What is a Motivator?

A motivator is something we want; most of us can answer that pretty easily.  In the world of competition dogs, however, I often see something that is really confusing to me.  I routinely encounter people who are using rewards that their dog does not want, in order to reward behaviors that they DO want.

It looks like this:

Dog has just done a fabulous recall to her handler – fast and straight.  As a reward, the trainer whips out a toy and starts to play with the dog.  So far so good, except for one detail; the dog walks away because she does not want the toy.    The owner starts playfully hitting the dog on the butt with the toy and pulling on her hair.  The dog scurries around to face the trainer but still makes no effort to engage; she continues to reject the toy.

Refusing a toy is not an option in this trainer's world so the dog is crated.  When I question this sequence, I am told that the dog must play when the trainer wants to play, and the dog must accept whatever reward is offered, whether or not the dog wants it.

Thirty minutes later, the dog is allowed out of the crate, and the owner is ready with the toy.  The dog emerges from the crate and immediately engages with the toy, frantically thrashing the toy back and forth.  She is rewarded for this by being allowed out to continue with her work.  The trainer chalks this up as a success – the dog is now accepting the toy as a reward for working.  

At the next recall the dog wanders, sniffs and stares at the other dogs as soon as the owner’s back is turned.   The owner returns to the dog for a rousing game of tug (which is accepted) and the dog is then left on a restrained recall instead of a stay – it works.  The dog runs to the owner and accepts the toy when it is offered. 

I have seen or heard variations of this training technique more times than I can count.  Here is the human equivalent of that sequence:

I want my son to take out the garbage, and I will motivate him using broccoli as the reward.  I have chosen broccoli because it is good for him, not because he’s ever shown any enthusiasm for it.    

The next time he takes out the garbage, I am going to offer up his reward – a big, steaming bowl of broccoli!  I expect him to accept that broccoli for dessert –whether he has indicated to me that he wants it or not, because broccoli is healthy and over the long run this is in his best interest.

If he chooses not to eat the broccoli, I’ll put him in a quiet room for a short while so he can’t find anything else to do or find anything else to eat that might be more enticing. 

My guess is that when I let him out and offer the broccoli again, he’ll take a nice big bite!  Maybe not the first time, but as the weeks or months go by, he’ll figure it out.

Eventually, my hope is that he’ll eat the broccoli when I put it in front of him and I won’t need the quiet room at all. Chances are good I’ll get there too.

Unfortunately, I now risk having a new problem.  My son could stop volunteering to take out the garbage.  If that happens, what should I do?

If you said, "put him back in the room to build his motivation for taking out the garbage", then you would be correct!  Doing chores looks pretty entertaining compared to the quiet room.

Now I’ve killed two birds with one stone.  I have built his interest in doing chores and he is eating his broccoli.  Possibly most important, I have built his understanding that as a parent, I control his every move, his world, his potential for an interesting life.  In this scenario, I have abdicated responsibility for making the chores interesting.  I have ignored the signs of distress and the light in his eyes when a bowl of ice cream shows up, because I have decided that he must love broccoli, regardless of who he is or how he feels.

In the above scenarios, it is truly difficult to determine what we have – a structure built primarily on reward or one based on punishment.  Since motivation is always considered from the point of view of the subject, we need to interpret their opinions based on what they show us.  When we add deprivation to the system we confuse the issue.

Like people, dogs are individuals.  The more motivators that you have for your dog the better off you will be, since different motivators are ideal for different circumstances, but at the end of the day, it is only a motivator if your dog wants it, and if the handler can make the motivator desirable.  You cannot motivate a dog with a toy if she does not want it or if the handlers lacks the skills to use it correctly.

I would certainly encourage you to develop a wide array of training options, but when making our choices, we have to look at the specific dog/handler team.  What does the dog want?  What is the handler comfortable using?   

If your dog does not like toys, you cannot use them to motivate behavior, unless you punish the dog for rejecting them. When we force a dog to accept a motivator that they do not want, what is really influencing the dog’s behavior, the threat of punishment or the proffered motivator?  Is it really reasonable to call something a motivator if the dog accepts it in order to avoid the alternative?  I'd argue, "no."  

Yes, deprivation training works but is it a method of training that grows your skills as a trainer?  Why not train with food while you learn to use toys in a motivational fashion, or until you have a dog that wants to play with toys as much as you want to use them?  Take the time to learn the mechanical skills of toy play but in the meantime, let your dog tell you what she wants – and then listen to her opinion.

