Motivation through Self-Determination

Motivation is probably one of the most talked about aspects of modern dog training. Most people in competitive dog sports these days are looking to train their dog in a way which motivates the dog, they want the dog to enjoy the training and have fun. To ensure that their dog enjoys the training session, most trainers are using reward based methods. The dog is rewarded for the correct behaviour; with treats, toys, praise or any other engagement they find rewarding. Using rewards as a method of training is a good basis to ensure that training is fun for both dog and handler and is a great way of improving the relationship with your dog. As I mentioned in an earlier post (read Beyond the Methods) it isn’t really our methods that define our training though. Whilst rewards are a great tool for training our dogs in a fun and motivational way, the crucial part is how we use these rewards to really motivate our dogs in training. So the question I would like to explore in this post is: How can we organise our training and rewards in a way that is especially motivating for our dogs?

Self-Determination Theory ( is a theory of (human) motivation that is especially concerned with self-motivated or self-determined behaviours. The theory is underpinned by several studies that analysed the relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. I don’t want to go into too much detail about the theory here (for everyone interested in reading up on it, have a look at the link above or check out the article referenced below) but there are two interesting points that this theory makes with regards to the above question:

  1. There are three psychological needs identified within the theory that, when met, foster intrinsic motivation and increase self-determination: (i) Competence (the feeling of competence that can be achieved through positive feedback and optimal challenges), (ii) Autonomy (feeling of being in charge, ability to make choices), and (iii) relatedness (positive relationships, response to communication efforts).
  2. There are varying degrees of extrinsic motivation, some of which are characterised by a certain amount of self-determination.

So how does this apply to motivation in dog training? If we assume that the same principles that apply to humans also apply to dogs - and why shouldn't they? - this theory gives us three elements we can address to improve motivation in our dogs:

First, we need to make sure that our dogs feel competent in the training situation. Of course we do this every time we reward our dogs for the correct behaviour, we give them positive feedback. But it is also crucial that we pitch the complexity of our training right. We need to make sure that we give our dogs achievable tasks whilst at the same time progressing their training based on their ability. If we expect too much of our dogs, or don’t challenge them enough, they will lose interest in what we ask them to do. Second, we need to make sure that our dogs feel autonomous. Now this doesn’t mean they are independent from us, at the end of the day we are working together as a team. But it means that our dogs need to be able to make choices within the training session. They need to feel like their actions have consequences and not just feel like they are being subjected to our will. This also means to let them make mistakes once in a while, and give them time to work out what we are looking for. All too often we feel the need to control the situation and help the dogs get it right. Letting them think about it will not only increase their understanding of the exercise, it will also boost their motivation and confidence. And last but not least, we need to make sure that we fulfill their need for relatedness. We need to respond appropriately when our dogs are being successful in training, celebrate with them, engage with them. If we just quietly give them a treat each time they get something right, we are still giving them positive feedback, but we are missing out on satisfying that need for relatedness.


So by making sure that our dogs feel competent, autonomous and experience relatedness we can improve their motivation. But we don’t just increase their motivation, we can actually add another dimension to it: We can promote self-determination in our dogs’ extrinsically motivated behaviour, making it feel much more similar to intrinsically motivated behaviours. When we ask our dogs to work with us, they are usually extrinsically motivated. They (probably) don’t engage in training with us just for the sake of it, but because they will get something out of the training situation: Food, toys, praise, or anything else they find rewarding. Even though we train them to work for prolonged periods of time without being reinforced, there will always be some expectation of reinforcement – and if we fail to ever reinforce behaviours, the quality of work will likely deteriorate over time. But if we make sure that we integrate the three elements mentioned above into our training, we can foster self-determination in our dogs’ work and therefore make it more resilient to temporary lack of reinforcement (such as in competition).


To get back to my original question: If we want to make sure that our dogs are highly motivated to work with us, and potentially create motivation that is resilient to a temporary lack of reinforcement, we need to make sure that they feel competent, autonomous and experience relatedness during their training. So now it’s your turn. What do you think? Do you have any training anecdotes that reflect any of the points above? Do you make sure that your dogs feel competent, autonomous and related during training? Or do you think applying SDT to dog training is not appropriate? Whichever it is, please let us know what you think!



Ryan, Richard; Deci, Edward (2000): Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. American Psychologist. 55, 1. p.68-78

Comments: 2 (Discussion closed)
  • #1

    Sean Grylls (Tuesday, 26 April 2016 23:34)

    Hi, This and the previous posts make for very interesting reading, thanks. The trick for the inexperienced of us is to recognise how and when to react to give appropriate feedback and how to structure training to achieve a balance between progress and a positive motivational experience for the dog. It's not easy to get right and that's why professional help and guidance is so important.
    Assuming motivators can also include fear or pain avoidance where punitive training techniques are used, I guess it is unlikely that they will promote self determination behaviours. That is why we don't use them!

  • #2

    Robin - Dogs Matter (Tuesday, 26 April 2016 23:55)

    Hi Sean,
    thanks for your feedback :) I think it is a challenge for everybody to get the right balance with regards to progressing their training. Different dogs will progress at a different speed and with different preferences for each exercise we train... I think the key here is to evaluate our training on a regular basis and look at the dog in front of us, rather than following a pre-set training plan!
    With regards to fear or pain avoidance - I would say that if a dog is doing something because he wants to avoid a negative consequence there is definitely no choice involved, so yep, this sort of training won't promote self-determined behaviours (plus I personally would argue that there are ethical problems with this sort of training). But it is important to keep in mind that just because we are using reward based methods does not necessarily mean we are letting our dog make choices, i.e. promoting self-determination.