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Dog Tales

Training your dog is all about finding motivation

When you touch the hot stove as a child, or as an adult, it is usually so painful, so aversive that you avoid touching it again. That is motivation enough to avoid the unpleasant feeling. If you’re like me and have gotten a $200 speeding ticket, you pay attention to your speed to avoid getting another ticket. You are motivated. If your boss tells you that you did an excellent job and gives you a $500 bonus, you feel great and you’ll try just as hard, if not harder, the next time, hoping for another bonus. That’s motivation to get more of a good thing.

Dogs’ entire lives are formed around motivation and instinct, (which, by the way, is about motivation). More importantly, training your dog is all about motivation. If you can understand what motivates your dog, from your dog’s perspective and use it to your advantage, you will be golden in teaching her English.

Let’s start with the most obvious dog motivator: food.

All dogs have to eat. One basic rule of thumb is to train your dog when you feed her and use her normal dog food. Make her work for her meal.

It will only take you a few minutes longer to feed her, but the pay off to you and to her will be tremendous.

Sometimes we have to break out of the kibble-food realm and get into the people-food arena — chicken, cheese, roast beef, leftover steak and liverwurst. Use your imagination.

Let me address a common myth right now: Using people food to train your dog will not create a beggar. That’s right, just because you use chicken to reinforce her lying down for 15 minutes will not cause her to beg at the table.

Listen carefully, if during any meal, your dog looks at you longingly, with those big beautiful doe eyes and you quietly slip her some food, you will instantaneously create a dog that begs.

If you don’t feed her from the table ever, but grandma or Uncle Harry does, you will have a beggar. When I come home from a business trip, I could always tell if my daughters, who know better, were feeding the dogs from the table because they, the dogs, would be riveted next to them while they ate a meal. Of course when questioned, the girls would vehemently deny ever feeding them, but a dog’s behavior never lies.

Food is by far the fastest way to train behaviors. Once you have some basics established, such as sit, lie down and come, you can offer life rewards instead of food. Remember, your dog must want the life reward.

What your dog will be motivated by will always be from your dog’s perspective. For example, my Boston Terrier, “Vesta,” is obsessed with tennis balls.

I ask her to sit or lay down, then throw the tennis ball.

Your dog can sit before being allowed on the couch, lay down before being fed and sit before going outside.

All these are life rewards that can easily be substituted for food, once your dog understands the commands — sit, lay down, come and leave it.

Motivation is the key to all training. Harness what your dog wants, and you will be superstar trainer.

Certified Professional Dog Trainer Denise Mazzola is the owner of Denise Mazzola’s Everything Dog. She has been training dogs and people for over 20 years. She offers private lessons, group classes in Rindge and Swanzey, board and train as well as day training services. She lives in Keene with her partner, Amy Willey. They share their home with five dogs and three daughters. For more information, see www.everythingdognh.com.

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