Canine Psychology & Shaping Behavior: Part 3 – Principles of Motivation

We recommend that if you haven’t already, you watch the following prior to watching this video and reading this article:


Welcome to Part 3 of Canine Psychology & Shaping Behavior

Think about your everyday life, think about the decisions that you are considering and the choices that you are making and the actions that you are taking. When you really break down behavior, just about every behavioral decision is predicated by some sort of motivating source. Do I work hard today because I have the opportunity for a bonus, or am I lazy today because I think I can get away with it? Motivation can be both positive and negative.

In the world of canine psychology there are many parallels to humans and how we think about motivation. This video looks at the 4 key things to consider when looking to motivate your dog to learn and develop better skills and a more reliable character.

Let’s go through the 4 principles one by way with a few examples:

Principle 1: It’s all about currency.

Imagine if your boss came up to you today at the office and said, “I’m not going to pay you in cash this month, instead I’m going to drop off a truckload of sand at your front door of equal value”. How would that make you feel, probably a bit demotivating right, maybe a little bit annoying?

When we start working with our dog it is absolutely essential that we take some time to figure out what is the “currency” that best motivates our dog. Some dogs love food, what kind of food works best and has the most value? Alternatively, is there a particular toy that they just go bonkers for instead? Having an open mind and spending a little bit of time on this early will save you a lot of effort down the road.

Principle 2: It’s all about relative value.

Every city is the same, there is an expressway out to the airport, and in just about every trip out to the airport you can see someone who is running late and is “burning rubber” straight down the emergency lane. Despite this being illegal, the punishment for the behavior is so low that it rarely makes an impact on that driver who is in their expensive car and in a hurry to catch a flight. If however, the rules were shaken up a little bit, and anybody who was caught driving down the emergency lane now had their car thrown in the river, perhaps this would make them think twice. All of a sudden missing the flight isn’t quite as important is it!

When working with our pups, making sure that we understand the relative value of the various elements of the environment that they are in (the sights, smells, sounds, feelings etc), and ensuring that relative value of what we are offering them is higher, we will start to see results. If what we offer is of lower relative value (either rewarding or aversive), we cannot realistically expect to see any change in their behavior.

Principle 3: It’s all about reliability of the outcome.

There you are sitting at work…on the 1st of the month every month for the last 20 months your best client has been buying 10 widgets and then been paying you immediately after receipt of the goods. This month however, the client calls you and says, “this month I’m going to need 3 days to pay you”. Because you already had 20 months of extremely reliable trade with your client, you do not have any concerns about giving him the extra time, you already have an existing relationship, and a habit of delivering the goods and being paid. On the flip side however, if a brand new client that you don’t know asked for extended payment terms, you may be less inclined to agree, as you are not as confident about that outcome.

At its core, shaping your dog’s behavior has the same needs, when they are learning a new behavior or skill, then need to be repeatedly and reliably reinforced that what is happening is “good” and that this is something that they want to continue to do. After many many many many many times of being reliably and consistently reinforced, they develop the habit of a behavior and will be less concerned about the payment coming immediately. The same applies with aversive outcomes, only if they are delivered in a reliable consistent fashion will the dog understand that the outcome has a direct relationship with the behavior.

Principle 4: It’s all about what the dog wants at THAT point in time.

There you are dying of thirst in the desert with no phone, no chance of rescue and no water…you stumble across a sign that says “Here is 10 million dollars, take it, have fun!!!” Then there is a box of cash sitting there below the sign. On any normal day, finding 10mill would be amazing and you would be insane to swap it for a bottle of water, but at that point in time, given your circumstances (about to die), most reasonable people would change that 10mill in for a bottle of water without a second thought.

The above is a severe example, but gives us some insight to how behavior is warped by circumstance and environment. A dog in a high stress, high danger, high anxiety or high excitement environment has a great deal of difficulty learning because they have trouble processing any new information when their attention is entirely focused on something else. To get the best results in training, we need to start with a simple environment and few distractions and gradually make it more and more complex. Only once the dog is showing very high levels of confidence in a particular environment, and happily ignores the surrounding distractions should we be changing up the location or complexity of the situation. Going too far too fast is setting your dog up to fail, and reduces the chance substantially that they will be learn and improve.


Found this article interesting or useful even? Support our CSR efforts by taking a look at Chateau Canine’s Social Responsibility Initiatives and see how you can change a street dog’s life, just by buying a toy / treat / food for your own dog! That sounds Barking Awesome doesn’t it 😉

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