Dog-Training Tips: Motivators and Reinforcement

Written by: Melinda Benbow, Urban Uplander

For training to work, your dog must be focused on you and motivated to learn.
All photos courtesy Melinda Benbow

Training your dog at home is a wonderful bonding experience—especially if you are willing to be consistent and put in the work—but there are a few nuances about dog behavior and learning theory you need to understand in order to work with your dog efficiently and effectively. A great place to start is understanding motivators, reinforcers, and food-based reward systems. Once you have an idea of what motivates your dog and what your dog considers rewarding, you will be able to keep your dog’s focus while training and see consistent progress.

Motivation and Motivators

Motivation in dog training is anything that drives your dog to engage or focus on a behavior or task. Motivation is a key point when it comes to learning: Motivation determines if the dog will perform the learned behavior; the biggest motivator in the environment will always win the attention of your dog; and most importantly, learning cannot take place without motivation. An easy example of trainer-created motivation is using a treat on your dog’s nose to lure them into and sit or a down. Food is a wonderful motivation for dogs in controlled training sessions. When first teaching your dog new behaviors, start in a quiet and low-distraction environment. This will keep your pup motivated by you and your reinforcers.

Your dog’s body language will tell you when they are engaged and focused.

Keep in mind that when your dog is focused on something else, they are not capable of learning at the moment. Your dog will tell you when they are not focusing on you. They may look intensely at something else, sniff around the area, or look for other items to interact with. If this happens, create distance from the distractions in order to continue fruitful training.


Reinforcement for a dog is anything that rewards a dog for engaging in a learned behavior. The top reinforcers for a dog are food, playing with other dogs, access to the outdoors, human attention, and playing with humans. When teaching your dog a new skill/behavior, it is important to provide a food reward 100% of the time. Once your dog has a good understanding of a behavior, you can eventually move to life rewards, which are desired experiences—such as those listed above—rather than just food. For example, I ask Fido to wait politely at the door instead of rushing out. When he performs this behavior, I will reward him by releasing him to go out and play in the backyard. Vary the rewards to keep things exciting for your dog.

Food is a great motivator for most dogs, and creating an association between food and verbal cues is important.

Using Food to Train

We need to let our dogs know when they do what we are asking for, and a food reward paired with a marker cue makes for quicker association between cues and behavior. When starting out, use training treats or kibble. An easy way to do pair food and a marker cue is to use a clicker or words such as “yes” or “good dog.” Human words don’t mean anything to a dog until value or an association has been assigned to the word. To give value to our marker, say the marker and then reward the dog, and repeat. This will be the start of your training and bonding. Do this several times over a few days to create a good association to the marker. You can test your dog to see if they are understanding your marker by saying it and wait for their response. Do they open their mouth, lick their lips, or maybe give a head tilt? These are good indicators that your dog has built a good association with the marker.

When you move on from there, use thes marker to capture the moment the pup performs the right behavior. This helps their response cues become stronger and stronger. When you are teaching tougher skills, in distracting environments, and most importantly teaching recall, bring in higher-value rewards such as cheese, meat, and other food that that would not usually get. What your dog considers a high-value reward is completely up to them. Eventually, down the road, you can phase out treats, but there is nothing wrong with rewarding your dog for good behavior. We all enjoy getting paid for our hard work, and believe it or not, dogs work very hard in this human-built world.

You can reinforce good behavior by making it the key that unlocks a fun play session.

Training your own dog is a rewarding, bonding experience, but you must set yourself and your dog up for as much success as possible. To do this, you need to understand what motivates your dog, reinforce your dog, and use food to make cue-to-behavior associations. As always, stay consistent, be patient, and reward your dog!

Melinda Benbow owns and operates Urban Uplander Pet Care in Indianapolis, Indiana, along with her husband and partner, Kyle. She has worked with animals professionally for more than a decade, focused on positive-reinforcement training, animal behavior, pet safety, and pet health. Check her out on Instagram and Facebook.

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