Saturday, October 1, 2011


 I spend a lot of time thinking about motivation for the creatures that surround me.  If I can tap into that motivation helps make a willing partner instead of a resentful puppet during the training process. 

There's different "layers" of motivation.  It can be very easy to identify a motivation such as "will work for treats, or really anything edible", but there can be other, less obvious motivators that once recognized can help you teach a skill in a way that is efficient and works for that animal.

Recognizing how my animal differs in motivation from the "demonstration animal" will allow me to modify training ideas and regimes to help me be successful.

So.....let's talk about Tess.  (of course we are talking about Tess - it's her blog!)

Here the motivation "profile" I have identified for Tess.  This will also give my blog followers insight into the kind of puppy I have and provide a starting point for any advice you might have!!!! :)


  • Tess is food motivated.  Very food motivated. Will work for food - really anything.  Even kibble sufficient for most tasks.....
  • Second to food only is her love of playing "tug".  She ADORES it.  I'm sorta "eh" about it - but I recognize that she will go through elaborate rituals and literally jump through hoops to get me to play tug, so I humor her once in a while.  In the beginning I watched her carefully, since I had heard that dominance can be an issue with dogs that tug that have been allowed to win a lot - but I don't see that in her.  She plays tug with me a lot like she plays tug with her best friend, Reed the Golden Retriever.  Sometimes he wins, sometimes she does - but no matter who wins, the toy is always placed back into "play" really quickly. 
  • Motion motivated/fixated.  To get her attention quickly, move it. She's a pointer, and bred to hunt.  This is actually causing more problems than being useful right now.  Butterflies and birds make it almost impossible to keep her attention in large grassy fields. 
  • Likes to do a "good job" - You can actually see her how pleased with herself she is when she's taught herself a new trick (catching a ball), or when she's figured out an answer to a question or a new way to do something.  Letting her figure something out actually gives her greater pleasure than me telling her what to do. 
  • Speed - she loves to RUN.  Chase is actually another favorite game - something I'm fine with when I am the quarry - and I exploit that shamelessly during recall games.  But something I try to avoid playing in the other direction if you know what I mean.....

Knowing her motivation help me to identify her preference for activities.  Preferences are both clues to making the training efficient......AND identifies areas that are inherent weaknesses.  Below are some of Tess's preferences, and how I use them to my advantage.....and some of the training issues we have based on those preferences.


  • Tess consistently chooses "fun" and challenge over straightforward.  I think this is related to that "good job" concept above.  For example - when running around the yard, she rarely just runs - she would rather weave in and out under tables and chairs and leap over hydrants.  During training, I have to keep stuff fast paced and "multi-level".  She's quickly bored and impatient.  It's easy to push her too fast when we don't really have the foundations of the exercise down.  She'll do the task as long as it's new and exciting - but loses that consistency once she feels the game has become "hohum" and we should be moving on. 
  • Choses activity over relaxation.  If something makes her run really fast and jump really high with a large output of energy.....that's what she chooses.  
  • Choses the bold and independent path and makes quick assessments.  This is good because I rarely deal with a nervous or unsure pup.  BUT, keeping her attention (motion fixated) and keeping her close (because she's so bold) and keeping her interested in what *I* want to do, instead of her little independent self exploring the world....has been quite *interesting*.  
  • She's *highly* opinionated and *highly* creative.  She's quick to develop opinions and if I'm not observant enough to see what's going on, and then I have a lot of work to "undo".  She's convinced that while I'm clicker training her, she's actually training me and is quick to offer shortcuts and novel solutions.  *sigh*  And yes, sometimes I'm even duped into rewarding it with a treat before I know what I'm doing.  My brain is clicker stupid. 

Another example - the other dogs in the household

Last night, just for entertainment, I did some introductory clicker training with the other two dogs in the household - a 1 yr old Golden Retriever, and a 3 yr old German Shepherd.   The games I played and my process for "teaching" the games varied based on their very individual personality.  Reed (Golden) is lazy, craves physical contact, and lives to eat.  We played "Yer choice", an impulse game without the clicker, and I required him to sit for the reward (he's so lazy he lays down for everything).  It was relaxed and slow paced.  Harley (GSD) is anxious, craves attention (but not physical contact), restless, not particularly treat oriented, SUPER motivated by a "job", and thinks and offers incredible fast.  For her, I used a clicker and taught her to target my hand.  I needed the clicker in order to capture her thought because she moves from thought to thought so quickly.  The clicker also gave her approval in a non-physical way - but still gave her attention, and let her know she had "done good".

Each game was chosen with the dogs natural perferences and motivations in mind.  In time, both dogs will learn both games.....but I tried to set each of them up for success.

These principles are not just for dogs - I can apply these same principles to my mare Farley - and even to my cats.  Jonah (a cat we believe is probably a Siberian Forest Cat) has motivators that are more similar to most dogs, than to cats, and as a result it was easy to train him to come and sit.

If you can figure out what motivates the animal, with some imagination you can train it!

Further thoughts

The definition of a motivator is as broad as your imagination.  I'm learning from my classmates that have substantial experience in rehabilitating animals, that when considering motivation it's important not to project your own needs and feelings on the animal and try to evaluate them as objectively as possible.  For example, consider a rescue dog that has been abused (I use that term very generally) and has learned that attention = negativity.  While the human may see a poor frightened animal that they want to scoop up and reassure and give affection, the animal may want nothing more than to be left alone.  He is motivated by the need/want to be alone.  The kindest thing may NOT be to sit down next to the dog and provide reassuring pats - turning your back and ignoring the animal may be the best beginning.  The process and balance of working within their motivation (and perhaps over time gradually introducing the concept that affection can be a positive motivator) is part of the training (and rehabilitation process).

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