Tips for Positive Motivation in Upbringing and Training a Dog from a Dog Trainer

There are many ways to learn a new thing. One of the most pleasant ones for both the dog and its owner is positive motivation. Thanks to it, a dog learns new tricks in a simple and pleasing way and it also helps to develop a mutual social relationship between the animal and the person. We asked a dog trainer from Psí akademie Dance and Jump (a dog academy), Hanka Maršálková, about the details concerning upbringing using positive motivation. 

What does positive motivation really mean? What is the definition of this way of upbringing?
The basic principle of positive motivation is to assign a simple and easy-to-do task that is followed by praising and rewarding. This process leads to passionate cooperation and eagerness to perform a new task and be praised and rewarded. Tasks can get more difficult over time but they should always be designed as doable for the dog. It has a certain advantage that it partially understands it from previous work. The dog should always be successful in about 80 % of tasks. We, as people, are also happy when we do something well and we want to keep doing the activity and get better. So, why should it be different for dogs or any other creatures?

What role does motivation have for upbringing and training a dog and what should it mean?
Motivation means everything the dog desires. It may be a treat, a toy, praising it, letting it off the leash (i.e. freedom), running through a tunnel, nice stroking behind its ears or also a bitch on heat, etc. It’s only up to us how well we include motivation in training. However, we should pay attention to it and develop it. It is a cornerstone of our cooperation. 

When is it good to start using positive motivation for upbringing?
We should start with puppies. We should praise, stroke or reward the dog with a treat and offer it some games and fun with us whenever it does something we like. It all contributes to developing our social relationship with the pet. However, we shouldn’t overestimate treats and we should mainly focus on games. And even though it might seem like your dog is not so fond of games in the beginning, be patient, it might change soon. However, remember that every kind of motivation has a different effect. A treat calms a dog down, a toy encourages it and makes it more active. So, we can choose the kind of motivation depending on the particular dog’s nature. 

Is positive motivation suitable for all dogs?
Basically YES, positive motivation is suitable for all dogs. However, the question is if we should rely solely on positive motivation. Many people these days claim they only train their dogs using positive motivation, but you can watch them for a while and see that a strictly positive method probably doesn’t exist. We need to take into account all the things that can negatively influence our dog. And I’m not talking about intended punishments. We can have a look at our normal living together. We have some kind of negative influence on our dog every day – we eat and it watches us craving for the food, we leave home without it or we pay attention to another dog, for example. These are the small negative things that may help us when working with the dog as they slightly alert it and inspire it to enjoy the positive things: your presence, attention, freedom and food. There’s no white without black. 

Can the method of positive motivation be used in any situation?
Some difficult situations for a dog – for example anxiety or aggression – can be difficult, if at all possible, to handle only with positive motivation. I’ll give you one example of a common situation – a dog on a leash excitedly barks at another dog. It’s not possible to use treats or a toy in this situation because it doesn’t care about such things, its excitement is stronger. We can solve it by saying “no”, physically turning the dog’s back towards the stimulus and fixing the dog until we can feel it’s at ease. This method is more effective, and the dog will soon learn to respect “no” as it knows it would restrict its control over the situation by its furious barking. 

But this isn’t positive motivation, right?
No, it’s not. The dog doesn’t like that we restrict its view and in the end, it will be much more pleasant for it to let the master evaluate the situation in the future and respect his/her commands, when “no” means “no” and “bark” means “bark”. So, let’s not be hypocrites and use the word “positive” motivation only for positive things and not be afraid to say the word “negative”.

What about positive motivation and consistency?
Consistency is crucial, mainly in communication. It’s necessary to be precise when correctly and timely marking the desired dog’s action. The correct marking means marking the behaviour we want the dog to learn. 

What should we be aware of with the method of positive motivation? 
We need to make sure the dog doesn’t think of several actions as one (e.g. a dog sits as we want it to but it also raises its paw and we don’t want that). Praising or positive word YES or clicker should come right away when the dog succeeds. A reward (a treat) should follow immediately when marking the right behaviour. Also, pay attention to the “value” of the treat for the dog – it should really be a reward and the dog should pursue it. A treat the dog doesn’t like very much or a toy for a dog that isn’t that playful is a mistake.

Is it possible to train the dog using positive motivation so we can count on it in any situation?
You can’t even rely on yourself for 100 %. Using positive motivation may get us really close to it. In my opinion, it is the most effective training method. But as I already mentioned, pure positive motivation is not a real thing, a positive way of working with a dog, however, should be the basis of any training. 

Doesn’t it mean we’ll have a problem in a situation when we need the dog to behave properly but we aren’t close or we have nothing to reward it with?
Exactly the opposite, we get great results using positive motivation. We need to realize that positive motivation doesn’t mean training a dog while having a toy or a treat in hand. It is like that from the beginning, but we use indirect rewards later on. It means the reward is outside our training space and the intervals of rewards get systematically prolonged. In fact, we try to teach the dog to understand the reward isn’t skipped but it can’t only see it at the moment We can train the situation when we are not with the dog or when we have our backs to the dog using a mirror, for example. We soon learn that most tricks can be learnt with positive motivation.

What mistakes can we do when rewarding a dog?
The training won’t be efficient if correct and desired behaviour isn’t marked well and subsequent reward or its value isn’t well-picked for the dog. 

What can happen if a reward is not given to the dog in a good way? 
If marking and a reward have bad timing, the dog doesn’t understand, what it got its reward for and it won’t reward the desired behaviour. When the value of the reward isn’t good for the dog, it isn’t interested in cooperating with us or its interest easily vanishes.

Shouldn’t the greatest reward for the dog be our happiness? Shouldn’t the basis of good upbringing be building a firm and close relationship between us and therefore setting clear boundaries?
Yes, it should be the reward, but first, we have to build such a functional relationship. It would be naïve to think that a dog should listen to you with no limits just because you wish so. Without patient approach, communication and motivation, we will live side by side with our dogs, not together with them.

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