Non-Traditional Motivators… What Does THAT Mean?

K99 Ice cream van for dogs!  Thanks to for the photo

K99 Ice cream van for dogs! Thanks to for the photo

I guess I spend too much time on Facebook, because I seem to revolve a decent amount of my articles on the things I see on there!

That must mean I have some kind of addiction.

Thankfully this is not an article on Candy Crush (don’t even get me started on how addicting that can be)!

I saw this post in a group that I am a part of and it got me wondering a few things actually.

“Any resources on working with dogs that are not food or toy motivated? Specifically some video of training dogs like this? We know we are supposed to find what motivates the dogs, but I would like to see non traditional motivators being used.”

Any Living Thing is Motivated by Food

First of all, at some point all dogs are motivated by food!

Food is a building block to life, without it you starve and die.

A fat dog that can eat whatever he wants whenever he wants it and is catered to, is a lot harder to motivate with food than a dog that is on a diet or is meal fed twice a day.

Sometimes in order to be motivated by food… you have to be hungry!

So if I have a dog that is not exactly “over the moon” about food I might cut back his normal amount of food or even skip a meal.

Often, it is as easy as training prior to meal time (provided you are not free feeding).

If I train my dog before dinner time, she is a lot more focused and interested in the food than after dinner!

This is often why most obedience trainers recommend that you don’t feed prior to class or your appointment.

You want the dog to be excited about food and his training.

The more hungry you are the more motivating food is; the less hungry and more stuffed you are the less motivating or food seeking you are likely to be.

*Let me just mention that the opposite is true for those of you who feel your hands are at risk of being bitten off by your dog because he is TOO excited about food!  Feeding him prior to training might work best for you!

Types of Food

All Dogs are Motivated by Food

All Dogs are Motivated by Food

The type of food is also extremely important.

A kibble of dry dog food is motivating for a hungry dog (think that dog on a diet) but this would not be motivating to all dogs.


Cooked liver, liverwurst, boiled chicken breast, tuna, sardines are all things that would probably motivate most dogs.

I once had a Rottweiler that didn’t like liver!  I know, it is actually true, he just didn’t like it.  He is the only dog that I have ever had that didn’t like liver.

He was once in the confirmation ring and one of the judges tried feeding him a piece of liver and he actually spit it out.

This only proves that you have to know your dog as well.

Granted, if he was starving, he would have taken the liver but I don’t necessarily need a starving dog either.

He happened to be a fan of cheese and chicken so that is what we used!


Look at that Happy Face!  Thanks numeals for the photo

Look at that Happy Face! Thanks numeals for the photo

I think for the most part, all dogs are motivated by toys too at some level because prey drive is an innate drive in all dogs (this goes back to their desire to chase prey and eat).

But they have to be taught to play and it has to be molded as a motivator.  For tips on how to do that check out my article “Is Teasing Really THAT Bad?  A Lesson in Excitement Building”

It is true that not all dogs get AS motivated as my crazed dogs (think low drive dogs like basset hounds and grey hounds) but at some point I believe it can be taught and use to most dogs.

My Dog is Too Stressed to Be Motivated

If you are trying to work through a fear or an aggression issue or some kind of desensitization and your dog is too stressed to be motivated by a food treat (a REALLY good one… kibble is not going to work here) or a toy; then that means you are WAY TOO CLOSE!!!

In order for a dog to learn and control himself he needs to be relaxed at least to some degree.

When I see a dog that is usually food motivated but can’t take food due to stress, I know that it is time to move back and lessen his stress so he can learn.

For more information and help on desensitizing your dog click here.

Let’s Talk Non-Traditional Motivators

Whereas petting and affection and praise can be motivators for some dogs, it has been proven that it is not as strong a motivator as food.

Some dogs will work for praise and pleasing their “person” however I believe that these dogs have to be taught to do so, in most cases.  The Lassie and Rin Tin Tins are few and far between.  Most dogs want to please themselves first and then us!   This is natural.


High pitched voices, clapping, excitement and praise combined can be a good motivator to some degree!

Dogs like excitement and if we squeal and clap and smile they can learn to be more motivated and excited with us!


Fast pace and running is also a motivator!

Fast pace and running is also a motivator!

Simply changing your pace can also be more motivating!

Slow is boring…

Want to get your dog motivated and excited while training move FASTER!!!

Faster is exciting and it makes your dog want to look up at your face and pay more attention!

Anything Your Dog Wants (that is appropriate)

Anything that your dog wants is a motivator!

If your dog doesn’t want to sit still for a nail trim, but he loves going for a walk… then trim one nail and go for a walk!!!

The reward or walk motivates the behavior you want.

Got a dog that loves swimming but you are having trouble getting better obedience??  Have him do a little work then give him a little swim!


When I have a dog that gets overexcited about something  (let’s say looking at someone riding a bike or looking at another dog), I teach my dog that he can’t look at whatever it is without my approval.  He has to watch me!

But if he is being appropriate he CAN look at it, this is like a reward.  It also teaches him that appropriate behavior is what I want and teaches him not just to have avoidance!

Knowing your dog and the circumstances is key!

Anything that is good can be a motivator, but using the strongest motivator your dog has paired with the praise, affection, and fast movement can build a very talented and well behaved dog!

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  1. Pamela says:

    I really enjoy your articles and look forward to reading your advice. I have a rescue that is completely unmotivated by food and I have had to skip a meal prior to training with him to keep him focused. I find it much easier to train him when he is in a class setting with a group of other dogs; however, the bigger problem is when we are at home on his “turf”. It is next to impossible for me to get his attention once he starts with his barking frenzy!

    I watched your “Got to your mat” video and purchased a little mat for him today. I’m going to work on that first to see if I can get him focused on going to his mat to help control his frenetic barking!

    Thank you for your advice. It really makes sense.


  2. MARIE says:

    My dog loves to please me.
    I am older and just Don’t feel up to it
    I will try to do better.


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