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Internal Motivation – do we value it?

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A couple of years ago I wrote a blog on the importance of “investing” ourselves in our training.  With my current blogs on Motivation, I re-read it to see where I stand today.  Here is the blog I’m referring to:

The Happy Emotions – A Party for Two.

I still believe what I wrote then but that blog referred specifically to our demeanor while training behaviors.  Today I’m going to take that idea a bit further.

It’s harder to have a genuinely personal interaction with our dog when we have a cookie in our pocket than when we don’t have one.  The cookies work so well!  The dogs show such obvious appreciation!  How many people take the time to do both; a cookie, followed by praise, with equal energy?  Cookies are easy but praise and play; not so much.  Is there a long term cost to this reliance on cookies?

Cookies do not build relationship but they do build cooperation.  Indeed, I often see them used as a one size fits all, modern, R+ leash.  No need to pay attention to your dog in public; just keep feeding and he will stay near.  No need to praise with genuine intensity for a job well done; just keep feeding and the behaviors will continue.  No need to learn to play with your dog or develop genuine  interactions that matter; just keep feeding, all the time, so you can communicate with your dog about right and wrong.

When we teach puppy classes, do we emphasize the importance of touching our dogs; playing and praising, the way we emphasize carrying a cookie in our pocket?  When we teach a puppy class and the owner has handed over a cookie, just how much praise is used to follow it up?  One second?  Three seconds?  A thirty second romp?  Or…none at all?  Is it is a mindless moment or a genuine interaction?

People would be appalled if we developed relationships with family members in this manner, yet my children would likely get much more excited if I gave them five dollars for showing good manners in a restaurant instead of my genuine praise.  Yet, even without the five dollars, my kids show exceptional manners in restaurants, because they value my appreciation and want to show me that they can do it again.  Do dogs think this way?  If I watch my own dogs, I’d say that they do.  They care what I think.  They work to please me and they try not to displease me.  Same as my human family members.

If you’re not comfortable managing your dog without cookies or a toy,  why is that?  Are we, the dog training community, ok with this trend away from personal interactions?  Could we inadvertently be creating a situation where heavy reliance on cookies or toys  are depriving us of the opportunity to look more deeply into the possibilities of our human-canine relationships?

Can you imagine a relationship with your spouse or child, where every cooperative move required a form of payment?

Interesting questions.

I’m not talking about teaching behaviors or maintaining  competition level work, because very few (if any) dogs would find that reinforcing without some serious external help.

But for daily life?  For an adult dog?  For simple behaviors that require no effort or endurance?  Should we be carrying cookies…forever?

Personally I do not choose to use cookies or toys for basic life skills past the training and puppy phase, and I have no trouble maintaining behaviors like a basic recall, crating on command, waiting at the door, etc.  Of course, I praise with genuine meaning when the behavior took extra effort (dog came away from a distraction rather than simply coming into the house), but…I do not feed.  Here and there I may find that I have a stray cookie in my pocket and I may hand it over as a bonus, but it is a surprise treat, not a payment.

And yet…those basic life behaviors continue with close to 100% reliability.  Why is that?

I praise.  Lavishly.  Enthusiastically. Genuinely.   I appreciate my dog’s good choices and I make sure they know it, especially if I can see that their cooperation came at a cost (coming away from a distraction, for example).  Under trying conditions, that praise might continue for a minute or more.

I believe in a dog’s intrinsic motivation to please us.  I also believe we can remove that intrinsic motivation if we continually substitute external motivators.  There are two reasons that come to mind; 1) the dog feels “deprivation” when we remove the thing they expected (cookies and toys) and 2) it’s easy to forget to be genuinely excited when our dogs cooperate if we’ve already “paid” with a cookie.  If my dogs make an effort then I feel the need to show my appreciation, and if I have no food or toys, then that leaves….me

I remember when Lyra was young – her behavior drove this point home to me.  For a few days after she arrived here, she came flying straight into my arms when I called her – she had never had a cookie from me and simply came for the sheer joy of my personal attention.  After a few days of giving her cookies for recalls, I lost that flying leap into my arms.  I watched as she came just as fast, but focused on my hand instead of my face.  When there was no cookie, the loss was obvious in her behavior.  When I praised as she ate, the value of the cookie was obviously more immediate and overpowering than what I was offering.  Yet only days before my personal attention had been a great joy.  In short, the cookies had sucked the joy out of our casual personal interaction.  My enthusiastic interaction had become a disappointment rather than a central pleasure. The lesson I took from that experience was to think long and hard about what I really need to offer in order to gain cooperation – and to offer no more than that.

I’ve said for a few weeks now,  “motivation” is an extremely complicated topic.  There are variables nested within variables.  There are training expectations, daily life expectations, and competition realities. There are speed and attitude considerations. There are issues of deprivation and relative values of reinforcers.  There are also significant genetic considerations regarding innate  levels of motivation.  There is handler talent to be considered as well.

