Motivation and Engagement

Motivation and engagement are always my starting point.

The most common issue people seem to have when starting out in training competitive obedience behaviours (or any behaviours, really) is how to motivate the dog to produce snappy, enthusiastic behaviour with a consistent, high level of engagement. If the dog isn’t motivated to work, they will not produce the flashy obedience you are looking for.

Why is this issue so common in training?

The simple answer to why it can be hard to motivate dogs is that reinforcement is so individual. You can nail it with one dog then feel absolutely lost with the next, or perfectly copy what you see others doing effectively without the same results. All dogs have different preferences and have a different hierarchy of what they believe the best reward is—and it is not always what we expect! I am also guilty of making assumptions of what a dog will find most reinforcing based on breed (spaniel? Let’s do a search. Retriever? Get out a tug) or even just reaching for a popular treat (chicken, hot dogs, you know the typical “good stuff”). Sometimes, they really surprise you when you give them the opportunity to show you what they like best; for example, one of my dogs works the hardest for prawn crackers!

I try to provide a variety of food rewards to discover what results in a higher rate of the behaviour and attitude I am looking for in my training. To investigate which food reward a dog finds the most reinforcing, a good starting point can be to make up a platter including a variety of treats that vary in texture, smelliness, protein type, etc. This can be presented to the dog to investigate freely. Take note of which foods the dog goes to first, and especially, which food the dog goes back to over and over again when other options are available. This can give you a good idea of the types of food your dog will work the hardest to acquire. It’s also important to take note of foods at the top of the list, in the middle and at the bottom, as high-energy behaviours benefit from highly desired reinforcers, whereas lower value reinforcers can improve focus and precision when teaching calmer behaviours or improving accuracy.

Another critical aspect of motivation and reinforcement is play. Play can be complicated because to engage the dog in highly reinforcing play, it helps to have an understanding of predatory motor patterns and replicating opportunities to engage in these behaviours through play.

This can be accomplished with toys, food and personal play. Incorporating movement, anticipation, frustration and thoughtful delivery of toys/food in purposeful ways to reinforce behaviour can be very powerful. However, toeing the line between building anticipation/making the dog work for their reward and knocking their confidence by making the game too hard to win, can be difficult. Just as different dogs have different food preferences, different dogs also differ in their resilience and confidence so play must be adjusted to suit their needs. To learn more about the nuances of motivating a dog to improve engagement through play, I would recommend looking into the work of Simone Mueller, Amy Cook and Alex Lato.

Lastly, I want to discuss how important it is to closely observe the dog’s attitude in order to engage them effectively and make quick decisions throughout a training session. If a dog is finding it difficult to engage and is showing signs of displacement or is very flat, I would also consider the environment. It is important to train behaviours in increasingly challenging environments—always training brand new behaviours in very boring, quiet places and gradually increasing challenge as their understanding of the behaviour improves. If we make it too hard too fast, the dog will check out. We want them to experience success every training session. This leads me to my final points; call time when its not working out and leave the dog wanting more. If things have gone wrong, I would rarely choose to push on. I quit a session or change my approach if a dog fails to succeed more than twice in a row because repeatedly failing can very negatively impact their attitude in training. Instead, I try to keep sessions short (5 minutes or less in general) and if my dog NAILS IT once or twice in a row? I end the session on a high! This goes with play as well—I always aim to end a play session while my dog is VERY engaged and put away the toys/food while they are buzzing for it, leaving them wanting more.

Having a better understanding of how your individual dog feels about the reinforcement you are using, learning about naturally reinforcing predatory behaviour and practicing play in various environments is essential training in itself. I find focusing on these skills before anything else builds a fantastic foundation for a motivated and engaged dog.

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