Harnessing the Power of Motivation in Dog Training

By Joan Hunter Mayer

Are you and your inquisitive canine ready to take your dog training to the next level? Did you know that discovering what motivates your dog is an important key to success, from teaching the basics to mastering more advanced skills? By identifying motivators for your dog – every dog is an individual – and applying some basic learning theory, you can easily work training into everyday activities and have fun doing it!

Training is teaching dogs what you want them to do, when you want them to do it. And, a loving, highly effective way to teach dogs (or any animals) is to use rewards to reinforce desired behavior. Behaviors that are rewarded are repeated. So then, what is a reward? In short, a reward is anything your dog wants. Of course, that will vary depending on the pet and the circumstance. Since you know your dog better than anyone else does, you’re in a great spot to observe what motivates, excites, and engages your canine pal.

Think outside the box (of treats):

Good motivators encourage participation in learning because they are things your dog enjoys. It’s that simple. So, wherever you are in your training journey, we invite you to take a minute to do a fun little exercise. Make a list of rewards your dog really loves – and be creative! Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Food rewards – Food is not the only reinforcer we recommend, but as we explored in a previous post, there are many advantages to using treats in training – especially morsels that are ‘small, soft, and stinky.’
  • Toys – such as fuzzy toys or a squeaky ball.
  • Interactive games – a game of fetch, playing tug.
  • Real-life rewards – sniffing a favorite tree, the opportunity to go investigate a fascinating smell or sound, the opportunity to “say hello” to another person and/or dog (as long as they – the person and the dog – are okay with it!) or even a ride in the c-a-r. Tip: If you have to spell out certain words to prevent your pup from getting too excited, those might be good rewards!
  • Petting, belly rubs.
  • Praise – Consider verbal encouragement in combination with one or more of the above. Would you show up to your job every day for a “Nice work!” from your boss instead of a paycheck? We ask a lot of pet dogs living in our human world. The least we can do is reward generously, right?


Next, with your list of good motivators in mind, think about various training scenarios and how you might use these rewards to bring out the best in your best friend, keeping in mind, as previously stated, behaviors that are rewarded are repeated.

Helpful Hints for Harnessing the Power of Motivation:

  • Look at what’s rewarding from your dog’s point of view, not your own.
  • Reinforce behaviors you like and want, even when you didn’t ask. Capture (notice, then reward) and teach behaviors you would like to see repeated.
  • Refer back to the list you created and use whatever motivates your dog to happily engage in training activities and focus on your cues. 
  • Food suggestions: Experiment with foods that are soft, easy to chew, and easy to cut up, to see what your dog really enjoys. Try dog food rolls, any lean meats your dog is allowed to have, cheese or soft jerky, and your dog’s regular food. (Check with your veterinarian regarding what foods to feed and what to avoid.)
  • Again, remember to also incorporate rewards other than food in your training. Playing, exploring, adventuring, and greeting friends can be powerful motivators for many dogs.
  • Context matters! If your dog has just had a big dinner, your treats might not be worth as much as a game of tug or fetch. On the other hand, if you’ve got a fresh meatball in your pocket, the opportunity to greet a new person might not feel as rewarding to your dog as staying right by your side, nose glued to your hip.
  • Novelty is important too! Use a variety of treats and other rewards. Mix it up to keep learning interesting and engaging.
  • Use new or unfamiliar rewards when training more challenging behaviors or when you would like to keep your dog’s attention on you, especially in areas with increased distractions.
  • Beware of unintentional motivators, such as physically or verbally interacting with a dog who is jumping up on you – as that interaction is often reinforcing, even when it isn’t meant to be.
  • Avoid rewarding some behaviors and punishing others. This confusing approach can lead to dogs becoming afraid of training sessions and can harm your bond, trust, and relationship. (For instance, in addition to management and prevention, a pawsitive approach to addressing an unwanted behavior is to teach an alternate, incompatible behavior. As an example, it is physically impossible to jump on a visitor and sit at the same time. So, teach Fido a really solid sit. Then cue and generously reward that behavior when guests walk through the door.)


Whether it’s food, toys or real-life rewards, the common denominator is that providing positive reinforcement (that your dog finds rewarding) helps establish an enjoyable learning environment. If your goal is to share your life and home with a family dog who is eager to listen to you and offer desired behaviors, you can start with building and maintaining a mutually trusting canine-human relationship.

Enjoy fun and success in dog training by incorporating lots of enthusiasm, creativity, love – and motivation!

The Inquisitive Canine was founded by Santa Barbara canine behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer Joan Hunter Mayer. Joan and her team are devoted to offering humane, pawsitive, practical solutions that work for the challenges dogs and their humans face in everyday life. Here’s to barking with the dogs, cheering for the humans, and having fun!


Written by Joan the Dog Coach

Joan Hunter Mayer is a certified canine behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer who founded "The Inquisitive Canine." More information can be found at inquisitivecanine.com.

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