When I started out in dog training, one of the buzzwords was ‘motivation’. I heard how a dog has got to be motivated to work with you/for you. If they won’t do what you want, they’re not motivated enough. Motivate them more! Use better treats. Better treats not working? That’s ok, just take away their meals and hand feed them throughout the day in return for them doing what you want. In fact, in the early days, I went to hear a very well-known dog trainer speak, and he said that he simply refused to work with anyone who wouldn’t commit to this method of getting their dog to earn each mouthful of food.
Now, call me a nay-sayer if you will, but as far as I’m concerned, this idea of ‘deprive and reward’ is simply not a kind way to interact with your dog. And it’s not ‘positive’ dog training.
Eating = survival
The reason dogs are motivated by food is because they need it to survive. Anything we need in order to survive is going to be inherently valuable to us. To only fulfil that basic need conditional to their compliance with our every wish is not fair.
Just imagine having to earn every mouthful of food individually. How stressful would that be? This means the dog has to be constantly on alert, just to ensure they get this basic need met. Your relationship with your dog becomes based on the somewhat menacing premise of ‘sure, you can eat… but only if you do exactly what I say.’
What are you asking your dog to do and why?
If the only way you can convince your dog to do something is to compel them to do it (essentially by threat of starvation), why is that? I’ve outlined what I find to be the most common reasons for training problems below, and in any of these situations, just increasing the value of your rewards until the dog complies (and he probably will eventually comply – we all have a price, especially if we’re constantly hungry!) is not going to benefit the overall well-being of the dog, and could in fact, adversely impact it.
1. Does the dog enjoy doing whatever it is you’re asking them to do?
Sadly, a lot of the training we do with dogs is for our egos or our entertainment. We feel good if we can get the dog to perform. We tend to teach tricks that indulge us, rather than life skills. If the dog enjoys what you’re teaching them to do and deems it a useful skill, it’s likely that you won’t need them to be hungry in order for them to cooperate. I don’t think my dogs have ever turned their noses up at a bit of chicken, despite regular meals being provided!
If your dog does not enjoy it, is it really necessary? Is there an alternative?
2. Does what you’re asking them to do cause them pain or discomfort?
If what you’re asking your dog to do is causing them pain, you simply shouldn’t be asking them to do it. We can inadvertently be the cause of our dog’s pain (read more here), their conformation can make certain acts uncomfortable (I’ve come across many people who consider it a real achievement to convince a greyhound to sit, despite the fact that it is not a position most greyhounds would ever adopt naturally, as they’re simply not the right shape for it), or they could have an underlying health issue. The environment can also play a part- would you want to sit on cold wet grass in winter? Or a burning hot pavement in summer? Tiles and wooden floors can be slippery and create issues when the dog tries to move around. Compelling them to do something which is causing them pain has the potential to exacerbate any underlying health problems.
3. Is the dog in a state of stress and unable to focus on the task at hand?
If your dog is too stressed to focus on the task at hand, your focus should be on getting them out of the stressful situation, reducing their stress and giving them coping mechanisms. This stress can be anything from being overwhelmed by the environment, being in the presence of triggers (other dogs, loud noises, bikes etc.) to chronic stress from a stressful lifestyle, not enough sleep or the wrong sorts of activities. If your dog is stressed, they are not in a position to learn anything, and the focus should be on stress reduction, not motivation.
4. Does your dog understand what you’re asking them to do?
If they don’t understand what you’re asking, take a look at how you’re asking. Is your body language at odds with your request? Do you need to break it down into smaller steps? Is what you’re asking them to do sensible from a dog’s perspective? One example where we humans often fall down in this regard is asking a dog-reactive dog to ‘sit’ when they see another dog. Firstly, sitting when you’re in a state of agitation goes against everything your body will be telling you to do. Second of all, sitting is a calming signal, part of a dog’s communication toolkit. We’ll never understand all of the nuances of canine communication, so expecting your dog to utilise a feature of their communication on command in response to a perceived threat from another dog, is rather unfair. Just because he’s getting paid for it and therefore complying, doesn’t make it feel right.
So how should we manage our dog’s food?
Food should be a pleasure for your dog, and it should be provided reliably and predictably in a stress-free environment. Ensure your dog has enough good quality food, often enough, preferably with a bit of variety. If you plan on using food throughout the day, and your dog has weight issues, by all means put someof your dog’s allowance aside. But they should still be having a substantial meal which they can eat in peace and at their leisure.
For food rewards, you can always use small amounts of lean protein like chicken, which is unlikely to impact your dog’s weight and is usually a big hit. I often fry lamb’s liver and cut it up into very small pieces. Some dogs will even be quite pleased with fruit and vegetables.
Remember, if your dog is not interested in taking tasty morsels, something is probably wrong. They are probably stressed or in pain. I’d happily bet that in 90% of situations, it’s not a lack of motivation.