How to Keep Your Dog Motivated to Work
Updated: Jan 27, 2022
The new trend is to push food as a lure or reward for training, but is that really the best way to train your dog? Of course, some dogs love food and it works very well for them. Other dogs only work for praise. Some only work for toys. Finding out what drives your dog to work is incredibly important. The last thing you want is a burned out dog who really doesn't want to work. That's a hard thing to fix!
Goldens Retrievers (and many other breeds) are typically very food motivated. We have one that loves any sort of food and will work all day long for it. We have another dog who likes it well enough and will work for treats. Sometimes it's a matter of finding the right treat that your dog just goes crazy for. Winnie is obsessed with freeze dried beef liver. Miles will work for anything. Journey loves cheese. But if you give treats too often, they get burned out on them. Make their favorite treat a special treat and only use it as a high reward.
We ran into some training burnout from training too long and with just food as a reward. After this experience I am a firm believer in making sure you are training with a reward your dog loves and that you are only training for around 10 minutes at a time. For puppies I personally find the time should be more like 3 minutes at a time. I know sometimes this is not feasible (during training classes, etc.) But if at all possible, it is best to do training sessions in short bursts. Don't do hour long training sessions every day. Your dog will get bored and it becomes frustrating for both of you. Keep it exciting so they continue enjoying the attention and the game. Reward them with something the love and keep them wanting to continue working when you end the session. They will be more likely to look forward to it.
After we had burnout with food training, we tried a tug toy and holy smokes...It was literally night and day. Winnie's heel was incredible. You break that toy out and she is so ready and, more importantly, excited to work. Soon after this, I found that she does the exact same thing if you bring out the Chuck-It! or a squeaky ball.
Now, it's important to bring up that she didn't automatically listen the first time I brought out a tennis ball in a training session. She was a little bamboozled at first and it took her a few tries to understand that she has to work before she's rewarded. But she picked up on it quickly and now understands the process of working and then getting the toy reward.
I also recommend finding the most practical and fun toy for your dog. For example, if they love tug, you want to make sure they understand the game of tug. (For us, we made sure she knew to drop it when commanded and that she understood only the tug toy is meant for tugging and that "all done" means the game is over.) If you choose a squeaky ball, they have to understand that they need to bring it back to you and you shouldn't have to pry the toy out of their mouth. But still keep it fun, of course! Those are honestly training sessions on their own.
Finding your dog's favorite thing to work for will increase their happiness while training and, in my experience, improve training results and your relationship with your dog. Think about it, training is a two-way street. You teach them what you want them to do, they do it, and they get paid to do it. But if they aren't getting paid well or if they are overworked, they won't want to keep working. You don't want a dog that works because they feel they have to. It is so important to keep your dog excited for training because training is lifelong.
So, the bottom line is, make training fun! Play games. Give them special treats they never get for anything else. Play fetch as a reward.