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 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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:
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
There is always some discussion going on amongst dog trainers as to how and why people train the way they do. Recently I have been involved in several of those conversations and it is really interesting to see different camps emerge. And even though people often agree that the most important thing is to enjoy our dogs and have fun while training, there can be some profound differences in people’s approaches to training. What is also quite interesting is that more often than not people on both sides of an argument seem to be setting a different focus, leaving everyone confused and provoking rude comments – which ultimately prevents any constructive discussion. This blog is not about which camp is right, and which camp holds the ultimate truth for how we should train our dogs (I don’t believe that there is an ultimate truth) – instead I want to look at what it is that makes people choose to train the way they do. And I will also explain why – in my opinion – it is not just our methods that define our training, but that the methods are merely one part of our understanding of dog training.
When I take part in discussions like that, I can’t help but think back to my time at Uni. I often see a lot of parallels between different opinions and thought processes within the dog training world and the world of education. Back at Uni I was taught a model of how to analyse an educational theory by distinguishing between three different levels. (1) Our understanding of human nature, (2) the educational theories based on that understanding and (3) the educational settings that we create. This model helped me a lot in developing my own understanding of education. But why exactly am I talking about educational theories in a dog training blog? Because I think that if we really want to understand the way we train and become better trainers, we ought to analyse all layers of our training and how they inter-relate.
One thing I have noticed in the dog world is that there often a very strong focus on the method – and very often trainers will label themselves and their training based on the methods they use – positive, force-free, R+ only, balanced, hands on – but I think they are missing a trick. But dog training cannot solely be described by the methods we use. The methods are merely one layer of a much greater entity that is dog training. Based on the model that I mentioned above, I believe there are three different levels that we need to look at when we talk about dog training:
The foundation for all things dog training surely is laid by our understanding of the relationships we form with our dogs. How we feel about dog-human relationships affects every single interaction that we have with them. For example if I see a dog as a tool that I rely on for my livelihood, I will interact with it completely differently, than if I see my dog purely as a companion. The relationships that two handlers with these ideals form with their dogs are completely different and will require different training. But the differences can be much more subtle: Even two handlers who both require a working relationship with their dog can have a completely different understanding of that relationship. While one trainer might see themselves as the responsible part of the relationship where the dog has to obey their handler at all times, somebody else might see their working relationship as a more balanced and cooperative one (read about our understanding of Cooperative Training). In any case, this is where we can find the foundations to how we train our dogs. This is the “why”.
Now, based on our understanding of the dog-human relationship are the goals that we pursue within our training. Let’s stick to our example of the two handlers with working dogs. Their training goals will differ – maybe not too much in the actions they want their dogs to carry out, but clearly in how they are going to get their dogs to carry out these actions. Handler A will be controlling the dog and the training situation at all times. His ultimate goal will be for the dog to obey in any situation, no questions asked (“Make him do it”, “Don’t let him get away with that”). Handler B on the other hand will put more responsibility on the dog’s side and let their dog have a bigger say during training (“Let him work it out”, “Don’t nag him”). Again, this blog is not about judging which of these routes is the ‘better’ or ‘more desirable’ one – it is purely about understanding the different layers of training. And with regards to these layers I would conclude that the goals of our training will always be closely linked to our understanding of the dog-human relationship.
The final level of training consists of the methods we use – and the methods we use will be based on the goals that we pursue. Our two imaginary handlers will probably both use a multitude of training methods. Some of the methods might be similar, or even the same. But the overall configuration of training methods will ultimately be based on their training goals. Our methods will always be in line with our understanding of the first two layers. So, whilst our methods are the most obvious and apparent level within dog training they don’t actually define our training - they are an expression of our understanding of the dog-human relationship and our training goals that are linked to this understanding.
Looking at dog training through this model can be very helpful in assessing the way we train. It can help us to gain a deeper understanding of our training and aid us in becoming better trainers. But it also has implications for dog training instructors. If instructors want to truly educate dog owners, they need to make sure to address all three levels of dog training. They need to assess their clients understanding of the dog-human relationship, help them develop their dog training goals and then provide them with a set of training methods that will complement them. Alternatively, if instructors don’t agree with the owner they are working with, they have the option to challenge their understanding and re-educate them. In any case, simply teaching a certain set of training methods is not sufficient if we aim to empower dog owners to take control of their training.
At the beginning of this blog I talked about dog training discussions. I think that when people talk about training, it is all too easy to get these different levels mixed up - which will then lead to confusion and misunderstandings. When we talk about training, we need to be clear if we are talking about the relationship, the training goals, or the methods. All three are crucial part to our overall understanding and execution of training and they all deserve our attention when we discuss our training with other handlers. We just need to make sure that we are actually talking about the same thing – otherwise we might get caught up in unnecessary arguments that leave us all a bit grumpier, but in no way wiser.
In our first blog post we talked about our goals with regards to training dogs and their handlers. We said we believe that dog training should be about becoming a team with our dogs and working in partnership with them. Now we would like to share some more detailed thoughts about the nature of the relationships we form with our dogs as well as the ways we engage with them: We believe that dog training should be all about cooperation with our dogs. In an ideal training session both the human and the dog within the partnership bring something to the process and both take something new away from it. Training, in our opinion should not just be about us teaching our dog a new trick, it should be about working together with our dog and harnessing both our and our dog’s individual dispositions and learn something new. For that to happen we need to actively engage both partners in the learning process. Only then they will both enjoy the activity and the training session will lead to the best possible outcome. We call it Cooperative Training!
