Dog trainer and lecturer Terry Ryan says for one dog a liver snack might be the perfect motivation, while another dog may turn up her nose at the food. Instead, she may really get into a toy. "Evaluate what works for your dog by interviewing your dog,” says Ryan. "See what really matters, and the best way to do that is to ask your dog.” Of course, she doesn’t mean that you sit down and ask your dog, "Well, what excites you more, a plush squeak toy or a chicken treat?” Instead work with her using several types of motivators (treats, toys, play, praise), and see what works best.
“It’s a matter of determining what your dog likes,” Ryan reiterates. "And then you become a magician. The better magician you are, the better trainer you are. When the dog is ready to snatch something from the garbage, you’ll find your dog will obey if you suddenly can produce something more interesting [than the garbage].”
In part, what works may depend on the breed. If it seems that your Afghan Hound can’t be trained using food, for example, that’s just fine. Trainers who insist on sticking with food aren’t nearly as effective as trainers who say, "OK, let’s pull something else out of the old goodie bag.” Trying a toy with a furry tail might just turn on an Afghan.
Similarly, an Afghan may not give a darn about a tennis ball, but for a Golden Retriever a tennis ball can trump even a slice of luncheon meat. A Basset Hound would certainly go for the meat, but why bother when even the dog’s daily kibble is equally motivating? A Border Collie or an Australian Shepherd may simply be motivated by the work itself; make the job challenging, and those dogs are on it! No treats and no toys required.
Common toys are tennis balls, Frisbee discs, plush toys, Kong toys (with or without treats inside) and squeak toys. Some dogs prefer toys that look like a little critter and sound like one. However, even when choosing a toy, you should think outside the box. Ryan has used a rubber insert to a milking machine that fits over the cow’s udder as a favorite teaching aid. It sort of resembles a springy and narrow Kong toy, and like a Kong, you can smear peanut butter inside. It’s especially easy for small dogs to grip.
Some dog trainers and owners have read in a book that they should use a specific kind of reward. The problem is that the dogs haven’t read the same books. Meanwhile, they just don’t find the offered reward very rewarding, and are not motivated to work. When that happens, the dog begins to detest these training sessions and is even more frustrated than her people, who can’t figure out their dog.
“Ultimately, your long-term goal is that your charm will be all that matters,” says Ryan. "Your dog will work for you and the anticipation of a random reward. It means a lot more when it’s a reward the dog really wants.”