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Training is much easier when your dog is excited to work for you. Some dogs don’t naturally love training, and that’s ok. Some are fearful, overaroused, or just seem to lack “drive” and “motivation.” Instead of getting frustrated, learn new ways to make your dog want to work with you.
1: Find What He Likes
Figure out what your dog is excited to work for. I often use kibble for “boring” training with Barley that’s very easy. But when we’re working on his growliness around strangers or other tough training, I pull out the big guns. For Barley, that means steak, tennis balls, tug toys, or boiled chicken. I’ve also tried lunch meat, string cheese, and hot dog. He likes just about everything, but there are some things he goes ga-ga for. Finding out what your dog wants to work for is the key first step.
I like to try a bunch of different things with new dogs and rank them. Some dogs will do anything for a squeaky toy, others love petting and praise. But if you’ve got a ball nut dog and are trying to go forward with praise or kibble, you might run into trouble. Make your dog want to work with you by figuring out what he likes. Pay him with something he values.
2: Keep Your Rate of Reinforcement High
Keep your dog engaged by keeping his rate of reinforcement high. This means giving your dog a LOT of treats, toys, or pets. You can show him what’s “more right” by giving him the best rewards when he’s closer to the goal or has a spectacular performance. But if your dog frequently checks out of training, chances are you aren’t keeping your rate of reinforcement high enough.
Make your dog want to work with you by being a treat-giving speed demon. You’ll be amazed how quickly he lights up and starts really engaging in training!
3: Be Kind and Exciting
Barley knows that my bag is full of exciting things. When he sits at the crosswalk, is he going to get a tennis ball, kibble, steak, or just a “good boy?” His pupils literally dilate with excitement when we train. I’ve found a good combination of things that he wants to work for. Paired with a high rate of reinforcement, I’ve taken a frightened but intelligent border collie into full-fledged training addict territory.
Avoiding punishment is also important if you want to make your dog want to work with you. Training should be a fun, safe space for your dog. Punishing them for choosing wrong might make him check out. It also might make him less likely to experiment. Be patient and have fun with your dog. To read more on frustration in dog training, check out my blog on that very point.
4: Give Him Some Wins
It’s much easier to be motivated when you’re succeeding. Failing over and over again isn’t much fun for anyone. Give your dog lots of wins by training in easy environments. Let him succeed and get good at things before you make it hard.
Remember when you were learning your times tables? Would you have been able to recite them in the middle of the playground? How about a water park? No?
Don’t expect your dog to do the same! When he’s training and learning, he’s working hard. Start out practicing in a quiet room, then gradually increase the distractions. Just because he can sit in the kitchen when it’s just the two of you DOES NOT mean he will be able to in the middle of the dog park, surrounded by strange and exciting people/dogs/smells/sounds/etc. He’s not being disobedient, and it’s not that your training doesn’t work. He’s just too distracted.
I like to train in a sequence of difficulty: the bedroom alone, the kitchen with my boyfriend around, the hallway alone, the hallway as people walk by, the sidewalk outside alone, the sidewalk as people walk by, the sidewalk as dogs go by, the park alone, the park as dogs go by, the coffee shop, Home Depot, a busy street, the dog park, a brewery… you can go on and on. Just remember, if you can’t do your times tables there without practice, your dog probably can’t, either!
If you’re using great treats & trying to keep the rate of reinforcement high but your dog still won’t focus, take a step back. Are your treats good enough? Is the environment too distracting? Are you giving enough treats? Too many? Your dog didn’t fail – but you need to figure out what you’re missing.
It’s easy to make your dog want to work with you. Train him using payment he’s excited about, pay often enough, and keep training fun. You’ll have a training addict in no time!
Kayla grew up in northern Wisconsin and studied ecology and animal behavior at Colorado College. She founded Journey Dog Training in 2013 to provide high-quality and affordable dog behavior advice. She’s an avid adventurer and has driven much of the Pan-American Highway with her border collie Barley. She now travels the US in a 2006 Sprinter with her two border collies, Barley and Niffler. Aside from running Journey Dog Training, Kayla also runs the nonprofit K9 Conservationists, where she and the dogs work as conservation detection dog teams.