Let’s Talk About Motivation
For Your Dog

IMG_2578This topic is so appropriate since I spent most of the winter of 2013 being very "unmotivated!" There was more than one time this winter I really envied my dog's built in winter coats. Sometimes it just felt like we'd never see the sun or feel the warmth again...Thanks a bunch Global Warming! So now it's Spring, specifically May and the sun is again shining and although today is a bit chilly the weather has improved vastly. Time to get motivated!

My last post talked about New Year's resolutions and how we all make and break them. For Spring we talk about renewal and motivation...lose weight for the summer swim suit, tune up the bike and get in some exercise...you all know the drill. What about renewing your motivation to learn to communicate with your dog? Notice I did not say "train" your dog, I said "communicate" with your dog. At its base level that is what modern dog "training" is really about...finding a way to communicate to your dog what you want him to do and then rewarding his compliance.

Communication with your dog means that you have taught him to understand cues that indicate he is supposed to do something...sit, stay, come etc. To help your dog reach that understanding you have to learn what motivates him. Most, while not all dogs are motivated by a food reward and folks are always worried about how long they will have to use food. The answer is it depends on the dog. Like people dogs are individuals. No breed is consistently better or worse than another and while some dogs are more inclined to want to engage with you, others couldn't care less. Your job is to try and find something the dog wants and is willing to trade behaviors for.

Dogs learn through repetition and reinforcement. (Don't we all?) To communicate with them you have to pair a cue and an action and the dog needs to feel it's in his best interest to learn and follow that cue. For instance, let's say you want to teach a puppy who already knows SIT to DOWN. There are lots of ways to do this, but in my experience the most effective method has been to use a treat to lure or position the dog into a laying down position. By drawing the treat from the pup's nose down to the floor and out most dogs will follow by crouching to reach the treat...if your pup is reluctant to follow all the way down, keep rewarding the tries until his belly is flat on the floor. Then, once the pup is on his belly, say the word or cue DOWN and offer a treat as reinforcement. You can then offer several more treats each time repeating the cue DOWN as long as the pup's belly stays flat on the ground. After a couple of reinforcers, give the pup a finish cue of some sort like "FREE DOG" and let him get up to start again. The important step here is that you don't waste time saying DOWN until the dog is in the position you want him to associate with that cue. The treat just helps him make the connection a little faster.

In this case the food motivates the pup to follow the hand into a DOWN position, but what if your dog is not motivated by treats? Another method would be to find a toy or anything else the dog would be willing to trade a behavior for. This method requires a bit more patience as you need to wait for the dog to choose to DOWN on his own somewhere (sometimes providing a soft landing spot or bed helps) and then once he's down, offer the reenforcer and say the cue DOWN. Again, you don't want to use the cue until the dog is in the correct position...What we don't want is a dog that thinks half way is good enough.

The really fun part about being willing to use food in dog training is that you gain a dog that learns to learn. In this case you could teach an old dog new tricks because you know what motivates him. Dogs like people can be lifetime learners. If you work on communication and motivation, you dog will work with you.

Remember if you can keep your dog focused on you, communication becomes much easier. If you have something your dog wants and he knows you have it, he will work to get you to give it to him. In this case he is training you to give up the reward. Eventually all these repetitions become habits that, again, like humans can stick for life!

Happy Communicating and Motivating!

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