Motivating Dog Behaviour

People often tell me their dogs aren’t motivated by anything, and often that is true. Thankfully, there are things we can do to improve our dogs motivation. When we do, we can see their acceptance of rewards, and their behaviour, improve too. In my latest blog I will talk about three things that can affect motivation, and the different ways we can help!

Motivation vs Reward

There is a difference between motivation and reward. In dog behaviour training, we use motivation to encourage a particular behaviour. Whereas the reward follows and thanks the dog for that behaviour. The two are often confused. But if you remember that motivation comes before the dog does what we want, and the reward comes after, you can’t go wrong. In this blog, we are talking about what motivates behaviour change!

Managing expectation

Dogs will adapt their behaviour based on expected results. To be motivated to change, dogs must believe two things to be true:

  1. If they perform an action, they will gain a reward
  2. If they gain a reward, the reward will be desirable

While many people believe that food is the ultimate motivator for dogs, it’s important to recognize that dogs have individual preferences and goals. Here we can see that the reward must be desirable to them in order for it to count. This means that we must look at their goals.

So, if a dog is craving attention (the goal) they will be more motivated if they believe their behaviour will win them a cuddle, than if they think they will get a treat. This is why dogs like to jump up on people: they jump (the action), they get spoken to (the reward), it was attention (the reward was desirable) – it achieved the goal and the dog is now motivated to repeat that behaviour.

(Action = Reward) + (Reward = Desirable) x 100 equals behaviour change!

If that dog had been trying to get a treat from the owner, the reward would have not met the goal. That would mean that the reward was not desirable at that time. So, there would be less motivation to try it again, and the dog would try something else instead.

In order to believe that an action will gain a reward, and that the reward will be desirable, we must be consistent and repeat each set of actions over and over. Our dogs won’t be able to predict this sequence of events with certainty until we have done it many times.

Improving our consistency will make a big difference to how motivated our dogs are to change their behaviour for us – and not just in this context!

Understanding Needs

I talk about Maslows pyramid a lot and it’s particularly relevant to motivation. Maslows pyramid shows us how we prioritise our needs.

At the bottom of the pyramid, we have our physiological needs; food, sleep, water, and sex! These needs will always be prioritised above everything. So these can be powerful motivators for behaviour change, but only if these needs aren’t being fully met.

Maslows Pyramid of Needs. Physiological needs are at the bottom, then Safety, then Love and Belonging, then Esteem and at the top of the pyramid we have self actualisation.
Maslows Pyramid of Needs helps us understand how motivating dog behaviour can be in different situations!

This means that a dog that is craving a sexual partner (physiological level) will not be motivated to stop chasing after a potential mate by praise (love/belonging level).

A dog will also not consider needs further up the pyramid when they are in pursuit of a lower level need. This is why a dog will injure themselves escaping from a garden to get to a mate, or risk injury hunting for food. In this case, a mate and food are more important than safety!

In the same way, a dog that is not starving, but is anxious, will not be motivated to be less anxious by treats! The food need has already been met, so a dog will not risk pain in this scenario. This is particularly frustrating for people working on anxiety and reactive behaviour. Treats are now ineffective as a motivator for change. Or they will be, at least until a situation arises where the dog becomes starving.

We can see from these examples, that motivators might change with your dogs changing needs. They aren’t fixed.

If you still aren’t convinced, ask yourself how much you would need to be paid to let someone shoot you in the foot! The number probably depends on how desperate you are for money at the time.

Environment Matters

The environment your dog lives in can also greatly impact a dog’s motivation. The better the conditions, the more motivating rewards can be. If a dog is frequently confused by a variety of training methods; shouted at one day, but encouraged the next. Or they lack a predictable routine, or they frequently have to wait for needs to be met. They will need more reward to motivate them to do new things. If their lives are full of love and trust, they will be highly motivated by even small rewards.

This is easily seen in the workplace. If the office is full of positive, upbeat, and relaxed working conditions, it doesn’t take much to motivate the employees to go above and beyond – maybe muffin Monday is enough to keep them engaged.

But if the environment is stressful, the other employees are unreliable, and the boss is inconstant and moody, it takes much more to motivate the staff to even show up consistently, let alone perform at their best – even if they love the work itself. In this office, you’d need extra money, and frequent praise to keep staff motivated.

Small black and white poodle type dog wearing sunglasses , laying in a green striped hammock.
Well balanced dog just chilling out! When the environment is good, it doesn’t take much to motivate good dog behaviour!

Rescue dogs and reward seeking

This explains why rescue dogs often don’t seek rewards in new homes. To them, a new home is extremely stressful, no matter how good it is. As they start to figure out the rules, get to know their new routine, and learn to trust their new family, they become more easily motivated. I’ve seen this many times in my own foster dogs. But it was particularly obvious with Marci, who wouldn’t take any rewards at the start. Over time she progressed to one high value treat, then a couple, and eventually, she would take a selection of normal dog treats.

So what does that mean?

Motivating dogs involves understanding their individual needs, preferences, and goals. Just as money may not always be the sole motivating factor for humans, food alone may not be sufficient to motivate every dog. By focusing on building a calm and consistent home, identifying the dogs goals, and managing their needs, you can effectively motivate your dog with a better choice of rewards.

Are you struggling to motivate your dogs behaviour?

Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in the greater Dundee area. If you are looking for help solving your dogs behaviour and training problems, then please get in touch!

Also, check out my online guided programs and courses,


I have more than 15 years experience solving all kinds of canine behaviour problems, at home and in rescue. A bad experience with a old fashioned dog trainer inspired me to learn more about dog behaviour, and it is because of him, that I wall never use harsh methods when training and rehabilitating dogs.

I work privately with clients in Dundee and the surrounding area with dogs of all ages, breeds and issues including anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity.

In 2009 I was proud to publish a book about dog behaviour and training. How to be the Perfect Pack Leader (by Caroline Jenkins) remains popular today and a follow up is expected very shortly.

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