What Is Motivation?

When we are trying to understand why individuals — canine or human — behave in a certain way, we are trying to understand what motivates them. When trying to convince someone to do something he or she is not especially eager to do, we need to come up with a strong enough motivation to overcome that resistance.
For many dog trainers, food rewards are the only “motivator” they employ. Other trainers refuse to use food rewards in training, scornfully saying that dogs trained that way will work throughout their lives only for the food. In some cases, this might be true; skilled trainers, though, fade out the food rewards once a dog has learned a cue. Which leads to the interesting question of motivation: If the dogs are not working only for the food, what are they working for?
What do you work for? The satisfaction of a job well done? Money? The chance for a guilt-free rest or vacation? The admiration of your boss, colleagues, or friends? To impress your family? The pleasure you get from your work?
People work for many things. Some are tangible (money or food); some are external (popularity, praise, satisfaction) and some are internal (feeling proud of accomplishment, understanding the importance of the goal). The same is true of dogs (except maybe the money part).
What motivates you is as individual as you are. It is as variable as the situation or task at hand, your mood or energy level, where you are (in life or at a given moment), who’s nearby … any number of things can affect your motivation. What remains true is this: You decide what motivates you at any given moment or to perform any particular task. If you don’t care about money, no amount will drive you to do a task you loathe. If you are not hungry, the promise of a snack is unlikely to propel you to quickly complete your homework.
Next time you are having a hard time getting your dog to do something that you want her to do, think about motivation. Try a different motivator. Maybe you are asking her to do something that is very important to you but irrelevant or even unpleasant to her. Examples range from calling your dog to you when she is playing at the dog park or chasing a squirrel to asking her to pick up an object that is heavy, awkward, or just plain inconvenient to hold. In many cases, she’ll be willing to do as you ask — given the right motivation.
I know that it’s hard to be more interesting and appealing than a fleeing squirrel. But waiting a moment, until the squirrel reaches a nearby tree, perhaps, then calling the dog and offering a really tasty treat … well, now you might be getting somewhere. If your dog loves to play tug, use a few rounds as a reward when she does something that is really important to you — like picking up her heavy, awkward food bowl after dinner. Improve your tennis-ball-obsessed pup’s recall by rewarding her for a quick response with a few throws.
Finding the right motivation sometimes requires creative thinking on your part. It also requires looking at your dog as an individual. To figure out what motivates your dog, pay attention to what your dog pays attention to. What turns that light on in her eyes or gets her running over to you? Dogs whose owners say they are “not interested” in food might discover a culinary bent in their pooch when they offer freeze-dried liver or bison jerky or bits of roast beef. Maybe you haven’t hit on the right toy to turn on your dog’s inner retriever or you haven’t found the scratch spot that’ll have him not only picking up but washing and drying the dishes — just to get a little more of what you are offering.
We all will work for something. We will often do even unpleasant chores for the right reward. The trick, in every relationship, is figuring out which rewards work. You’ll know when you find the ones that work — but remember, make sure that the dog knows that it’s always her decision.

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