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  • Writer's pictureVirginia Dare

What's My Motivation?

positive reinforcement dog training ridgefield CT

When dogs -- as well as people and other animals -- do specific behaviors, there's an underlying motivation driving those behaviors. It could be drinking water when the body signals thirst, or seeking shade when hot, or responding to a request in order to earn a yummy treat, or stealing a taboo item to get the pet parent's attention. The more we understand our dog's underlying motivations, the better we can predict or modify behavior.

"Motivating operations" is a fancy term that refers to how much a dog desires a particular reinforcer at any given time, and how hard he's willing to work to get that reinforcer.

Part of being a good trainer is knowing when something will be reinforcing to a dog, and then using that to motivate him to do behaviors we desire. The value of any reinforcer can and does change depending on a variety of factors, so being aware of this is also an essential part of effective training.

We can actually manipulate things -- humanely -- to either increase a dog's motivation to engage in a specific behavior, or decrease it. Let me give you some examples:

  • If we schedule a training session before the dog's regular mealtime, he'll have an increased appetite and will be more motivated to work for the food we offer. Conversely, if we give yummy food away for free all day long, the dog will be less likely to work for it.

  • If we stow one particularly prized toy in the closet, and only make it available to the dog at specific times, his keen interest in that toy will motivate him to work to earn it. (Absence makes the heart grow fonder!)

  • If we notice and give attention to the dog when he picks up approved dog toys, his behavior of targeting dog toys will increase, while the behavior of stealing taboo items to get your attention will decrease.

  • If we want to teach a dog to settle on a mat, we can schedule this session after he's had some aerobic exercise so that his natural motivation to rest after exercising will make training easier. Well-planned bouts of exercise also reduce the dog's motivation to engage in all sorts of undesired behaviors, like begging at the table, pestering you for attention, stealing taboo items to get you to chase him, etc.

  • If a herding dog has appropriate outlets for his herding instincts, he'll be less motivated to herd the children.

So, the next time you're ready to begin a training session with your dog, have a good think about what will be most motivating to him at that time, and do your best to provide that as a consequence for his good behavior. Think, too, about what you can do for/with the dog first, to better set him up for training success when your session begins. When you pay attention to these details, you'll reap the benefits of a happily motivated dog, along with more efficient training sessions.

Virginia Dare is a certified dog trainer & behavior counselor with decades of experience. Her business offers live video consultations anywhere in the US for training and behavior help, along with pre- and post-arrival counseling for new puppy parents.

She also provides in-home, private lessons and behavior consultations in the northern areas of Fairfield and Westchester counties, western New Haven county, Putnam and southern Dutchess counties.

Please visit to learn more, or contact me at 804.784.0120


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