Training Fundamentals: Motivation

In the first article in this series I introduced three fundamental elements of dog training: communication; engagement; and motivation. We’ve already explored communication and engagement in more detail. This time we’ll take a closer look at motivation.

What motivates a dog? And in the search dog context, what motivates a dog to work, and work, and keep on working in challenging conditions on multi-day searches?

Motivation can be extrinsic – the dog performs a behaviour to earn a reward (the dog sits to earn a food reward). Or it can be intrinsic – the dog performs a behaviour to satisfy an internal desire (think of a self-rewarding activity like retrieving a ball).

There are different traditional theories of motivation. Most handlers and trainers are familiar with drive theory, which involves terms like prey drive, food drive, pack drive, and so on. The drive reduction theory of motivation was popular in human psychology in the 1940s and 1950s. And it’s still referenced surprisingly often in dog training, although it’s not supported by modern behavioural science. Dogs don’t store and release energy to serve specific behaviours. Behaviour is complex and there aren’t simple centers that control specific behaviours. Drive theory also hasn’t proven to be a good predictor of future behaviour. At best, its use is a common shorthand (and a habit I’m trying to break).

Instead, lets focus on the term “motivation”. As a psychology term, motivation is the process that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-oriented behaviours. Motivation involves the biological, emotional, social, and cognitive forces that activate behaviour. The term is often used to describe why a person (or dog) does something.

Three major components of motivation:

  • Activation – the decision to initiate a behaviour
  • Persistence – the continued effort toward a goal
  • Intensity – the concentration and vigour that goes into pursuing a goal

In the search dog context, you want a dog that is willing to learn, that will continue to work, and will work with enthusiasm.

Positive reinforcement is the foundation of modern dog training. The dog earns a reward for the desired obedience or work behaviour. The traditional view is that a “reward” is a thing – praise, food, or a toy. As an alternative, try thinking of a reward as an interactive event between the handler and the dog. Use a “reward event” to promote engagement, reinforce actions/behaviours, and build motivation.

Playing tug with your dog is a great example of an interactive reward event, and will be the subject of an upcoming article.

What does your dog find rewarding? Many working dogs are more motivated by a toy reward than by food. SAR Dog Keji will spit out food if a toy comes on the scene (and he’s a typical food-oriented Labrador Retriever). Keji’s reward hierarchy goes something like this: praise; food; ball; ball on a rope; and Kong-on-a-rope (and the motivation increases exponentially). I reserve the Kong on a rope for work behaviours like searching and tracking (or his head will explode).

I generally like to use food as a reward when teaching new behaviours. Food rewards tend to generate less intensity and allow for multiple repetitions in a short time frame. Once the behaviour is established, I will usually transition to a toy reward, which generates more intensity but often allows for fewer repetitions in the same time frame.

While you can use your dog’s regular food as a reward, higher value rewards tend to be more motivating (dehydrated liver seems to be a favourite). A food that is easy for the dog to eat quickly allows for rapid repetitions. Use pieces of food that are just large enough to motivate dog.

Acquisition of the reward is often more reinforcing than possession of the reward (getting is more exciting than having). Movement is reinforcing, so reward with movement (even with food). This is particularly helpful for dogs that are not that food motivated – turn the food into a toy.

Contrast is also reinforcing – emphasize the contrast between movement and non-movement to build intensity.

Motivation is not an end in itself. It’s a means to an end. And the goal is a dog that performs a behaviour or work function with accuracy and enthusiasm. You need to balance motivation with control by capping or channeling the dog’s energy into the desired behaviour.

And the best part is that motivation exercises are fun for you and your dog. Enjoy!