What Turns Your Dog On?

Motivation is what gets your dog going. It gets them up and moving and trying out new behaviors.

One of the most endearing traits of dogs is that they want to please. They like your attention.

So how do you determine what motivates your dog? First, start with the most common motivators.


This is the most common and obvious of all motivators. Dogs need to eat, of course, but some food items are more desirable than others. Kind of like the difference between broccoli and steak.

If you’re a horse, you’ll like the broccoli, but dog’s certainly like steak.

Each dog will show their own preferences for their favorite food. Your job will be to analyze the dog’s reaction to the different foods.

First, we will need to know about a dog’s reactions.

A disinterested reaction would be to smell the item and not eat it when offered. Some dogs will smell it and then eat it and others will just eat it without smelling it.

Another reaction to consider is if your dog takes the treat, but doesn’t eat it. They might just set it down on the floor or they may take it somewhere else and stash it.

Then you could judge their reactions after eating the food. Do they anticipate receiving more? Are they focused on you and the treats? Do they prance around barely able to control their excitement? Maybe they will whine or bark hoping to receive more.

You could rate each food item based on their reactions to find out the most exciting food item for them.

Make a list of food items and give them a number rating with 1 being “Dislike” and 10 being “Like.” You can use the list below and add anything else you use for a food treat.

Dog kibble
Dog Biscuit
Pig’s Ear
Hot Dogs
Baked Liver

Some dogs might score 10 on all the treats. And maybe you didn’t even need a chart to tell you that answer.

Most dogs are motivated by food and that’s why it’s such a popular training reward.

But, there are dogs out there who are not motivated by food or their owners or trainers choose not to use food rewards. If your dog scored mostly in the 1’s and 2’s then keep reading...

Prey Drive

Dogs like to chase and catch things. It’s an instinct that goes back to the pack. In order to eat, they had to chase down a rabbit and catch it.

It’s thrilling in and of itself. Remember playing tag as kids? I’m sure that dogs who like to chase also feel the same way.

Dogs with strong prey drives will benefit the most from this type of motivation. I would say it’s most common in most groups of dogs. Hounds, terriers, sporting, herding and some working breeds of dogs probably exhibit this trait the most. Toys and non-sporting dogs may or may not have a strong prey drive.

Not all “prey” is created equal though. Just like food, some things are just more fun and exciting to chase.

Here are some items that can be chased by your dog.

tennis balls
rubber balls
stuffed toys
unstuffed toys
squeaky toys
bird wings
scented toys
unscented bumpers, plastic, canvas or rubber
scented bumpers
rabbit pelts

Even though your dog may also chase live rabbits, squirrels, cats, other dogs, cars, kids and bicycles this then turns into a problem and we have to address it as a behavioral issue. I will be covering this in another article.

These items I would consider conventional. Some dogs like unconventional items. I knew a dog who either loved or hated feather dusters. Some days it was hard to tell. ;) What was certain was that when the feather duster was brought out, we had that dog’s undivided attention and she magically remembered all her training to get the feather duster.

A dog’s reaction to chasing things can be interpreted as complete disinterest (“you threw the ball, you go get it”) to uncontainable excitement (Please throw the ball! Please, please, please!)

Different reactions can include:

Chasing, but not picking up
Chasing, pick up and run away with it and chew it
Chasing, pick up and run away and play keep away from you
Chasing, pick up and bring back
Chasing, pick up and drop it half way back
Chasing, pick up, bring back but keep in mouth

And the perfect retrieve...

Chasing, pick up, bring back, sit and hold, release item on command into trainer’s hand

Even the chase itself can be evaluated. How enthusiastic is your dog during the chase? It could be a screaming run, a nice gallop, or casual trotting. This will give you a clue to the intensity of the chase and his motivation.

Verbal Praise and Petting

Most dogs respond really well to “good dog” and “yes.” Also a pat on the chest or head is enough of a motivation to elicit all kinds of great behavior.

But sometimes those cues are enough to send the dog to the moon. They get so excited they almost jump right out of their skin. They are over-stimulated.

These dogs probably need more exercise to start. But even then, some dogs don’t like to be touched. They will mouth you if you try to pet them.

My advice for these types of dogs is not to pet them when they do well and only reward them after it’s okay to get excited.

As an example, if you’re dog cannot handle a “good boy” during a sit-stay without getting up to get petted, then don’t say “good boy” until the exercise is completely finished.

When evaluating your training situations, some types of motivation work better than others. If all you have is you and your dog, verbal praise comes in pretty handy.

If your dog doesn’t like food, doesn’t like to chase things, and doesn’t respond well to verbal praise and petting, you must have a cat.

No, I’m just kidding! :) Sometimes it takes awhile to find out what really motivates your dog. The more time you spend with your dog and the more places you go, the more you will learn about him.

Once you’ve figured out your dog’s motivation, you have some tools in your training toolbox and some secret weapons. Vary the types of rewards you use to keep it interesting. Give the best rewards for the best behavior.

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Dogs inhabit our homes, our lives, our very souls.  They show us how to live our lives; with compassion, with vigor, with purpose. 

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