Competing Motivators

pictures of an apple and chocolate cakeMotivation. Everyone talks about it. Did you make a New Year’s resolution to go to the gym? There are blogs devoted to helping you stay motivated enough to actually do it. Sometimes getting out of bed in the morning requires a level of motivation we may question whether we have or not. Some motivators are very powerful, while others lag behind, yet even if that is the case, they still manage to get us to behave. Lying in bed, snuggled warmly, comfortably and blissfully, under the blankets with a dog or two, when the temperatures are far below freezing is a huge motivator for maintaining my lying in bed behavior. But there are other motivators that will impact my behavior. The initial shock of a cold floor is tolerable because there’s morning coffee brewing and I should get to work. Sometimes I’m motivated by what I am going to get, and sometimes I’m motivated by what I’m going to avoid (caffeine or poverty as examples of the former and latter).

Fear is an important motivator. It may be the most important motivator animals, including us, have available to us to increase our life span. The chances of being killed accidentally climbs until after the age of 19 when it accounts for nearly half the number of deaths among humans aging 15-19. Young children do not have enough experience to accurately assess their environments and so behave in ways that put them at risk. Experimenting with forks and electrical outlets and toddling at the top of a flight of concrete stairs are a couple examples. Teenagers may not only be poor assessors of risk, they also may have keys to a car.

Every day I receive emails from people asking me what they should do to help their dog. It’s impossible for me to answer their question with any specificity or if I do, to not sound flippant (“My dog is scared of me, what should I do?” “Stop scaring them”). If their dog’s behavior is motivated by fear whether that means remaining shut down in a corner or lunging at anyone who walks into a room, they need to address the motivator. Options fall into two categories, decrease the motivator, i.e., the fear, and/or find a motivator that out competes the fear to get behaviors the owner prefers. How they should do this I can’t say for sure. What options are available to them for decreasing the fear and creating other motivators? The answers will vary depending on the dog (the dog has the final vote regarding what is or is not motivating) and what are the resources or environments available for creating alternate motivators.

Sometimes motivators are glaringly obvious. Fear is motivating a dog to cower or growl. Food is motivating a dog to stare and drool. Sometimes the motivators are misidentified or mislabeled, not so glaringly obvious to some. Behaviors motivated by fear are attributed instead to the motivation to move up in status in a relationship with an owner or other dog. Sometimes we can easily control the motivators, or the conditions which motivate, sometimes we can’t. We can control food, but we cannot control thunderstorms.

It’s a damn difficult thing to help many of our fearful dogs. I try to offer ideas and hope that a similar kind of brain that figured out how to create wifi can come up with ways to address a dog’s fearfulness. Those of you living or working with a fearful dog will need to assess the motivators which are driving the dog’s behavior, and don’t forget to have a look at your own while you’re at it.

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5 comments so far

  1. Anthony on

    This is easily the hardest subject to conquer. Finding out what triggers fear is made more difficult by it not always being the obvious choice of the guy walking by the van, therefore she’s barking. She may be afraid to be in the van, she may be more afraid while you’re in the van. The possibilities are endless. With my larger male, whose main fear issue is that of absorbing it from his sister in those moments, will spit out a buffalo sausage treat if he is fixated on something. These are the treats he’ll jump over a couch for. I’m still looking for a motivator that will bring my dogs out of a fixated state.

    • fearfuldogs on

      The goal is not to put them in situations in which the fixation has an opportunity to occur. Not always possible, but once a certain level of arousal or fear occurs it can be difficult to change it. If we cannot control the competing motivator and the dog does not have the skills to deal with it the way we want, get away from the whatever is causing the fear. Get the heck out of dodge when this happens.

      We manage or avoid the conditions which cause these kinds of reactions and also give the dog other skills to practice, taught when there are no distractions. We practice getting their attention when they are not over the top scared. We reinforce them for giving us their attention, coming to us, targeting out hand. We reinforce it again and again, using a high value reward.

      We are juggling many balls when we work with these dogs.

  2. Lisa W on

    We sure are juggling a lot of balls working and living with a fearful, shy dog. I am not a very good juggler. I tend to swat the third ball away when I see it coming. I also struggle with that balance of over-stimulation and let’s widen your world a little. My motivation is to give my fearful dog the best life I can. Her motivation changes day to day (or so it seems). What does not phase her one day elicits a response the next. Security, food, fun, shoulder rubs, and love motivate us most of the time.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Three balls! Maybe four or five 😉

      On Wed, Jan 30, 2013 at 9:11 AM, Fearfuldogs' Blog

  3. Lisa W on

    Ha, I meant three balls literally. I’ve tried to learn to actually juggle, but no go. With my dogs, it’s juggling four, five, six, or ten — depending on the day. I’m only slightly better at that 🙂


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