Training dog in a field

You’ve done all the right things when it comes to training your dog, and so far, it’s gone well: He knows how to sit and stay and shake, and he’s pleasant and polite to be around. But suddenly, training feels like a burden — and your dog doesn’t seem like he’s enjoying it, either. Time to give up?

Not at all! You just need to work on getting motivated again.

Motivation is key to training success. Trainability is affected far less by factors like your dog’s age, breed or size than it is by your ability to effectively capture his attention and reward desired behavior. But if you find yourself struggling to keep going with your dog’s training, don’t lose hope. A motivational tuneup may be in order.

Fortunately, when it comes to getting back on track with training, a few small changes can make a big difference. Here are five common motivational struggles and strategies for tackling them.

Motivational Hurdles and How to Overcome Them

Taking an all-or-nothing approach. It’s unreasonable to expect your dog to be trained and problem behaviors to be resolved in a single training session or class. Training needs to be ongoing; it is best done in short sessions throughout the day, lasting between 30 seconds and 10 minutes. In fact, the more you can include training in your everyday interactions with your dog, the better the chances he will follow your commands and do what he is asked to do. Training is both a process and a way of life — not just a three-hour class one Saturday a month.

Forgetting to set goals. Training can begin to feel like a burden when you lose track of your goals. Having something you and your dog are working toward can help you stay motivated. Your goals may be lofty and complex, like passing a rigorous training course or achieving a specialized certification, or more mundane, like resolving a behavior issue. In either case, establishing a goal sets the direction of training and helps you to remember why the work is worth the effort. Keeping that end goal in mind — and celebrating small successes along the way — can help keep your motivation high.

Offering the wrong reward. Sometimes dogs will give up, because the effort they’re putting in isn’t paying off. For instance, your dog may consistently sit at home in exchange for lavish praise. But at the dog park, with competing distractions like new smells and other dogs, just praise may not be enough to get your dog to sit and stay. It’s important that you find the right reward for each situation, one that makes it worthwhile for your dog to do what you’re asking him to do. This will help keep him focused on the training, rather than getting distracted by the world around him. Luckily, a dog’s environment can be used to reward behavior, such as rewarding sit with the opportunity to play.

Sticking with what’s not working. Some dogs can be hard to motivate. Willy, my Pug, is one of these dogs; treats and toys aren’t enough of a reward for him. There is no one-size-fits-all training approach. Dogs are individuals with differences in learning style and motivation — and so are dog owners! If your dog is not progressing, you may need to change your approach to training. Your dog may not respond to a clicker but may be a champ when you use a food lure. Once I learned that Willy would do anything to earn praise and petting, our training sessions completely changed. It’s also possible that a lack of progress could be caused by an underlying medical issue or condition. If you suspect that this is the case, consult with your veterinarian right away.

Losing sight of how far you’ve come. It can be easy to forget where you and your dog started — and hard to see the progress that’s been made. Video recordings, written progress notes or feedback from friends and family who spend time around your dog can be helpful tools in gaining perspective on your progress. Though you may feel like your dog still has a long way to go, I suspect that you will be pleasantly surprised when you look back at how far he’s come.

One Last Thought About Motivation

In some cases, your dog may be unmotivated, because he doesn’t want to do a behavior or is unable to do it in the way you are asking him to. For example, he might not come when you call him at the dog park, because that’s a sign he’s going to be put on leash. Or he might not sit when people come in your house, because he is anxious about new people in his home. The solution is to rethink your behavior in order to change your dog’s behavior. So at the dog park, instead of calling your dog only when it’s time to go, call him frequently and reward him with treats and petting — and then let him go play more. If he seems anxious about greeting people, don’t force it — create a visitor-free space in your home for him and practice his sit at times when there aren’t extra people in your home.

Keep in mind as well that if your dog is struggling to master a new behavior, it’s OK to back up and work on something a little simpler. This can help boost his confidence — and yours — and may get you both motivated to give the more difficult thing one more try.

Finally, it’s OK to take a short hiatus from training. We all need a break at times. Taking a break from training doesn’t mean letting your dog do whatever he wants — remember, training should be part of your everyday interactions with your pooch. But if you’re really feeling burned out, give yourself permission to skip formal training sessions for a few days. Use the time to renew your attitude, training plan and goals, so you can return to training with renewed vigor and energy. This will help you and your dog continue to succeed.

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