The economy of incentives and the surprising science of motivation

“It has already been demonstrated that an essential element of organizations is the willingness of persons to contribute their individual efforts to the cooperative system…the contributions of personal efforts which constitute the energies of organizations are yielded because of incentives. The egotistical motives of self-preservation and of self-satisfaction are dominating forces; on the whole, organizations can exist only when consistent with the satisfaction of these motives.” Chester Barnard, The Functions of the Executive

The quote above came from a book on management, written in the 1930’s. That self-preservation and self-satisfaction guide our choices is as true today as it was then.

This presentation by Daniel Pink looks at research which shows how important self-direction is when we want more than just rudimentary skills development.

black & white dog with paw on a basketballThere is a degree of containment in all of our lives, gravity holds us down and the mortgage keeps us showing up at work, however when we are allowed to find a level of freedom within that containment, something happens; we can figure out how to fly. When we allow our dogs, including and perhaps especially, our fearful dogs, the autonomy to think and make choices, they too can discover possibilities beyond those which are either obvious or have previously been required of them.

I am not suggesting that all guidelines for behavior be eliminated, but that when we give our dogs the opportunity to consider a challenge, and allow them the freedom to come up with a solution, it might just be one that works.

Early on in our life together I wanted Sunny to learn a ‘recall’. This was hard for a dog with little comfort being near people. One day I discovered that when I called Sunny to come to me instead of coming to me, or running away from me, he sat down, and he remained sitting until I approached and got him back on leash. This was his solution to the challenge, and it worked for both of us. I got what I needed and Sunny was able to perform within his comfort and skill zone. Today Sunny has a recall. When it became a behavior which was not fraught with stress and anxiety, it was very easy to teach with treat or play rewards.

When provided with a level of autonomy, even without the incentive of an extrinsic reward, we can see an improvement in performance quality. When we see a decrease in performance quality in dogs what we often observe is aggression. It is this aggression which ultimately leads to a death sentence for many fearful dogs. Preventing this aggression should be at the top of the list for any handler of fearful dogs. Punishing a dog for being aggressive rarely works as well as providing a dog with the opportunity to develop the skills they need to come up with other solutions to solve the challenge of being scared.

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10 comments so far

  1. Grisha Stewart on

    Great article, Debbie! That motivation video is one of my favorites. Nice application to dogs. 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Grisha! Hope you and yours have a great holiday.

  2. Deborah Flick on

    Love the video! Thank you for pointing it out! I like the analogy you drew to working with our dogs. I’ve noticed similar things with Sadie as you did with Sunny regarding his recall. What I love about this is the message to us humans. Working with our dogs is not all about controlling them, which I think traditional training is mostly all about, but paying attention to what works for them and for us–like Sunny’s sitting when called. True, this approach might not work so well if we are working towards an obedience title. But, then, the rigidity of obedience rules is so way last century! So like Microsoft’s Encarta (that encyclopedia that never took off). Then I think about shaping exercises, nose work, free style—and more—-where the person and their dog together figure out what works and in the process discover moves neither would have otherwise come up with.

    Thanks for that!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for your feedback Deborah. There is a beautiful range of positive options for getting behaviors on to our dogs. We can work toward a level of precision that can also include an element of grace in both the training and application.

  3. Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart on

    I love that example of Sunny finding his own answer to the problem. Sitting isn’t a bad compromise at all. Good boy, Sunny. And, three cheers for you … on letting him make a decision that was in the spirit of your request.

  4. Kristine on

    Now you have got me thinking. For a long time we have been struggling to keep our dog Shiva calm when someone knocks on the door. This always sends her into panic mode and nothing I have tried has seemed to work. Perhaps I should be a little more observant and see if she has any solutions to offer me herself.

    Thank you for this great article. Sunny sounds like one special dog.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Sunny continues to require work on my part, but I wouldn’t trade him for the world.

      If a dog does not have the skills to remain calm in a situation then consider taking them out of the situation. I do not allow Sunny near the door when people arrive. Barking dogs are one thing, a dog that is afraid and barking, is another. When someone comes to the door I send Sunny into another room.

      Just a thought. Many fearful dogs would choose this option early on, but we are often focused on getting the dog to be able to ‘deal’ with stuff and encourage them to confront things, rather than the safer for everyone option of moving away.

  5. Hilary on

    I’ve always liked the idea of waiting it out (safely) first to see if a dog has his/her own solutions to these issues. Thanks for an astute post and example! I also like Deborah’s approach of the guardian and the dog figuring out solutions together.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thank Hilary! Sometimes Sunny comes up with solutions that are not acceptable to me, and that’s ok, I at least try to understand why, even if I don’t let him continue with them. But I can also see if I can revise my requirements so that I get what I need and he continues to feel comfortable and safe. Most incidences of noncompliance highlight his lack of skill and my lack of training!


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