Are You Motivating Your Pet Enough?

If you can figure out what motivates your pet to perform behaviors, you'll encourage a faster and more enthusiastic response.

Do you know what motivates your pet to perform behaviors?  It's valuable knowledge that can help you stimulate more enthusiasm and faster responses.

What is a high-value and low-value reward?

Rewards are not created equal.  Your dog might turn her nose up at boring old kibble but turn somersaults for cheese.  Or maybe she's got a preference for Limburger as opposed to Kraft Singles.

Some dogs will happily chow down on what you hand them, no matter what it is.  Kibble?  Great!  Liver?  Great!  Piece of parsley?  I can eat it!  Others might eat two or three kibbles and "I've had three pieces and I just can’t eat another bite…”.

And, of course, there are the dogs who would rather chase a ball than eat, so you should take that into consideration – if it’s something your dog loves, it can be used to shape their behavior.

You want to know what motivates your dog and for how long.

High-value Behaviors

You want your dog to stand quietly while she’s being brushed? Make it worth her while.  No, REALLY worth her while.  Once you know the ultimate joys for her, you can keep those reserved for the crucial all-important behaviors.  If she likes chicken nuggets over all the available food upon the earth, make those the reward for standing quietly.  You’ll need to extend the time standing gradually, but you will eventually teach her that doing nothing brings great rewards.  

Fear and aggression can be addressed in the same way (to a point; a qualified behaviorist is definitely recommended).  Make the object of fear or aggression into something wonderful.  Oh, look, there's the slicker brush. Surprise!  The best treat ever!  A buzzing clipper?  Surprise!  You like liver, right?  Here's liver!  Scads of it!

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Beyond Food

Food is a primary motivator for most dogs, but it is not the only motivator.  A dog with high prey drive might see chasing a toy as it's be-all and end-all.  Another dog might like to play tug.  There are those dogs that live for praise and attention.  Want to play tug?  Let me touch your foot for a second.  Yay, tug!  This can be eventually expanded to Let-me-clip-a-nail, but don’t rush ahead too fast.

Freedom is another motivator.  Teaching a dog that a polite sit when the door is opened means freedom of the yard when it is released is a powerful thing.  A dog who learns that pulling means it stops and doesn't go anywhere might be motivated to keep the leash slack - especially when this is paired with a tasty treat appearing whenever it strays close to your side.  You can also teach your dog that sitting quietly while you brush it for a couple of seconds means Outside.

Mix It Up

Have a mix available if your dog is easily bored.  Sometimes the surprise of a different treat can keep 'em guessing.  Or maybe you give the treats a rest and enjoy a rousing game of ball or tug toy or behaviors that your dog likes to perform.  Rewards come in many forms.  Your job is to find out what works!

Julie MacTire is a writer and educator devoted to the world of dogs. She also writes a blog ( about her adventures with her Shiba Inu, Tierce, and is a supporter of many pet welfare organizations.

References & Resources

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