How to Motivate your Dog with Positive Training
by Joe Law
20 January 2013

To train your retriever you must understand what motivates him. If your dog, knowing that you have food in your possession, approaches you with beseeching eyes it will be obvious what he is seeking. You will also know that he is trying to devise a way to convince you to part with that food in his favour. At that moment you will be in a position to do some collective bargaining and all you will need to do is devise a way of communicating your part of the deal. In this situation food is used as a primary motivator for getting the response you want. In retrieving breeds that have a strong prey drive, the opportunity to retrieve or even to take hold of some favourite object can be used as a primary reinforcer for achieving the response you desire.

Secondary reinforcers (also referred to as conditioned reinforcers) are those things that a dog learns to recognise as valuable because of their association with primary reinforcers. When a dog hears the sound of a dish being scraped or of a bag being rattled and then sprints towards that sound it is because he has learnt the sounds are associated with food. If your dog will come running to those sounds it should be possible to train your dog to respond to any distinct sound as long as it perceives there is some reward for doing so. By assessing your dog’s personality and social inclinations secondary reinforcers such as praise, affection or simply the joy of being with you can all be used as motivators.

An important technique in the art of positive training is sometimes referred to as bridging. The main purpose of the bridge is to mark a specific behaviour letting a dog know that a reward is coming. In conjunction with a consistent and repetitious course of training, a “click” or “one syllable word” will become a conditioned reinforcer in its own right. That one syllable bridge word ( such as Yes! or Good! ) delivered in an upbeat fashion is the lynchpin in positive retriever training. This enables the trainer to mark behaviours at a great distance and then administer a reward once the dog has returned to you. It is only by building up the power of secondary reinforcers that you will be able to teach a dog to perform consistently at a distance without resorting to force methods.

Photo by Lara Sedgman

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the May 2013 issue of Dogs NSW magazine.

This page is provided by Working Gundog Club Inc. (Affiliated with Dogs NSW)