Dog Motivation – What’s in it for me?


Let’s get a couple things straight. Dogs don’t misbehave out of spite, out of wanting to dominate you, or out of just being a little jerk. They do it because it works for them, or they don’t know what is being asked of them or how they should behave. 

No one gave any dog the rulebook on how to live with humans, all they got was one that has all their innate drives and motivators in it. Which they use religiously whether we like it or not!

As good dog owners it’s up to us to build our understanding on what motivates our dogs so that we can use that knowledge to help our dogs live harmoniously with us, instead of there being unnecessary conflict.

Fundamental Misunderstanding

A lot of the dog owners I talk to often have difficulty answering a simple question of why their dog is struggling to do (or not do) a behavior. I bring this up not to vilify, put down, or otherwise paint this lack of knowledge in a negative light but only to use as an example here of one of the fundamental misunderstandings that humans can have with their dogs. That is, many humans simply don’t know or understand why their dog might do any given behavior under the sun, and that is a problem when it comes to understanding how to change behavior to something more desirable. 

The obedience behaviors that we ask our dogs to do can only have as much meaning and value to the dog as the tangible reward they get from doing the behaviors.

In more simple terms, if there is no pay for the dog, there is no reason for them to do the behavior. Nature has made all of her children this way, instead of wasting energy on meaningless things, we strive to do things that have value to us and benefit our survival. Things that waste energy and have no benefit to survival are not perpetuated. 

For example let’s look at the behavior of Sit.

The first place our dogs learn this is usually in the litter when the dam begins to feed the pups standing rather than laying down. The puppies generally sit when they nurse like this because it is a comfortable position while they are at the milk bar. Their sitting in this context is not making anything happen for them it is merely a coincidence that that’s the position that works out for this. 

Then, for the sake of this example, one of two things happens. Either the puppy is sold to their new family and is going to live with humans or this is a feral dog situation and the puppies are going to live the life on the fringe of humanity. 

The house pup lands in their new home and the training begins. The physical body position of Sit becomes something valuable to do, more so than other positions, and this is simply because humans reward it. With attention/affection, treats, you name it, the dog is actively being paid for just planting that butt on the floor and looking cute. To this pup the behavior has value, they are receiving rewards that help with their survival.

This is an artificial value put on a behavior as a result of the response from the humans involved. Sit still is meaningless to the dog, it just results in reward, and so they continue to do the behavior.

The feral pup meanwhile is not manipulated in this way. Sit to them has no greater value than any other position. It doesn’t help them get food or a mate, doesn’t result in anything other than maybe a quick rest or something similar. Therefore in this pup we would not be seeing them sit any more often than any other position they could be in. The value isn’t there for the dog. 

The reason that this is important is because a lot of owners operate under misconceptions that there is intrinsic value for the dog to merely obey or listen to the owner, which is not at all the case. Just like us, dogs seek pleasure and good things, and avoid the bad ones. There is no value in listening to a human unless the human has created value there. 

The Dog's Desires

This is where there is a clash of culture. Dogs want things that we don’t, dogs are driven to do things we aren’t, dogs perceive the entire world with a sense that we ourselves consider to be useless comparatively. There is also the fact that some things that dogs want to do at any given time are dangerous in a modern world, like playing keep away in a busy street.

Then we also have very human things added to the mix. The walk has to be cut short because the human is going to be late. The dog must do X thing because it is convenient for the human or this is the sole opportunity for a long span of time. The dog must be polite at all times in public as to not embarrass the human or cause a scene. There is NO running and NO roughhousing in the home because the human’s things are fragile. And forget about chewing or keep away. 

What’s in it for the dog?

When does the dog get to be a dog? (and I’m not talking about visits to the dog park)

The modern day dog is suffering because a severe lack of fulfillment and expression when it comes to them having outlets that satisfy their biological needs. When these go unmet it is not a good day for anyone and will make everything harder. Training will be inherently more difficult because you’re fighting a battle against all the other unfulfilled desires the dog might have, there is only so much value that a treat will bring to the table!

If the dog doesn’t want the payment you’ve got, why would they put in the work and effort in that moment? When Fido is running around the park like a maniac and having the time of his life, why would he stop that to come to you? So that he can be leashed and taken home where it’s boring?

With training we create value in the places we need there to be, so that our dogs are much easier to live with and much more likely to listen to us when needed. There is a clear communication system in place, habits built, and a framework of understanding where the dog comes from, not just an assumption that the dog will listen because the human says. We work with the motivations that the dog has, not against them.

The next time you see your dog doing something you don’t particularly like, stop and ask yourself, what’s in it for them? What are they getting out of this that I’m not seeing? That’s where the key to reversing and replacing their habit is!

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