I get asked all the time, how do I make my dog have more drive? How do I make them faster? How do I build their confidence and independence?
The short answer: Reinforcement.
- they have to want what you’re offering
- there has to be clarity around how to get what you’re offering
- do less and let them be slow
- be patient
- make your training sessions more dynamic
Keep reading for the long answer, and if you’re hitting the road soon, you can listen to the answer on your favorite podcast player: Episode 24 of Fostering Excellent in Agility – The Podcast!
Food, toys, play, praise, and petting are all types of reinforcement that easily come to mind, and these are all great ways of rewarding our dogs for the tasks they perform, but reinforcement is also much bigger than this: reinforcement can be anything that the dog seeks to access through their behavior.
#1: The learner has to want the reinforcer you're presenting in the context you're asking for the behavior.
Example: My young Border Collie, Sprint, has great food drive and she also loves toys. She is very easy to motivate in sport-specific behaviors via those reinforcers. However, waiting her turn and being calm outside the ring and loose-leash walking is very difficult for her.
This is because those behaviors do not come with the condition that they will lead to what she seeks to access: to do the exciting thing!
It was very early on in her training that food and toys were not reinforcing the calm behaviors in the context of high-energy activities, so I had to get very clear in my training and use access to the activity as a reinforcer for calm behaviors that were very important to me for sharing my life with her and important to her success in the sport of dog agility.
So if you're experiencing some problems with motivation, I need you to take a really good look at all of the contexts in which you're expecting these reinforcers to work and ask yourself, “Do these reinforcers work better in some contexts than others?”, because motivation is just about making sure that the thing that we're asking them to do is worth earning the thing that we're offering them.
In the example of Sprint doing the exciting thing (agility training), she gets to move her body, which is also highly reinforcing, and then she also gets food and toys; that’s totally worth it to her, but a down stay is not worth food or toys in the context of the agility environment, getting the opportunity to do agility is worth it.
So if food isn't making this behavior get any better, does it mean that she's not food motivated? Absolutely not. It just means that food is not the appropriate reinforcer in this context, so we have to look at that from all the different perspectives. When we're talking about increasing motivation, we have to make sure that what we are offering as the reinforcer is what they want in that context.
#2: There has to have clarity around how to get the reinforcer.
The dog has to know when food is available, when toys are available, and when <insert reinforcer here> is available. If I'm trying to build up that nice down stay, I'm going to be very clear that when I say, “let’s go”, it's going to gain Sprint access through the threshold that takes her to the agility space.
Then I can increase the amount of time and the amount of distance she has to go in order to get to agility, but that’s only going to work if she’s clear on what she has to do to get it, and how she can collect on that “payment”.
When I am working with clients and they are experiencing a lack of speed and desire, the majority of the time, it is because the dog is very unclear on what reinforcer is available to them and when it will be available to them. When there is not enough clarity on the process for the dog to trust that training is going to pay off for them, they show up less eager to do the job.
If I'm not seeing that behavior show up for me reliably, it means that I am not using the reinforcer that I should be using or that I'm not clear about how the dog should behave in order to access it.
This is particularly important if you are seeing dogs that are normally food motivated, and in certain situations, they aren't food motivated, or if they're normally toy motivated, and sometimes they're not toy motivated during training. Clarity around how to get reinforced is going to be so much more valuable to you than providing pressure to want something that they aren't all that into at the moment.
If you offer your dog cheese and they spit it out, my advice is to take a break. Don't offer them more cheese, or don't pick it up and ask them to eat it. They just told you they didn't want. Respect that answer.
If you whip out a toy and tell them to bite it and they don’t, waving it in their face, smacking the ground, or batting them around with it isn't helping them to want it. It's just putting more pressure on them to want it. It will serve you greater in the long run if you get curious about why don't they want it rather than trying to convince them that they do want it.
If you don't already have a way to ask your dog how they're feeling about a particular reinforcer, you can implement a Ready to Learn protocol at your next training session.
#3: If something is hard for your dog, do less of it, and let them go at whatever speed they want.
That means, let them be slow. If they currently lack motivation for any reason, we have to assume that it’s probably a difficult task for them. If you ask them to do it and it takes a lot of effort for them to do it at all, and then we're disappointed when they do it slowly, we’re not helping to build their motivation.
We are better off honoring their effort, rewarding them as if they just broke some world record in speed, and then taking a break, putting it away, and seeing what it looks like next time.
If your reinforcement strategy is predictable and clear and what they want, they will begin to go faster. We have to believe that they are giving us their best effort, and if we don't believe that, we need to get curious about why they aren't giving us their best effort.
If showing up in training with you pays off and there's a lot of clarity and predictability, and they also can rely on you honoring their effort, they're probably going show up with a little bit more for you each time.
#4: You Need to Be Patient.
You need to wait for the magic…I mean..science of reinforcement to work. More than 2 years separate those two videos of Shrek, and while it may not look like the most incredible before and after, I know that it's how I want to spend my time training my dogs: building happy, confident teammates that want to train with me.
If you have what they want and you're listening to their responses and you're accepting that their 100% effort right now is a little bit slower than you would like it to be in the long run, and you keep your reps low and you keep everything as clear as you can, things will get better. You will start to see that they want what you have to offer just a little bit more.
#5: Build Dynamic Training Sessions
The last thing that I want you to think about when you're trying to increase motivation is to make learning more interesting and be more dynamic. If you are training two by twos or contacts or things like that, try to not have all of your sessions look the same.
Try to change them up in small ways and over time give them a more rounded education in general. Keeping the sessions interesting in that the answer stays the same, but the conditions are different, a little bit each time is going to help with their generalization, but also tap into that puzzle-solving part of their brain that they really do enjoy.
Which of these five things are you best at applying? Which of these five things could you improve on? Let me know in the comments below.
P.S. Unsurprisingly, I've written a lot about motivation in the past. You may find the blog posts below to be useful as well.