Have you ever taken a moment to think about all the things you do and don’t do in your life? Why do you do the things you do? Why don’t you do those things you don’t do? When you stop to think about it, do you enjoy everything you do? Do you ever find yourself doing things that you really don’t want to do? Do you ever do things even though you know you shouldn’t? Do you ever avoid doing things you know you should do? These are some pretty philosophical questions, if you’re being honest with yourself. What happens if we turn these highly perceptive questions towards our dog? Do you ever wonder why Fido does this or that? Why does Daisy sometimes do what you ask her to while other times she doesn’t?

The answer is motivation. Without motivation nothing happens, so the real question is, “What is my dog’s motivation?”

The academic study of motivation and behavior can provide a lifetime of learning for those interested, but, in the spirit of simplicity, I have broken the concept of motivation in dog training into three basic categories:

The Three Ps: Pleasure, Paycheck and Penalty

1. Pleasure: All living things naturally move towards comfort and away from discomfort. Your dog is no exception and will engage in a given behavior simply because he enjoys it. Your dog will also avoid some behaviors because he does not enjoy them. For example: as I write this, our dog, Missy, is bathing in the sun because she enjoys the warmth while our dog, Nakita, is avoiding the sun because it is too hot for her. They are both motivated by pleasure but they have different tastes in temperature. Dogs are individuals and our job is to find out what is pleasurable to each dog and use it to our mutual benefit. The ultimate goal is to have a dog that enjoys working with us and feels fulfilled by having a sense of direction. Doesn’t every parent have a goal of raising a child that loves going to school because it’s fun? Wouldn’t it be great if everyone loved their job because it gave them a sense of purpose?  That’s no different than having a dog that comes to you when you call them because they love to run or they love to be with you! This is the ultimate motivation, by the way, because it is intrinsic motivation and pleasure through and through, making it my favorite P.

2. Paycheck: Sometimes we have to do things that we don’t feel like doing, for which we need some sort of extrinsic motivation. For example: you may not like vegetables but you might eat them in order to get healthy or lose weight. Let’s face it, paychecks are so powerful they can override pleasure. Sometimes we will even work a job that we absolutely hate in order to make money.

Sometimes, we also need our dogs to do things that they don’t feel like doing. Dogs can also be motivated by a paycheck. Rover may love you but he may also love chasing squirrels, playing with other dogs or some other who-knows-what that might be more important than listening to you at any given moment. A paycheck in the form of a ball, squeaky toy, bits of hotdog or anything he enjoys can be used to leverage the likelihood that he will choose to engage with you when he’d rather do something else.

Of course, everyone wishes their dog would just follow commands naturally. They also wish their children would naturally eat veggies and that they could get paid for watching TV but things don’t always go that way. Sometime we have to work for the money, sometimes kids eat their veggies to get dessert and sometimes dogs work for treats and toys.

3. Penalty: Motivation usually implies positive reinforcement but negative consequences are also powerful motivators and may be needed at times. Take the speed limit for example: some may drive the speed limit because it’s a naturally comfortable speed or to maintain low insurance rates but the majority will break the speed limit. They may speed because they’re in a hurry or simply for the love of going fast but their need for speed is what behaviorists call a “competing motivator” which goes against the law. This is why we have law enforcement officers. They don’t stop you to say, “Your driving is fantastic, here’s a Starbucks card!” They give you a penalty in the form of a citation. This is why everybody, regardless of their motivation for speeding, slows down when they see a cop. Of course, if you decide to get into a car chase, the penalty will get more extreme!

Dogs also have to follow rules that are contrary to their natural motivations. “Don’t dig, don’t jump, don’t eat food from the table,” and so on. Of course, we should do our best to use positive reinforcement whenever possible but there are likely going to be times that we have to enforce the rules via the use of negative consequences or penalties. I have many clients who are police officers and they all, without exception, agree with the concepts of balanced dog training. Many have told me that they have a similar system for dealing with people that goes something like this, “First I ask you, then I tell you, then I make you.”


Almost everything your dog does will be motivated by The Three Ps. The best anyone can do is to start off by gently explaining what they want as clearly as possible. Then make the task or interaction as pleasurable as possible. Then use extrinsic payments when additional motivation is needed. Then lastly, put fair penalties in place to make it clear that non-compliance is not an option. The Three Ps, prioritized in this order, will yield the most pristine results for a happy, well-behaved, balanced dog.

-Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Consultant

© Thriving Canine 2014

Related Articles:

The Four A’s of Dog Training

The Three C’s of Dog Training

The Four D’s of Dog Training

Intrinsic Motivation in Dog Training: Beyond Carrots & Sticks

If You Don’t Eat Your Meat, You Can’t Have Any Pudding

7 Most Common Mistakes in Modern Dog Training

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