I often get asked, "how do you get the best motivation out of your dog and is food the best way". Interesting question that hopefully I can help clarify.
Before we go to far into specific methods we need to look at what "motivation" means in simple terms. Basically, motivation is all about possible engagement between YOU and YOUR dog. If done correctly nobody other than YOU should be able to get the best out of YOUR dog. This is the foundation to understanding just what we as dog handlers need to do.
The foundation of good reliable motivation is based around making your dog not only want to be around you, but also actively engage with you of it's own accord. The minute we start to elicit action, we have lost not only the battle but possibly the war against lack of motivation.
For those of us that have older dogs this process becomes more difficult, than for those of us with puppies. I will attempt to cover the basics for both situations.
Those fortunate enough to have puppies, the process is as good as it gets and should be taken advantage of to the fullest extent. From day one your puppy is geared up to explore, test, challenge, receive and respond. We as handlers need to recognise just what signals are being offered and how to translate them into bond building actions, which as the dog grows we can further develop. It is at this stage that the appropriate "motivator' be developed.
Most people offer food, balls or tug toys in the training process way too early and for all the wrong reasons. The problem I have found over the years is that the introduction of what I call "high level" motivators too early in the process has the detrimental affect of making our direct bond with the dog fall behind the motivators we are using. The other issue that this causes is that when we really need to increase the motivation or reward for effort, we have nowhere to go........not a good situation.
There is no greater training tool or benefit than having a strong, direct and connected bond with your dog moulded around your and your dog's personality. Done correctly nothing can match it. Developing this from when your dog is a puppy has the long term benefit of imprinted behaviour, which essentially means that ways of dealing with you (or not if not followed) are hard wired into the core behaviour the dogs carries through the rest of its life.
Motivation must be aimed at generating the best and most consistent bond possible which is why as basic as it seems, your direct attention, physical praise and interaction with the dog is the best foundation stone. With every dog I have handled and that includes dogs that belong to clients, typically within minutes of handling the dog I am able to get far more attention from the dog than they can....why?, because I chose to relate directly with the dog, and reward any attempt it makes to interact with me. What needs to happen is not being afraid to get down and play with the dog. Many of us don't like to bridge the gap of human to dog behaviour and what we tend to do is forget that dogs are not human and as such need to be treated as dogs. We MUST change NOT them.
Try if you can to get down on your hands and knees with your dog and mimic what you see when your dog plays with others in the park. There is often, play bowing, typical behaviour aimed at generating action, there is movement from totally passive to quick lunging. Interaction that mimics dog behaviour builds connection and builds the bond. If your dog sees you as a funny looking big dog it will start to understand you more. This is a point of difference that good dog trainers and handlers work on and develop. Understanding that dogs cant reason, but are able to respond and problem solve is our biggest asset, so we should encourage any behaviour that takes a dog down this path.
All dogs regardless of age suffer from predictability limitations and hence develop a lack of exploration with us. Watch your dog at your local park or even on its walk. If you can watch how it runs to the same places expecting to find something new and the degree of excitement when it does find something new. Typically the intensity of response is proportional to the excitement factor from finding something to smell that is unexpected.
If we give the dog the same level of interaction day in and day out each time it approaches us, as a direct result of lack of exploration or surprise, our bond will deteriorate. Those of us that use food as the primary motivator need to realise that this problem is far more problematic, as in order to keep the surprise or exploration in our dog, we need to continuously alter what we give our dog as food treats. The same treat each and every time kills the element of surprise and hence positive interaction is limited. Learning only occurs if expectations for action are exceeded, or not met. What we don't want is "status quo".
This forms the basis of what I have explained in classes being random schedules of reinforcement, which are aimed at keeping the dog working and exploring to get better. While this process produces great obedience, it also produces great connection or bond between dog and owner.
Further tips will cover many more associated subjects.