Drive and motivation: Do we build it or lose it?

This is part six of my notes from ORCA’s 2013 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. For links to the rest of my notes (which will be posted over the next few weeks),
please visit the Conference and Clinic Notes section of my site.

Kay Laurence gave a thought-provoking lecture at the ORCA conference about drive and motivation. Her talk was titled “Drive and motivation: Do we build it or lose it?” Many animal trainers are interested in the concepts of “drive” and “motivation.” In particular, these ideas are often a concern to dog trainers, specifically those training for certain high-intensity activities and sports.

Kay is “lucky,” as all of her dogs have great drive and motivation. However, as Kay explained during her lecture, this is not a fluke and has little to do with luck. Kay believes that all dogs can have high levels of drive and motivation. However, dogs often lose motivation (or drive) because of certain training practices.

What is drive? What is motivation?

Kay showed a lovely video of a dog and handler performing a freestyle routine. The dog pranced alongside the handler, completely attentive and perfectly in tune. The dog maintained perfect rhythm with the hander, even as the handler varied his pace. After the video, everyone agreed with Kay that the dog had good drive and motivation. However, although dog trainers often use the words “drive” and “motivation”, many trainers would have trouble defining them precisely.

When trainers talk about drive and motivation, they are often referring to an animal that is eager to perform and that displays balance and athleticism. The animal flows along, performing almost effortlessly and shows no sign of stress, even during intense moments or movements. In short, the type of performance that makes the audience say “wow!”

How is motivation lost?

People are “wowed” by this type of eager, effortless performance because, for many, this level of performance seems out of reach. Often, drive and motivation are considered natural or innate. However, according to Kay, drive and motivation are an outcome of training methods. Certain training practices promote and enhance a dog’s drive and motivation, while other training practices lead to a loss of drive and motivation.

According to Kay, motivation is often lost from training practices that promote uncertainty and weak behaviors. For instance, techniques such as punishment can cause a loss of motivation. However, many other training practices can also cause a loss of motivation, including poor planning, insufficient attention to detail, careless clicks, and rushed or incomplete training.

Sometimes, as a result, the dog becomes disengaged from the training. The dog responds to cues, but is just going through the motions and is easily distracted. At the other end of the spectrum, the same poor training practices can result in a hyper, over-excited dog. The trainer can get the dog excited and worked up, but cannot control the dog’s level of arousal.

Training practices that promote drive and motivation

Kay discussed several factors that can lead to better training and to higher levels of drive and motivation. First, do not get stuck trying to train “global descriptions.” Many times people want their dog to learn to be “better behaved,” to have more “work ethic,” or to have higher “drive.” These are nice words, but they do not specify the final behavior outcome or what you should actually train. Instead, break these words down and decide what you actually want the dog to do. If you can specify and teach the necessary component skills, you’ll be able to reach your goal.

Does your dog have the right to say no? Kay believes that the animal should always have a choice whether to participate in the training, especially when it comes to sports. For everything you do with your dog, think carefully whether you are doing it for yourself and your social life or for the dog. These, of course, can overlap, but you should not put your interests and goals above what is best for the dog.

Also, during training, the dog should never believe that he or she is wrong. The dog’s behavior is purely a product of your teaching. If the dog does something you do not like, find a way to train what you do want. But, you should not blame the dog or make the dog feel wrong. This is a certain way to break down motivation, increase uncertainty, and make the dog less willing to offer behavior.

Finally, many people believe that dogs with high drive or motivation are easier to train. According to Kay, this is not true. With any dog, a trainer must take care regarding what the dog is learning and must closely monitor the dog’s emotional stability. Motivation and drive need to be nurtured with forethought and skilled training for all types of dogs.

Make sure your training sessions are great sessions

Near the end of her lecture, Kay talked about the art of practice. Many times, there are lots of routes to get to the end goal. However, it’s not practice that makes perfect, but practice that is well planned and well executed. Kay showed an interesting video clip from an interview with British Olympic cycling manager Dave Brailsford. Dave’s advice applied perfectly to both cycling and animal training. When training, examine all of the smallest details, and figure out how to get them right. If you get your fundamentals right, they will help you rise to the top.

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  • read for a better way to say ‘practice makes perfect,’ its not practice that makes perfect, but practice that is well planned and well executed.

  • very important…

    • Hi William,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.



  • Jenny H

    I have problems with this.

    Agreed that both “drive” and “motivation” are “ill-defined” but I think as they are used :
    “drive” tends to refer to the dog/animal doing whatever for the intrinsic reward of doing it; whereas “motivation” is more commonly used for the desirability of the reward which we offer the animal in the hope of reinfocing a behaviour.

    I have become aware that many people with dogs with a natural inclination to perform certain behaviours tend to like to take credit for fostering that ‘drive’. As I used to 🙁
    But I do think tht credit should be given to th animals!

    There IS a reason why Border Collies tend to be the breed of choice for people who wish to compete in Agility, and Rottweilers or Cavalier King Charles Spaniels the breed of choice for those who want a dog to hang around, being company. Some dogs, like Kelpies, are born wanting to work with people and it takes a lot of work for poor training to dampen this enthusiasm. Whereas, I have found that, Beagles and Speagles (Beagle/Spaniel) just want to do therir own thing — they seem to have enormous drive to ignore their owners 🙁 It takes a devoted and knowledgeable trainer to be able to work with these dogs.

    I would like everyone who takes credit for their dogs’ performances to take the challenge and try to train a completely different type of dog for the same activities.

    (Struggling now with a terrier — I am not experienced at ALL with terriers and am finding the challenge exhausting!)

    • Hi Jenny,

      Thanks so much for stopping by to leave a comment and share your thoughts. I think you made some really good points.

      I especially liked how you said:

      “I would like everyone who takes credit for their dog’s performances to take the challenge and try to train a completely different type of dog for the same activities.”

      Or, how about making them train a completely different species? 🙂

      Another big problem I often see, which is sort of related, is when people compare final performance and outcome, without reference to the starting point. Of course, it’s easy to do this since this is how most shows and competitions are arranged. But, great progress or results often get lost or seem small, if we don’t look at the starting point or know the journey.