If your dog likes something – anything! – you can get behavior.  You can maintain behavior.  You can enjoy training and your dog can enjoy being there with you, because you make life interesting and entertaining.  To train this way you’ll have to let your dog take the lead and you’ll have to listen to her opinion about the things that you are doing.  You’ll have to consider why your training is progressing – because your dog wants what you are offering or because she is afraid of the consequences of choosing to leave the motivator on the table? 

Give it some thought.  

As far as broccoli, try roasting it at about 425 degrees with a generous amount of olive oil, salt and pepper.  Before serving, throw in a handful of raisins and walnuts.  Yum!  



At 14 years old, my kelpie is finally accepting – at certain times, places and moods, that human touch can be good. In the last two years, she has also shown more interest in toys. The reason? She sees the fun my other dogs have with toys and touch, and wants in. If it were training, I’m not sure it is totally positive (if I want to train her, I use HER favourite reward of food) but it is lovely to be able to cuddle my old dog occasionally, or have a game of tug, which doesn’t hurt her as much as the fetch she prefers to play.


I rarely respond to comments but you highlight a very real question which is relevant to the point of this article. I DO use punishment in training as you have described – I take away opportunities to train. I sure hope it works because I’m withholding the chance to earn VALUED rewards rather than working because of the threat of isolation, but that is not a black and white line; more shades of grey….

Ann Dahlin

I really chuckled at this, because I’ve always thought to myself, “Is it just me? Or is this weird?” when people have a “play with me or else I’ll do something unpleasant to you” mentality. Then I’ve also come across people who also don’t want to say that they are punishing their dogs through deprivation. No, they say, they’re not punishing by depriving their dogs of any interaction, they are “teaching their dogs how to play”. That may be, but punishing a dog for “playing wrong” is no better than punishing a dog for sitting wrong, or heeling wrong, and so forth. Well anyways, I’m just repeating now what you said in your post.

Really good post and so relevant for today’s trainers.

Stephanie Colman (@caninestein)

Great post!

Just sort of thinking out loud… Where is the line between deprivation and what we can, perhaps, call “management of time as a resource?” For example – a dog is not engaging with the handler, so the dog is crated. Let’s assume that the handler has decent skills – he’s not the handler shoving liver at the dog because “all dogs love liver,” and he’s not suffocating the dog with the toy. But for whatever reason, the dog isn’t engaging.

In following much of Lyra’s early training, I’ve seen you simply end the session if she’s not engaged; it’s her choice. That makes sense to me. But, you work from home and presumably have many other chances to go back out to train and see if she’s more “in the game.” If I’m working a 9-5 and have limited oppty’s to train, maybe I would be more inclined to set up training sessions where, if the dog wasn’t engaging, I’d crate the dog – the idea being that I, the handler, will make every effort to make this game exciting for you, but you, dog, need to play the training game I’m offering – or else we’re done here … but no, you can’t toddle about and self-entertain. It’s certainly being bossy – (when we train, we train, or we do nothing), but is it dominating in a negative way?

When you ended a session with a younger Lyra, one might say you were (temporarily) “depriving” her of the opportunity to earn all the great fun and rewards that you offer in training — tho she was free to be a dog and go on about her life as she saw fit (back in the house or whatnot).

Is that less “dominating” b/c she still had choices in how she wandered around the house, vs. being crated? “House Arrest” vs. Isolation?

OK. So I’ve totally zero’d in on one aspect of what you said… and as a result, am probably taking this out of context. Sorry! And I really am thinking out loud … and maybe this comment post wasn’t the right place for that. But now that I’ve written it… ;-)

Long story short: What is a motivator? It’s the dog’s opinion that counts! Totally agree. And there’s HUGE value in learning to reward your dog in ways that are meaningful to him. And assuming you understand and practice both those principles, IMO, not all crating in training equates to deprivation. IMO, it’s nice to think we can always give the dog the purely organic choice to work or not, but sometimes there are reasons (within reason) to manufacture some of that choice to work.


“If your dog does not like toys, you cannot use them to motivate behavior, unless you punish the dog for rejecting them.”

Rather than abandoning toys because your dog sees no value in them, or punishing the dog for rejecting them, there is a third way: grow the value of the thing you would like to be able to use as a reward:


Other than polishing up your mechanical skills, you haven’t really addressed how you would get to the point where “you have a dog that wants to play with toys as much as you want to use them.” The fastest way to get there is to use the things the dog currently finds rewarding to grow the value of toys that currently lack value. This does not require punishment, deprivation, or even disconnecting from the dog. Why limit the potential size of your toolbox by passively setting currently unmotivating items aside until some unknown future event causes the dog to see things differently?

The mistake a lot of people make is to try to use toys as a reward before they’ve laid this foundation. Grow the value first, so the toy actually becomes rewarding to the dog, and only THEN use it as a reward.

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