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Making the Most of Motivation

I stood in the Hallmark K9 tent at the Working Dog Championships with my Training Director/Helper.

“How about this one?” I asked, holding up a firehose tug.

He shook his head. “No.”

I perused the bins of tugs, toys, and balls. “What about this?” I picked up a fabric ball-tug with a wide nylon loop handle. “It looks cool. And I can squish it down and still hide it under my arm!” I demonstrated the process. My TD just stared at me with the look that most men give when they are dragged along to go shopping. I stared back. “What? I think he might like it. I’ll put it in the ‘Maybe’ pile.”

I moved on to the bins at the back of the tent, looking for a tug I had seen earlier that might work for my young dog. “Aha! Here it is!” I pulled my TD away from a bin of whips and over to the flattened suede tugs. “I was thinking of using these. There’s a couple of types. What do you think?”

He handled a few different ones, then held out a brown suede flattened tug, with stitched handles on either side. “This one. He’ll be able to get a good grip and hold it far back in his mouth, and this material won’t slip. Big enough for tugging, small enough for you to fold up and hide.” He wandered back toward the bin of whips. “And you should get that fabric ball thing too.” (Yes! Me and my new ball - I mean, Hadyn's new ball - pictured at right.)

Finding the right motivators for some dogs can be an easy process, where anything that remotely resembles a ball or tug is highly valued. With other dogs, finding the right motivators can be a journey of trial and error, which in this case involved dragging my TD along to help me find the right toys for my particular dog. But it is more than just finding the right motivator. When it comes to motivating our dogs for all aspects of Schutzhund training (and not just the highly-motivating protection phase), it boils down to this: effective motivation is the result of using the right motivators presented the right way in the right situation at the right time.


MOTIVATION = Right Motivators + Right Presentation + Right Situation + Right Time

When it all comes together: right motivator, right presentation, right situation, right time. Candace Spicer's "Charlee" with helper Steve Courtney. Photo by: Jen Martin Photography.

When it all comes together: right motivator, right presentation, right situation, right time. Candace Spicer's "Charlee" with helper Steve Courtney. Photo by: Jen Martin Photography.


A reward is anything that your dog enjoys. But a motivator is anything that the dog finds rewarding AND desires to work for. Motivation includes drive. For example, a scratch on the dog’s head may be rewarding, but not all dogs find that motivating for doing work. Some dogs find food rewarding, but may not be motivated enough to work for it. What they are lacking is the drive, or desire, for seeking that reward.

So what does your dog find motivating? Most handlers focus on common motivators like food, tugs, balls, and the opportunity to engage the helper. But there are other things dogs find motivating, including physical contact, the opportunity to play with the handler, barking, spinning, jumping up, the squeaker from a squeaky toy, and more. We need not limit ourselves to just a few common motivators; the more we have to use, the better! This is especially true once we set foot on the field and cannot have external motivators like balls and tugs with us.

To find the right motivators, the handler must interact and play with their dog, and figure out what their particular dog finds motivating. Is the dog food-driven? If so, what’s the scale of ‘food value’ for that particular dog? How does kibble or Happy Howie’s rolls rank compared to steak, chicken, hot dogs, cheese, etc.? Does the dog like balls? Is there a particular type favored more than another? Does the dog play with the standard balls on a rope, or does he prefer something larger like a Jolly Ball or soccer ball? Does the dog like to tug? Which type of tug works best for the dog: a thicker linen tug, a thin suede tug, a medium jute roll? Does the dog engage in a particular behavior such as jumping or spinning that you can put on cue and convert to a motivator? It may take a little experimentation to find the right ball, the right tug, the right food, etc.

Zane Daggett's "Shadow" with her favorite motivational toy: a Chuck-It Football. Photo by: 5 Dogs Photography.

Zane Daggett's "Shadow" with her favorite motivational toy: a Chuck-It Football. Photo by: 5 Dogs Photography.

Once motivators are uncovered, there now is the question of value. Motivators can intrinsically vary in value to the dog. A high motivator means the dog has a high desire to work for it. They really, really want it. Just the mere possibility that you might have this motivator on you makes the dog go crazy! A low motivator means the dog has a low desire to work for it. They want it, but only a little bit, and may decide they can do without it.

To make it even more complicated, the value of a motivator can also vary with the environment, and even the way it is being presented. So even if we have found the right motivators for our particular dogs, they must still be presented in the right way and in the right situations to get the most from them.


