If you ask me, there are not many things in dog training that can get more frustrating than lack of motivation. Nothing more depressing than seeing your dog just sniffing away or trotting around, when you are all pumped up, jumping around, trying everything just to get him going. Yeap I know the feeling. It all started with my first, so badly wanted dog. My idea was to get a Doberman and train IPO (schutzhund) with him, but my parents were not crazy about this idea and got me a Gordon Setter instead. He was probably the best dog a little girl could get – unconditionally friendly to everyone around, super sweet and goofy, but with no working etic what so ever. No, he was not particularly fond of toys or food for that matter. He would find agility fun for 5-10 seconds, but than he would run away all of the sudden to meet a dog, chase a bird, or go pee on a judge. (Yes you read it well…) Or he would simply quit on me before we even managed to find a start line. As much I was frustrated about our training, the good thing was he was not even a tiny little bit. He was simply happy, no matter what, just didn’t really see me as a source of fun.
When I was finally old enough to persuade my parents for another dog, I choose a working breed more suitable for my new found activity agility. This is how I got Šja, my little mudi. She was totally different than Toby. If he couldn’t care less about my felling’s, she would do everything to be able to read my mind and do exactly what I tell her to do. So much so that it actually made her freeze and do nothing rather than do things wrong, even if the “wrong” existed just in her head. She had other worries in life as well, she was very easily afraid of things and didn’t always feel comfortable to run full speed. She would not run away like Toby did, but watching her stop or go slow just because she was so worried, was even more frustrating for me, and I was really on the edge of giving up agility all together.
I guess I just love the game too much to quit. So I stayed and made a new plan. Agility is all about speed, focus and happiness. So there is no point in teaching them obstacles, if they lack the basics. So instead of training them, I started to get to know them better, and most of all – we started to play. Just play, no strings attached. And pretty soon, things started to change…
Building up dog’s motivation is like assembling a beautiful and complicated puzzle. It takes patience, and no matter how beautiful it looks at some point – it is not over until the last piece is in its place. Every dog’s puzzle is slightly different, so there is no bulletproof recipe, but there are some big pieces of puzzle that are universal.
1. FIND YOUR DOG’S PASSION
Toby’s passion was the chase. He was not interested in tugging games, because he was simply disgusted by the idea of having something in his mouth. Not so strange, considering Setters were breed for a soft grip – not to damage the animal they were carrying, not to mention that they didn’t do much carrying anyway. After realizing all that, I saw that my attempts to play with him were kind of like inviting a vegetarian to a big fat bloody stake… Things changed when I just started to focus on the chase, especially when things to chase were high up in the air. All of the sudden I was able to provide something, he was passionate about, so he finally began to notice me. The point being – no dog is impossible to motivate, just finding the right buttons can be tricky sometimes…
2. BUILD UP THE PASSION
You know how this unwanted behaviors like chasing the people on bikes usually starts with some low intensity tries and than explodes to the point of almost no return if you let it burst? It usually only takes very little work to turn the dog around if you deal with this problem immediately as it appears, and it is almost impossible to change the behavior if you miss that initial period. Well that same mechanism works another way as well. If we have a weak drive (dog that likes but not LOVES to play in a specific way) and than we attach some complicated new behavior to that, the most likely consequence is that we will loose it all – the desire to play and the trick itself. If we let the passion grow bigger and stronger, we will be able to attach much more to that, and not loose anything in the process.
3. WORK IS JUST ANOTHER GAME
Agility is just about running in different directions, chasing the owner or running away from him. The obstacles are just something to do in between. And obedience – well that is just one fun trick after another. Make sure you are aware of that when introducing the dog to a new sport. Also keep an eye on your dog’s physical abilities and fitness.
Imagine how horrible would you feel if you would like nothing more than to do something for the person you like, but you wouldn’t be able to, or you just wouldn’t know how. A total mood killer, right?
4. WORK ON CONFIDENCE & DISTRACTIONS
Toby and Šja had totally different views on this world. While Toby saw every single thing (but me) as an opportunity to have some fun, little Šja saw everything as a potential danger. So we started to work on their attitude towards surroundings. With Toby I tried to take credit for every single fun thing that happened to him and use everything I could as a reward. I would reward him by allowing him to jump in the water right after he would do something for me. On the other hand I temporary limited his access to things that were more fun for him than me – playing with other dogs for instance. He was allowed to interact freely only with the dogs I knew he would find boring, because they wouldn’t play with him. That way I suddenly appeared much more interesting, because I had no real competition. Changing prospective is not an easy thing to do, but consistency is the key!
Like Toby, little Šja also needed some environmental management – she needed to learn that the world is not a scary place. It took lot’s of time, patience and a lot of very careful choice of locations, so I was able to make her see that there is not much she needs to be afraid off. I find it really important to recognize how much effort the dog needs to put in the game and reward accordingly. If Toby worked when there were other dogs around, he not only had to do what I asked, he also had to overcome his desire to go play with another dog. Definitely much harder job than just performing the same task in our old boring living room. Not to mention little Šja, overcoming her fears for me. So your expectations need to be in balance with the situation. Even the tiniest little thing can be jackpotted if you know how hard our teammate really had to work to do it because of the circumstances.
5. CREATE ROUTINES
Routines – if they are well designed – have many positive effects. Take your time thinking about what kind of routine you can use on trainings AND competitions based on games, tricks and other behaviors that has a positive effect on your dog. When you decide for a routine, give it time. The dog will only see it as a routine when it happens often enough or better to say every time he is put in a certain situation, or asked to perform a certain behavior. Let him know he can count on his reward even if it is not in his sight, and that his efforts will always be noticed.
6. IT IS ALL ABOUT HAPPINESS
If you are dealing with a motivational problem, one thing is sure – until your dog gets a spark in his eyes and smile on his face, NOTHING ELSE MATTERS. There are no eliminations, refusals, missed contacts,…
The only thing we are interested about is weather our dog is enjoying himself and running with the right attitude or not. Remember - when the enthusiasm comes, everything else is easy to solve!
7. IN GOOD AND IN BAD
And most of all, never forget to be your dog’s best friend. He might not be exactly how you imagined him to be, but that is what friendship is all about isn’t it? Accepting someone for who he is… I admit, I had all sorts of expectations about my little Šja – and as it turned out, she is just soo much greater than I could ever imagine her to be. When I was able to see her for what she was not what I expected her to be, she turned from my little, scared mouse to a silver star, one of the most successful agility dogs in her generation, winning several big and important competitions. But most of all, she is the sweetest and the cutest dog there is, so incredibly clever, full of little weirdness that makes her one in a million. And Toby? Due to his bad hips and some back problems we had to abandon agility trainings, but hey... it is all about the journey anyway right?
If you need some help with putting the puzzles in place or getting some new ideas on how to play with your furry companion, you are welcome to join my new online class about motivation. For more information check the online classes page - Let's play! The first lesson starts on Wednesday 9th of March.