Sarah Wilson

Dog Expert

Motivation vs Precision: Are You On the Dog Training SeeSaw?


How to Train a Dog Image

Balance motivation and precision to get rapid, calm, connected response.

The dog leapt up on her person barking. Then sat. Then lay down. Then barked. When her person said, “Sit” the young dog spun barking but she never sat. Her person reached toward her, the dog mouthed her – not exactly playfully.

This pair were dog training veterans before I stepped through the door. This dog is typical of something I see frequently these days: a dog who has had a ton of motivation but virtually no precision.

When I started this work, back in the 1980’s, I saw the opposite. Too much precision without much care for motivating the dog. Those dogs were not happy workers nor did they enjoy the work itself. Once the leash was off they were off on their own, out of connection, until “made” to respond.

Dog training can be thought of as a seesaw between these two ends of the spectrum and, once seen that way, knowing what to do next becomes simpler.


Dog Training Tips Image

As above, this one of the most common issues I sort out these days. Dogs motivated beyond their understanding or readiness become leaping, spinning, barking, mouthing dogs. Some people call this “happy” and  “high drive” – I usually call it frantic and stressed. There is no glimmer of the calm, thoughtful, happy partnership I so enjoy in a dog. Too often these dogs are also quite pushy and physical with their people.

What to do:
You calm down.

  • Try going silent – working, instead, with pressure/release games (look in My Smart Puppy).
  • Feed the dog before the training session and use unexciting treats such as kibble for food rewards.
  • Link response to everything the dog enjoys.
  • Keep praise warm, low-key and brief.
  • Be aware of and play My Smart Puppy Space Games. (Your dog is surely playing them with you!)
  • Minimize eye contact and commentary for hectic responses where the dog is just running wildly through everything they know. That is not thought or response.


Too Much Precision Dog Training Image

This used to be more of an issue than it is today but still see it from time to time: too much precision with not enough motivation. When that happens you either create a dog who responds but without the relaxation and joy we’re looking for or a dog who quits trying altogether. Other dogs will get completely hectic and scattered. That’s the other end of the too much pressure too soon spectrum. Either way, you tend to get a dog who responds only when he “has to” and who avoids it at all other times. (This can lead to an escalation in correction if the person thinks the dog is knowingly “disrespecting” them and that can unleash some human darkness.)

What to do:
You lighten up!

  • Act the way you want your dog to act: happy and relaxed!
  • Motivate your dog using food and/or toys they really enjoy.
  • Link response to everything the dog enjoys.
  • Focus on helping your dog get it right.
  • Keep praise happy and brief.
  • Be aware of Space Games and don’t play them too intensely for your dog. I do a lot of backing away from dogs who are not yet engaged with me because coming toward me tends to lift their mood and lower pressure levels.
  • Stop all correction/punishment and go back to your basics. Does your dog really – really – understand what is wanted? Don’t go by what you think, go by what your dog tells you in their response.
  • Work in shorter dog training sessions. Make it easy for your dog to succeed. Build from there.

I hope you find looking at dog training this way useful. I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts.

If you like my blogs, you’ll love my books: My Smart PuppyChildproofing Your DogDogologyTails from the Barkside.


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