For myself , there is also much to be learned, and a personal fascination with what we might discover.

About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

17 responses »

  1. Really interesting post – thank you very much! 🙂

  2. Thoughtful and true. Thank you!

  3. When you do give a cookie, can you comment on the timing of your praise in relation to giving the cookie? It sounds like you tend to do cookie first, then praise, and that’s the opposite of what I’m inclined to do.

  4. Have you read the book, “Drive “? It’s about internal motivation in humans. I’m not sure how much carryover there is to dogs, but they make a similar point about external rewards diminishing internal motivation. Studies have actually proven that phenomenon.

    • I didn’t read that one, but I did read another excellent book on this topic that made exactly this point – ‘paying’ with extrinsic rewards removes internal motivation. I distinctly remember an example about children being paid for puzzles – and then not touching them again, vs. children who were simply allowed access – who then stayed with it for the joy of the activity. Make an impression but obviously not enough for me to remember the name of the book:). Are dogs the same? Probably depends what we are doing with them.

    • As a retired teacher, it is obvious that students get to the “what’s in it for me” attitude very young when there are external rewards, starting with stickers and candy in the early grades. Their motivation to do a good job just for the sake of doing a good job is definitely diminished by the external rewards. Teachers cherish the students who still have internal motivation!

  5. Good post!

    While reading this post I was trying to keep in mind the two types of motivations always working in any relationship or encounter, both human and animal: the first is what the human wants from the interaction and the second is what the dog desires. I do believe that both need to be addressed and both need to be fulfilled in order to achieve ongoing happiness and contentment. These can change very fast back and forth in a single encounter.

    I don’t believe that dogs have an innate desire to please any random human. While living in a human society, and under normal circumstances, dogs quickly learn that humans provide their daily needs of food and exercise and a comfortable place to sleep, so they would naturally gravitate towards humans for their needs. However, when a dog grows up in a more “wild” state, unsocialized and isolated from humans or living on the streets, or the humans they do see don’t provide any worthwhile positive and loving interaction, then that dog won’t run to any human for attention or to fulfill his needs.

    If you take a dog who has been raised in a happy and positive environment and humans mean good things to them like food and attention and play, then they will be motivated to seek human attention. This is where the confusion comes in because a human will see it as a “desire to please” and a dog will see it as a need to find food, attention and a warm, dry place to sleep.

    All this is obvious in a dog that is highly social with human and dogs. That dog can be literally passed off to any human and the interaction will be the same, including the person the dog lives with. One difference might be if the person they live with often gives them treats for positive interaction, like recalls. When the dog is passed to the person they live with, the dog may show that “look” that says, “Where is my cookie?” Compared to other people who the dog will play with that the dog does not have that expectation. Now if that dog finds a person in the group has treats in their pockets, suddenly that person becomes the favorite and that person will get the “look.”

    This can be seen at a dog park when a dog goes to visit a group of people standing around (and one of the people is NOT the person the dog lives with), and the dog attempts attention from each person and if that dog finds one of those people has treats, suddenly that person becomes the favorite. Now, if I (the person the dog lives with and not standing in the group) calls the dog to me away from the group and gives him a treat for the recall, suddenly I have turned into the favorite.

    What has just happened in that brief encounter of a mere ten seconds is that the dog received the attention and petting he desired from the people, his main motivator. He may even have gotten to play with another dog who was standing there. As a double whammy, he may even receive a treat from a stranger for being so cute and adorable and friendly. The people in the group got to pet a very friendly dog and have a dog give them attention, a motivator for many people. Then, I call the dog away from the group and the dog gets a treat. I get the “turn on a dime” recall that I want and the dog gets another treat.


  6. Very interesting thoughts, thank you for sharing them!

    I have noticed a little of this in my own dogs as well. I have (sadly) very unequal relationships with my dogs: I spend much more time/attention with Pongu than Crookytail, because Pongu is my competition dog and was my first dog and is by far the smarter of the two and the more fun for me to train. Crookytail, although a wonderful pet dog, is… well, he’s “just a pet” and I have not spent as much time building as deep a relationship with him, because he’s a slow learner and not as much fun.

    So for a while I was just sort of mechanically rewarding Crookytail with cookies for doing basic work, whereas with Pongu there was a lot more genuine enthusiasm and praise and interaction for successful work. I did not do this intentionally, it was just an offshoot of my different relationships with the two dogs. I was honestly a lot happier and more excited while working with Pongu, and it showed.

    And I saw the same thing: on recalls, Crookytail stopped looking at my face and started looking for the cookie hand. His enthusiasm for working with me dimmed visibly even though he was receiving actually more cookies than Pongu was (because my criteria for Pongu were a lot higher and also I was working on thinning his reinforcement rate for competition).

    After a few months of this, it finally began to bother me. I’d been having issues with Crooky’s recalls and I knew that cookies, in and of themselves, were not going to get him as reliable as I needed for off-leash hiking. So then I started really focusing on our relationship and trying to deepen the personal connection rather than relying on cookies as a motivator, because IMO cookies alone will not get you very far.

