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What if your dog isn't motivated?

Updated: Dec 18, 2019

“But what if a dog isn’t food motivated?” someone asked me as I turned away to purchase a huge pile of dog treats for my picky collie. I was wearing my large very worn out treat pouch, so that and the bags of treats gave away my trainer status. We were at a local pet store and the cashier started answering for me.

“Well, are they motivated by something else? Praise, toys, noise?...” These would have been my next questions so I just continued checking out. As it turns out this person had recently moved and their dog was not pottying outside because she was afraid of the new dog door.

The cashier continued to answer and started to upsell some products she had in the store. The way I saw it, she had 3 main problems: 1) her dog was pottying inside the house, 2) her dog was afraid of the dog door and, 3) she didn’t know what motivated her dog.

Considering they had also recently moved, I imagine there was more adjustment that needed to happen. In order to create an appropriate plan with her we would have to sit down and talk about what her dog was used to, what they have done in the past for potty training, and moving adjustment. I really want to know all the background information I can, because there is nothing more frustrating than a professional listing off all the things you have already tried.

But, her first question was about motivation! In order to change behavior, you need to know how to communicate with your learner.

Some dogs come with food motivation and what seems like stronger problem solving skills, and some don’t. When my collie, Dax, came to me as a puppy, he had very little food motivation but he sure had a great drive for playing! So I had to work hard to build up his interest in food, as well as his stamina for problem solving and we used toys for a lot of this. The most important step we made though, was me clarifying my goals and how I was communicating with him.

When I want to potty train a dog, I reward them. I recently helped a pet sitter with two nervous dogs that wouldn’t potty outside for him. They didn’t seem food motivated because they are just generally anxious dogs, and weren't used to that as a reinforcement.

We first had to start by introducing treats in the area that felt most safe. Drop a treat on the floor and walk away, do this randomly for a little bit. These smart little dogs took no time at all to get it. The next step was to try having them take the treat from my friend (because I am still way too much of a stranger, and that’s okay), two attempts at this and they were sold. After this, he was able to take it outside on a schedule and made sure to reward them each time they pottied.

Not all dogs start food motivated, but you can always build up motivation. If someone comes to me and their dog isn’t motivated by anything, I know we aren’t looking in the right places. What we all love about dogs is that they are constantly learning from there environment.

Think about your dogs day and their predictable behaviors (whether you like them or not) and what could be rewarding about that. List out 3 things that you believe they find rewarding. Now let’s start introducing those things intentionally, around behaviors or times that they know.

You can introduce intentional play for dogs that have a prey drive or are toy motivated, I find flirt poles super helpful with these dogs (DIY flirt-pole link below). Maybe wait slightly longer (a second or two) before throwing a ball.

Some dogs are motivated by praise or physical contact. My chihuahua will do anything for a good cuddle. That doesn't mean she isn't interested in learning, she just has a different motivator. So I ask her to wait a few seconds before I let her hop on the couch with me.

Knowing what reinforces your dogs behavior will build motivation! Remember to keep introductions slow and short, even if your dog really starts to get it. Because we are introducing very new concepts to them, we want to keep frustration down on both ends!

If something works one time, but doesn’t work the next that is OK. Go back to the routine they know take a step away and try again the next opportunity. This will take some adjustment on your end as well. That’s why I call this mindful dog training, you and your dog are learning together and I want everyone to be aware of what their emotions are so that things can stay rewarding for everyone, it’s possible!


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1 Comment

Thank you for this informative article :D I really like that you use real life examples and break down each step. It makes the process seem way less confusing/overwhelming!

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