For each dog, the item or items can be different in different situations. For puppies, it is mostly treats, usually soft ones that appeal to their sense of smell and taste. This is true because they have been exposed to so little in their short time on Earth, so trying new things – especially with a scent or taste – is still very interesting.
As they get older this might change. It could sometimes still be treats, but new ones that they do not experience regularly, and so they remain interested. The more distracting something is in their environment, the higher the level of the primary motivator that you offer.
For older dogs that are rescues and might not have been raised in a home, treats are not always as important as they are for a puppy. And yet sometimes the older dog might be even more interested than a younger pup.
You can start with small treats and see if they want to work for you by offering them. If they show little interest, then switch to stinky treats, which have a better chance of getting their attention.
If nothing works and you have tried several kinds, then switch to something of higher value, such as freeze-dried liver or chicken treats or freeze-dried raw treats.
Still no luck? Then try human food such as string cheese or American cheese or chicken hot dogs or fresh cooked chicken or similar. Don’t give up until you have exhausted lots of options, since food is what works best for training.
If food is not your dog’s primary motivator, there are other potential options to teach your dog necessary skills and to get their attention. Play and toys are the next best choices.
What usually works is something that squeaks or can be thrown, such as a ball or a tug toy. The sound or sight of a favorite plaything as a reward for good behavior or having learned a new skill is a great choice for dogs that are play obsessed.
Mostly these are interactive toys, meaning play with you as opposed to things that they play with by themselves. They represent an excellent reward at the end of training sessions or in real life situations.
For certain dogs, your touch might be the motivator. Getting their belly rubbed, getting a scratch under their chin, or having their ears rubbed are common motivators. Touch is often overlooked as a form of motivation, but many dogs prefer that type of reward system.
Taking the time to learn what pushes your individual dog’s buttons to get the best and most consistent response is worthwhile early on in your relationship. You might need to adjust them as the dog matures or just loses interest, but continuing the search to keep them stimulated is very important.
Your relationship with your own dog is unique.
Abby Bird is owner of Alphadog Training Academy. AlphadogTrainingAcademy@gmail.com