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San Diego Humane Society

What Motivates Your Dog?

Keeping our dogs happy, healthy and demonstrating good behavior has a lot to do with how we train them — and to train them, we must understand what motivates them. Every dog is different, and so are their motivations. But when we identify our own dogs’ motivations and use them to reward the behaviors we’re looking for, we’re building a foundation for success.

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To learn how to use rewards to train your dog, follow these steps:

First, commit to positive reinforcement:

  • If you are enthusiastic for each training session, you will create the same in your dog. This is a special time to strengthen your connection to your dog, and help him become happier and healthier. Allow yourself to enjoy it!
  • Training sessions should always be positive: Identify the behavior you want and reward your dog for displaying it. Never punish — it simply does not work. The fastest, most effective way toward good behavior is positive reinforcement.

Next, identify your dog’s rewards:

  • What does your dog love? Some dogs love treats. Others love praise or a game of fetch or a favorite toy. Or maybe it’s the chance to swim in the pool.
  • Be spontaneous! If you’re on a walk and your dog wants to follow a scent, first have him sit or any other action you’re training on, and then let him track the scent as a reward.
  • Tricks can be rewards too. Does your dog love to spin in circles? Jump up high? Encourage those behaviors as a reward for good behavior too.
  • Switch it up! One training session may end in a treat and another one may end in a game of tug of war — and some should end in a jackpot of rewards. By surprising your dog sometimes, you keep him engaged much longer.

Then, use that reward to motivate your dog to learn new behaviors:

  • Demonstrate enthusiasm during all training opportunities. You will make your dog more engaged and willing to learn!
  • Don’t give a reward too easily, so that your dog must work in order to receive it.
  • Find a variety of opportunities to train. For example, if you’re teaching your dog to sit, ask him to sit every time at the door before going outside, before eating, before throwing a ball, etc.

Remember to break complex behaviors into steps for training:

Teaching your dog to sit may seem like one command, but teaching him not to bolt out the front door at the mention of a car ride is a process. Train on and reward each step:

  • A sit with eye contact can make you touch/turn the doorknob.
  • Holding that sit can make you open the door (bolting makes it close).
  • Waiting for the release can get you through the door.
  • Sitting at the top of the steps earns permission to come down the steps.
  • Walking nicely without pulling may get him to the car (pulling causes you to go backward).
  • Sitting at the car door will open the door.
  • Waiting for the cue to "get in" gains him access to the ultimate jackpot — a ride!

Keep up the momentum and motivation:

  • Keep up your enthusiasm! When you’re training and reinforcing positive behaviors for your dog, you have to be more interesting than whatever might stop him from following a command. So be excited, be loving and use a high, expressive voice to keep him engaged and listening.
  • Switch things up to keep it challenging. In the beginning, one behavior might equal one treat. But if this gets boring, your dog will lose motivation. So switch between different behaviors and different rewards. Maybe today sitting and staying means a treat, but tomorrow sitting, staying and shaking could mean running around the backyard.
  • Be consistent: If you regularly pair command + behavior = reward, then your dog learns to be excited for the training itself. This cycle creates even more positive reinforcement and outcomes.

And finally, watch out for these common pitfalls:

  • Quit while you’re ahead. Don’t train your dog until he’s bored or can’t concentrate anymore. His performance will decline, and you’ll begin to associate training with boredom.
  • Don’t make rewards readily available without being earned. For example, if your dog has constant access to his favorite toy, then he won’t have any reason to follow a command to earn it during your training session.
  • Know that some dogs are just more difficult to motivate. You’ll have to be patient and creative, and train in shorter sessions. If food is a reward for your dog, train while he’s hungry. And consider high-value treats: A slice of hot dog is better than a dog biscuit, for example.


The time you take to train your dog is invaluable: It’s an investment in your bond to each other, and it keeps your dog mentally stimulated. An engaged, trained dog is happier, healthier and less destructive. Find your dog’s motivations and get started!

Behavior Helpline: Contact our Behavior Team

Behavior Helpline

For behavior questions, please contact our Behavior Helpline either by calling 619-299-7012, ext. 2244, emailing or filling out our Ask a Trainer form

Questions About Public Classes

San Diego Humane Society offers training classes and resources to address a variety of needs for companion animals.

Our training philosophy is based on the behavioral science concepts of positive reinforcement. Training your pet using these concepts will not only help them learn new behaviors more quickly, it will also strengthen the bond you share.

Our website includes a current schedule of training classes or call 619-299-7012, ext. 2398. 

View Training Classes   Gift a Training Class


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