While all this might sound very plausible, it can sometimes be difficult to make sure that training is actually of a cooperative nature. We have to constantly assess what is going on to avoid us unconsciously taking over and potentially ignoring our dog’s specific talents and needs: Especially in competitive training it is easy to fixate on perfecting a specific behaviour and therefore lose sight of our dog’s needs. Common examples would be pushing our dog within a training session when they are already tired or taking an exercise to the next stage when the behaviour isn’t quite ready for it. Other examples might be more subtle: It could be that we are trying to use specific types of reinforcement that our dog just doesn’t respond to very well (choosing the right reinforcement is a massive topic in itself and we will look at that in a separate post in the future). Either of these examples can easily result in increased pressure and frustration for both partners and ultimately inhibit the learning process and damage the relationship with our dog. This is why it is incredibly important that we get to know our canine partners as best as we can and learn about their preferences and needs. It is important that we listen to what our dogs tell us about their training needs rather than assuming or just following a blueprint.
So we need make sure that we as handlers don’t ignore our dogs’ needs – but what about our dogs’ influence on the training? As we said above, we strongly believe that it is important for both partners to be happy and comfortable within their training. And we also believe that both partners should play an active part in their joint learning process. This means we actually want our dogs to bring something to the table, we want them to train us to some extent. We want them to teach us new games, to tell us when they are up for a training session, or even decide what they would like to do as a warm up routine before an Agility run. Why shouldn’t our dogs be allowed to have a choice about how they want to engage with us (choice – another big topic that we will cover in the future)? As long as we are comfortable with it we will happily embrace “being trained” by them. By allowing them to make choices and to actively engage with us, we can improve our training as a result of increased motivation and positive relationship development.
We believe that co-operation is what makes the relationships with our dogs so special. When both partners bring something to the relationship and get something out of it, when they communicate with each other and pursue the same goals, that is when we feel that special connection with our dogs, and that is when we can see these amazing developments that we talked about in our first blog post We strongly believe that the best training sessions are those where we actively cooperate with our dogs, allowing them to influence the training session and making sure that both partners are comfortable with what is going on. There are probably people out there who would agree as well as some who disagree with our thoughts on the matter - so why not drop us a comment? We would love to hear what other people think about our idea of Cooperative Training.
It has been a little bit over a year now since we started Dogs Matter and so much has happened since then: Partnerships between humans and dogs have evolved and new friendships been made. We were lucky to host some of the most innovative and inspiring personalities in dog training in the UK and we have received amazing amounts of support from friends and trainees. But most importantly, we had the honour of being part of so many training journeys over the last year. There have been so many personal successes in all walks of dog training and we are incredibly grateful for having shared these experiences with each and every one of our students. We would like to take this opportunity to look back to the beginnings of Dogs Matter. We would like to share some thoughts about why we started and why now, one year later, we are incredibly proud of what Dogs Matter has become.
When we thought about a name for our training business we considered lots of different options. I won’t bore you with all the details of the process, but there was one idea that we always came back to when we thought about what training dogs really means to us: We believe that dogs have and amazingly positive impact on our lives. They support us, and inspire us to keep going, even when we feel like the world is coming down on us. But they also make the good moments even better, by adding their little (and large) personalities into our lives.
Over thousands of years humans developed this special relationship with dogs that is hardly matched by any other species. The roles that dogs play in our lives have changed quite a lot. From early cohabitation of humans and dogs that is believed to be a key aspect of the evolutionary success of humans(!), over working dogs that have helped us hunt for food and guard our families, to the point where we just enjoy their company as pets; dogs have always been there at our side… and they have always mattered!
This is why when we started Dogs Matter a year ago we wanted to provide training that above all focuses on the dog-human relationship. We never wanted to just train somebody’s dog for them, or provide them with a blue-print for training success. It was always our intention to empower people to take ownership of their training and thus taking ownership of the relationship with their dog. Because we believe that this is what dog training is all about – it’s not about winning that red ribbon, but about feeling that connection with our dogs; becoming a team and working in partnership – be it in Competitive Obedience, Agility, or within our day to day lives.
Over the past year we have been part of so many different training journeys. We always try to make the relationship with our students as cooperative as possible and taking their needs and preferences into account. Because of that we always encourage our students to make choices about where they want to take their training and what they want to achieve. Our job then is to provide them with the skills and the knowledge that they need to follow up on these decisions and develop their training. In some cases this has taken our students to competitive success in a variety of disciplines. In other cases it has enabled students to build a trusting relationship with a dog that they rescued. In every case we have been incredibly proud to see them actively engage with their training and develop the positive relationships they have with their dog. Seeing both humans and dogs grow in confidence as a result of their partnership is an absolutely incredible feeling. And to see how their partnership inspires others to engage with their dog in a similar fashion is just pure bliss. We are just so lucky to have witnessed exactly these moments of inspiration (sometimes disguised as healthy competition!) between our students on several occasions throughout the last year. Thank you all for being such amazing, inspiring and supportive students.
We are incredibly proud to have been a part of so many incredible dog training journeys over the last year. 2015 has been absolutely incredible and we couldn't have wished for any more. We hope that we will be able to keep working with all of our amazing students in 2016 and are also looking forward to welcoming many more. You and your canine partners are the living proof that dogs really do matter!