Anyone working on training their dog in basic obedience or competitive obedience has at one time or another used motivation to get their young dog or pup to follow a command. Some dogs like the food more than the toy and other dogs really like the toy so much that they can go pretty far with the toy alone. Of course, training without motivation gives you a dog that simply goes through the motions, either through fear or submission.
However, sometimes using the toy isn’t enough motivation. For example, I have some pups that easily climb up steps to go into the house (you’ll see why later in the post). The problem came when we tried to get them down those same steps. There just wasn’t motivation for them to follow the toy as the stress that had to be overcome in figuring out how to climb down steps was greater than their drive for the toy. So, in this case, dropping bits of kibble on each step with a big kibble reward and lots of praise at the bottom did the trick right away. Five or sex reps later and they are getting the hang of it. At some point, I will move over to the toy/praise to continue conditioning and motivate to do the action called for. Which brings me to the next issue.
If you attempt to use food for motivation while doing, let’s say, heeling or leash work, then the pup will start to anticipate food as the motivational tool every time heeling or leash work is begun. They will expect the food and when you bring out the toy, they are suddenly not interested in the toy at all. This is not a drop in drive, but a conflict that the dog now has as regards the game you are playing. I mean, you just spent a week using kibble or hot dogs or whatever food to get the dog to heel or sit and now you are trying with a ball. At this early stage of training a dog, you are mixing basic drives and the dog may become confused.
The solution is to learn to think with your motivational tools. For example, I use food in the house, getting pups or young dogs to sit or come or load up in the crate. This gets the pups really excited about coming in at the end of the day, loading into their crates, etc. I already gave the example of walking down steps.
Outside, on the field, I use the toy most of the time, especially in the first stages of puppy training. Some times I switch things up. For instance, we sometimes use a bit of food on the field to motivate the pup in heeling, for position or to train more precise movement. This is not consistent, so the pup is not always expecting food, so it is not conditioning the pup to constantly expect food on the field.
You will need to experiment with both methods to see where your pup or dog does best. This is a lot of fun as you can also learn a lot about your dog’s drives and motivation, which in turn will help you in getting your dog to do what you want, which is the point of dog training!
And, remember to always praise your pup for doing the command, regardless of the motivational tool.