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Does your dog prefer a toy or a cookie?

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Many trainers, myself included, will ask you to rank your motivators.  We do this because we want to be able to strategically pair the value of the motivator with specific circumstances in training.  The basic idea is that more difficult work or effort would be paired with higher value motivators, and vice versa.

The problem with this is that while it works reasonably well within a type of motivator (preferences for a specific type of food, type of toy or approach to personal play) it doesn’t work nearly as well if you switch types of motivators.

Brito prefers cookies to toys, in the sense that if I made both available, he would opt for a cookie. But in terms of his energy (caused by knowing he is about to chase a ball), his focus, and his endurance, I’d say the ball gives me a better overall result for practicing known movement-based exercises. I cannot compare food to toys because the entire effect is simply different.

Lyra and Raika always prefer a toy, no matter what type of food I might have available, but I still use food in their training, depending on what I am trying to accomplish.

Some dogs clearly prefer one to the other and their preference is expressed across the board, but plenty of other dogs are not obvious; their preferences might be a function of their environment (food might work where a toy might not), the work under consideration (heeling might benefit from a toy whereas a recall might look better with a cookie), or something else altogether, like time of day, the specific cookie (or toy), how hungry the dog is at that time, etc.

So which is preferred?

There is no real answer, and at the end of the day, it’s not important.  What is important is understanding what motivators are most effective, for a given dog, under a given circumstance. Once you have a handle on that, choose the motivator that is going to give you the attitude, energy, and clearness of thinking that makes sense for whatever you are working on.

When considering motivators, think in terms of “appropriate for the circumstance”.

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.

3 responses »

  1. At home, food is a good motivator….but in the real world, nothing is a motivator.

  2. Kathie Cybulskie

    Tanner will take food over a toy all day long, unless I throw a ball. If he knows there is food available during a training session he is game. However, take the food away aka Ability Trial and his motivation is gone after the first run.

  3. I’m fairly new to this dog training thing, so still finding my personal training style (including how I moderate it for different dogs and situations!). I’ll keep in mind the many things that can change the value of a motivator – I too don’t often know how to compare food and toys as motivators as they are so different. So far though, I don’t think I’ve EVER seen Ava display as much energy and movement (downright bounciness!) as when faced with breakfast!


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