By: Gerald Brenninkmeyer
Motivation. We all recognize when we question ours, but do we recognize when our dogs question theirs? The more I train dogs and do problem solving in the field, the more I look at what is motivating the dog to perform, work, behave or listen.
The common expression “dogs do what works” reflects the idea that it’s their own interests and past experiences that motivate dogs; these are reinforcing for them. How can we become part of that equation? How can we control the consequences – both good and bad – that drive behavior in our dogs?
Food is an obvious choice for us to use because we can control it. Our dogs tend to love it, but they also need it. Work performance can definitely be tweaked depending on when we feed our dogs and where. If we are using food as a motivator, we need to make sure our dogs are not overfed when we are working with them. Luckily for us, most of our dogs have very hearty appetites.
Physical contact also cannot be forgotten. How often do we still scratch our dogs’ chests for a job well done? Have we paired the physical contact with food? Do our dogs still enjoy our praise and petting, and how do they tell us? We should make sure that they are actually responding. If they are not, we might need to work a little harder or try petting in a different way.
Our mood and how we talk to our dogs can also effect the dog’s motivation. If we are in a good mood, our dogs recognize this and often they perk up because they tend to match our energy levels. They have often paired fun things like play with us being in a good mood.
Corrections can be a motivator for our dogs; they are often used to motivate them not to do something again. When we correct one of our dogs in training, we are usually looking to decrease a behavior – such as lunging on leash or scavenging. But to help make things clearer for the dog, one should make sure the dog knows what behavior could have been rewarded instead. If your dog does not perform the correct behavior after the correction, maybe they did not understand what the correction was for.
For guide dog handlers, I would suggest you look at your different routes and see if you notice which ones your dog seems to do better on or seems to enjoy more. What is it about that route that is reinforcing to the dog? Is it your behavior or something at the destination? Which routes does the dog do with less enthusiasm and what can you do as a handler to change that?
I have always preferred the term “guide dog handler” to “guide dog user.” I think the word “user” makes one seem a passive part of the relationship – which is certainly not the case. Any dog handler needs to recognize what is reinforcing to a dog; you also need to know how you can use these things to your advantage.
It certainly takes time and some trial and error to figure out what motivates your dog, but the journey will help solidify a strong bond and a productive relationship.
Gerald Brenninkmeyer is a training supervisor at Guiding Eyes. He teaches apprentice guide dog instructors and provides support and consultation to staff at both the Training School and the Canine Development Center. Gerald has worked with dogs and people for over twenty years. He lives in Westchester County, NY, with his family, including two dogs – a German shepherd named Zeke and a Cavalier King Charles spaniel named Claire.