By Courtney Emken
co-written by Bart Emken, CPDT-KA & Jen Larson, KPA-CTP

A good dog being praised
While it may sound unlikely, some dogs just aren’t all that excited about their food. Since treats are such an integral part of positive-based training, owners of non food-motivated dogs can run into significant trouble, even while learning the basics.

Luckily, there’s something out there for every dog. In fact, what drives your dog might be simpler than a treat. Here’s how to discover your dog’s motivation.

The Basics Of Positive Reinforcement Training (For Any Dog)

Positive reinforcement can seem a bit demanding, especially if you start to involve clickers or begin training something complicated like Agility or Rally. However, the basic principle is very simple: find out what drives your dog and use that for training.

The first step is to identify exactly what your dog wants. Each dog is different, so you need to spend time experimenting to discover their preferences. Some of the most common motivations include:

  • Treats and other foods
  • Chew toys and bones
  • Praise!
  • Chasing tennis balls
  • Playing tug-of-war

A dog being given a ball as treatPresent a variety of activities/treats to your dog and take note of their reactions. Watch how much attention your dog gives to each reward. Some may lure them away from others, while some might be outright ignored.

At the Ranch, when we are working one on one with clients, we lay five different types of toys in front of a dog. The owner then holds a toy, and we watch how fast the dog reacts to it. You can do this with different types of foods and treats as well. A small warning: our Labs tend to eat everything indiscriminately.

After a little bit of testing you can easily tell what your dog loves, and what they don’t. For most dogs, plenty of things are reinforcing, which is great news. The more varied a reward system, the more engaged dogs are during training.

In a few weeks you’ll be able to understand your dog’s hierarchy of reinforced values. Which is a fancy way of saying you’ll know how to reward them appropriately. For instance, a basic trick like “sit” may award only a basic treat, whereas “stay” rewards something more desirable or delicious.

A dog’s breed can also play a factor in determining their motivations. Herding and retrieving breeds have high energy levels. They’re given to enjoying motion-related activities like chasing or tug-of-war. But, a toy breed might not find those all that compelling. They may prefer a squeaky toy to play with instead.

Now You Know Their Motivations, Time To Get Creative!

A dog swimming as a rewardDogs find many things rewarding, some of which are so simple that they may never occur to owners as rewards. For instance, during loose-leash walking tell your dog to sit. When you tell them it’s time to go, that alone is a reward for them.

With some dogs, something like just falling down on the ground and letting them climb on you is a form of reinforcement. Just like little kids, dogs love to get silly with you, and it’s often a rewarding experience for both dog and owner.

Remember to use these kinds of unorthodox treats to randomize your rewards. A dog may love chew toys, but overexposure can lessen that desire. If they get used to a particular reward, especially a high-value one, they can become jaded or even demanding.

When you randomize the rewards you keep your dog guessing. You’ll have them thinking “I don’t know what I’m gonna get, but I’m sure it’ll be good!” This way their most valuable rewards aren’t overused. Every once in awhile, make that reward just simple praise! Dogs sometimes love that just as much as anything else.

The most important part of positive reinforcement, for any dog, is spending time with them to discover their motivations. It could be food, games, or just simple affection. It’s up to you to find out.

If you have any questions about how to find what drives your dog, or how to develop new rewards for a dog uninterested in food, please contact us today. Our experienced training staff has helped dogs of every drive find their motivation!

Good Dog by Jesus Alenda

DSCF3320 by Canine To Five

_MG_1852 by Tracy Patton