    I am lucky: Crookytail is a very affectionate dog and he was THRILLED to reciprocate my attentions with an almost immediate return of his enthusiasm. But if he had been a different dog and if I had neglected our interactions even more than I already was, I’m sure I would have had much more trouble repairing the bond.

    Anyway, that’s a mistake I won’t be making again. 🙂

  7. Thanks for your thoughtful comments in written form. So much dog training help is in video form which is helpful at times, but I love to be able to read and re-read. Also, I have limited bandwidth and have to monitor video watching carefully.

    Thanks so much!!

  8. Denise-
    It makes me happy to read this post. I believe in the absolute joy you bring to all things dog related. Playing, working, learning, and just plain loving your dogs. I wait for any posts, blogs, books- Whatever you toss out to the dog community. I look forward to your musings- all of these gifts you give to us. So when I read this latest post, I realized that i have incorporated your basic attitude of rewarding good behavior with personal play and verbal/ personal play parties. This happened by osmosis, I guess- I never consciously set out to make ME the best treat ever, but that is what has happened. I’m sort of like a sponge- soaking up all your advice, without even setting it as a goal. So thank you for making your positive attitude and love of the game available in so many ways. I am already a winner!! And my dog thinks so too. The feeling is mutual, may I add.
    Thanks Denise!!!

  9. Lynnda L in Mpls

    Denis, I appreciate all your communications — always food for thought. I do want to share my current perspective on daily living with dogs. As always, Your Mileage May Vary…

    I have been working with my dogs for 20+ years — I got into more training when I got a year-old Dalmatian who turned out to be pretty busy,.Then I did dog sports with that dog + 4 borrowed dogs + 6 more of my dogs [5 different breeds] and teaching agility in the mid-90s and now teaching manners for family dogs. I loved the science dogs and their behavior brought into my life and I discovered I was a Seminar Junkie.And had access early on to all the dog training connections on the Internet..

    I noticed that the retrievers and sheep herding breeds tended to be more “team work” type personalities with their handlers than other types of dogs. And turns out the “working line” dogs I worked with were waaaay more into doing things with me, my way, than the more random bred dogs. Your Milage May Vary, but I can say the the 2 borrowed field-bred Golden Retrievers, the herding line Border Collie and now my own field-bred English Cocker were all much more biddable than the Papillon, foundlling/stray spotted puppy, show-bred & backyard-bred Dalmatians. [Did I mention I also had several dozen foster dogs over the years, living in my house shorter-term including terriers and Aus.Shepherds as well as lots of Dalmatians.]

    I mention all this to lead up to saying — You Betcha I Gave My Two Dalmatians Food This Morning for Coming Away From the Fence in My Small City Yard With the Neighbor Dog on The Other Side, Nothing can stir it up like two 50 pound dogs who are very bonded with each other [like no other of my dogs combinations] with stimulation inches away in their backyard. My neighbors do not need to hear lots to barking eve –, but not especially on a weekend morning.

    I share, because as all of you know, life can get complicated and have layers of issues. I am *not* accusing Denise of simplifying dog situations. I just want to illustrate that dog motivation can vary, especially for dogs with more genetic propensity for human social interaction compared to more independent breed dogs.

    I do want to comment that in agility circles there is often comment not be a Lazy Trainer and just stuff a treat in your dog’s mouth after dog performance. Absolutely you want to be more engaged with your dog.

    One more comment — coming from manners training for John Q Public — food is a tool so you want to use it thoughtfully, And you do not want the dog to think the best way to get a treat/food is to stare at your handlers hands. OMG, we need to be smarter than our dogs, who pay attention to all sorts of little things.

    Thanks for reading and Happy Training —
    Lynnda L in Minneapolis, MN
    who plays in flyball, agility, tracking, rally, obedience and now, with the wiggily spaniel, in field/hunting

  10. Interesting post. But I would also agree with Lynnda that more independent dogs are harder to motivate with just praising. For example, when we praise our dog (tibetan terrier), she looks at us for a second, if at all, as if she would say “are you ok?”, and then does what she prefers. And that was even the first days when we got her as a little puppy! And I don’t think it’s the way we praise, since we get positive reactions on that from other dogs, e.g. those of my parents, when we praise them ;-). Outdoors, our dog has so much external reinforcement, e.g. through sniffing that she is not inclined to do something we want just to please us. I would be happy if that could be changed somehow or if we could at least have some fun together playing with toys – but she is not interested in toys or doing things with us like running, searching for things, retrieving etc. most of the time outdoors when there is no food involved. She may do it once or twice but then she would choose other reinforcements – and even food is not always a motivator for her.
    But your post has made me think that we have made it too easy for ourselves with relying on food and giving it to her even for small tasks she can easily do. Many thanks for that!

  11. Pingback: What Do Dogs Find Motivating?

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