Dog Training and Behavior: Motivating your Dog

Dog Training and Behavior:  Motivating your Dog

After many years of working with dogs and their families, I still find it a “light bulb moment “ for many people when I explain that the non-compliant dog is not purposefully being difficult, but is simply being a dog. We seem to place very unrealistic expectations on our dogs to behave perfectly in our human world. We expect them not to: chase moving things, initiate contact with others, eat garbage off the ground, get excited when playing with the kids, bark when they are out in the yard…. The list goes on and on.

While it is not unrealistic to expect that dogs can behave differently in these situations, it is unrealistic to expect them to do that without any effort on our part. It is normal for dogs to do “dog things” in the absence of any more advantageous options. Why shouldn’t they? We certainly would not expect people to behave in ways which do not benefit them. If you were not getting paid for your work, would you show up every day to do your job? Similarly, dogs do what works for them or what is in their best interest, either because they will avoid harmful consequences or get something they desire.

Understanding that dogs have an entirely different agenda from people, it only makes sense that if we want our dogs to behave in the way we would like them to (as opposed to what dogs would normally want to do), we need to give them a good reason to choose that option. Contrary to what you may believe from TV shows, dogs will not do something just because you asked. There must be something in it for them. Whether that is to avoid being punished or hurt or to maintain their safety, or to get rewarded with treats or play, they will always do what benefits them. My choice is to use methods that do not stress the dog unnecessarily, and to work within a win-win relationship. This way, the dog is happy and motivated to work with me and not fearful/submissive because of my treatment of him. In order to motivate the dog to choose the behaviors that I prefer, I use reward-based training.

Reward-based training does not mean that you hold out a treat to bribe your dog, and motivate him in that specific situation. It does mean that you build up a solid history with your dog, through many repetitions and practice situations, where you reward the dog when he does what you ask of him. You will need to start working in situations that are easy for the dog to perform successfully, such as a quiet environment with few distractions. As the dog is able to handle that, gradually increase the level of challenge. If you do not put in the work/ repetitions and build up increased difficulty during practice sessions, you can’t expect the dog to behave as you would like him to in real life distracting situations. Through building up a strong history of being rewarded for successful responses to cues in a variety of situations, your dog will learn that it is well worth his efforts to comply with your requests, even if that goes against his natural preferences.

Cheryl Wittevrongel is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) and Certified Behavior Consultant Canine (CBCC-KA).

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