In order to get the most out of our training session and motivational tools, we must figure out how to best present motivators to our particular dogs. Proper presentation of the motivator can enhance the value of the motivator itself. Some dogs are very prey-driven, and they find great value in a toy that “comes alive” and that they can chase. The satisfaction of chasing their motivator makes it all the more exciting, which means using short throws that allow the dog to chase the toy will build energy, enthusiasm, and motivation. Other dogs like to fight. They want a challenge; a tug or a ball just presented to or thrown for them means little. But if there’s now a little competition with the handler, or an opportunity to fight with a tug, the motivation increases, and the dog buys into the training game. So if your dog seems to like a particular motivator, but not as much as you hoped, check your presentation first before looking for something new.

The key is to find what works for your dog. However, don’t neglect your role in motivating your dog! Dogs need a handler who responds to them, reacts to them during play, and remains engaging in their demeanor. The handler’s voice, eyes, attitude, energy levels, and body language all play into motivating the dog. Some dogs need a very animated handler; some dogs need a calmer handler, and when you get frenzied with excitement, it overloads them or makes them anxious. Some dogs you can ‘spar’ with out there; other dogs find this too overwhelming and disconcerting to have their handler getting so physical with them, particularly if the body language is aggressive rather than playful.

Don't neglect the human element of motivation! Photo: Handler Albert Rinow bestows affection on his dog. Photo by: Peter Qi.

Don't neglect the human element of motivation! Photo: Handler Albert Rinow bestows affection on his dog. Photo by: Peter Qi.

Video yourself playing with your dog, and then pay careful attention to your dog’s body language and demeanor during play. Or, have a trusted friend, training director, or club member watch you. They will see things that you cannot, and can offer feedback about your play and interaction. And please be patient with yourself; like nearly every other part of dog training, your ability to present motivators correctly to your dog with grow with practice and experience.


Is the situation the right one for your chosen motivator? Breaking out the ball and waving it at the dog for a focused 'heel' when he is ready to engage the helper usually is not the right time for that motivator. When motivator and situation don't match, then either the situation must change, or the motivator must change. Environment plays a huge role in this stage. If a dog is very ‘into’ its environment and finds this to be more motivating, then even his normal motivators may have lesser value. Acclimate to or change the environment, and then work up to maintaining motivation and drive in the face of distracting or rewarding environments.

Additionally, we may need to vary motivators based on what we need from that situation. If we want a calm, rational, thinking dog in obedience, then we might use food for the time being. But if we want increased pep, enthusiasm, and speed, then out comes the toy. This will require careful observation of other experienced Schutzhund handlers (see what they use to motivate, how, and when), as well as of your dog. And don’t forget that this, too, will be a process of trial and error!


Martin Barrow waits to release "Gana" until just the right moment. Photo by: Brimwylf German Shepherds

Timing is everything. The handler’s timing of when to deliver the reward needs to be accurate; too late, and the opportunity has passed. Too early, and the dog may not have reached the ‘peak’ drive level desired. This is accomplished through careful reading of the dog (such as in the photo on the right: Martin Barrow waits to release "Gana" until just the right moment, when her drive is at its peak. Photo by Louise Jollyman.), and is further developed through trial and error. Once again, it is very helpful to have another experienced handler or your training director watch you (and even video you) in order to offer feedback on your timing.

But right timing also has a different meaning: that of age. Ball drive, drive for the tug, and even food drive can develop as the dog matures. Some dogs are crazy right away for play objects or food. Others grow into their drive as time goes on, showing little interest in balls at six months of age, but then showing great excitement for them at a year or even 18 months of age.

Do not give up completely on a motivator in a young dog. This doesn’t mean that you keep shoving a low-value motivator into the dog's face at every opportunity. Rather, put it up for a few months, and then re-test at a later date. Evaluate the dog’s interest, as well as evaluate the manner in which you play. As the dog grows from puppy to adult, you will modify the motivators and their presentation to accommodate for the dog’s mental and physical maturity.

There is so much more to motivation, but this briefly covers the basics: right motivator, right presentation, right situation, and right time. And if you have a dog that you struggle to motivate, don't give up! Motivation can be built to some extent. For more excellent information on motivators and building motivation, check out Denise Fenzi and Deb Jones' book, Dog Sports Skills, Book 2: Motivation.

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