone and some are happy to have their sweet and chunky bulldog as a lapdog for the rest of their days. An unmotivated dog is not always a poorly behaved dog, and that is definitely acknowledged. However, if you notice your dog seems depressed, cranky, or just plain stubborn, it may be time for changing up your routine to get the most out of every moment you spend with your best buddy.

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