The Five Basic Motivators
by Mike Stewart dated September 16, 2009

In order to train any dog, you've got to know what your dog is willing to work for. Every dog is a bit different, even within breeds, so finding your dog's favorite things is up to you. In this clip, Mike explains five basics that should be combined in different proportions depending on what you want in your finished dog. If you pay attention, you'll also hear Mike mention something called a primary motivator or reinforcer. Here's a quick primer on the difference between primary and secondary reinforcers.

Primary Reinforcers: These are the things a dog naturally views as rewards. You don't have to teach a dog that a liver treat is worth working for. Almost all dogs will view a treat as a primary reinforcer. Most retrieving breeds (with a strong prey drive) will view a retrieve or even getting to hold a favorite object as a primary reinforcer.

The Gray Area: These are motivators that some dogs may see as primary and others may have to learn as secondary reinforcers. In this category are verbal praise, affection, and just being with you. Some highly-social Labs go crazy over a high-pitched baby voice. Meanwhile, independent sled-dog and pointer breeds often don't care whether you're around or not.

Secondary Reinforcers: These are also called conditioned reinforcers because the dog learns that they're valuable based on their pairing with primary reinforcers. That sound that the food makes when it hits the bottom of your dog's bowl is a good example. Most dogs will sprint toward that sound becaus they've learned that it's predictive of food. If your dog will come to that sound, you should be able to train him, through repetition, to come to any sound.

Finally, there's the bridge, which Mike Mentions. The main purpose of the bridge is to mark a specific behavior and to let the dog know that the reward is coming. But over the course of training, the sound of the bridge—a click or a one-syllable word—will become a conditioned reinforcer in its own right. The bridge word is the lynchpin in positive field dog training. It allows you to mark behaviors at a great distance and then deliver your reward once the dog has returned to you. It's only through building up the power of these secondary reinforcers that we can get the dog to perform consistently at a distance without resorting to force methods.