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July 5, 2016

I glanced at this phrase whilst researching and it stayed in my thoughts for several days. It set the grey matter off on its own holiday.

incentive 1


This equation is valid for both us and our learners IF the consequence is predictable and under our control. I am motivated to go shopping to a specific store that I know will be able to supply what I am seeking. My incentive is the acquisition of the goods, and with the consequence under my control I am motivated to make the trip. Our dogs will also be motivated when the consequence is reliable and under their control. Greet the person, jump, bark and social interaction is assured.

But if our incentive to train is solely dependent on the consequence we could loose motivation. We train our dog for a event, competition, approval of others. We travel, we compete and we are successful.

We travel, we compete and now we are not successful. Our incentive to train will become diminished. The consequence overwhelms the incentive, and our motivation is at the mercy of the consequence.

incentive 2

We shop and cannot find what we seek, our motivation will diminish because the process of the shopping is entirely wrapped in the success of the find.


The dog trains and has an expectation of a specific reward – a game, the toy, the chase, but instead receives a piece of kibble, or a pat on the head. The next opportunity to perform that behaviour and the motivation is diminished. But if our incentive is independent of the consequence our motivation will stay at peak.

We enter a competition to enjoy the activity and use the opportunity to evaluate our training progress. Consequences of that are reliable, success, wins are a bonus.

Our dogs train to enjoy the connection, the process, the shared activity. This is a reliable consequence, treat, games are the bonus.

If we are training by using the consequence as the incentive, “here is a treat, will you lie down”? The behaviour not only relies on the cue of the consequence to be present, but will lose incentive if the consequence is withheld – for a variety of reasons: slow response, incorrect response etc.

If we enter an event purely to achieve wins and places, which are not under our control, then our motivation is dependent on the behaviour and values of other people.

If we complete assignments to achieve grades and endorsement then the benefit of doing the work for that assignment is drowned in the consequence. Our incentive begins with seeing the benefits of doing the project. Getting the grades and feedback is important, but not our sole incentive.

Chickens peck and scratch a thousand times a day, because the incentive to peck is in the pleasure of the activity, sharing the activity and exploring. The additional consequence of A Find is the bonus that stretches the pecking beyond 250. We could label it as an intermittent schedule, but then we are (arrogantly) assuming that incentive is solely managed by the consequence.

I think not.


I hear too often blame being attributed to failure because there was no treat, no toy, to play. No motivation.

I cut the grass and work hard to find the incentive in the activity, getting exercise, enjoying the garden. Not the consequence of finishing, or the negative consequence of procrastinating – a continual visual reminder of overgrown lawn. By “re-modelling” my incentive, I find the default procrastination is becoming a memory. Of course a small portion of the incentive is in the consequence, the outcome.

incentive 3

I train my dogs because of the shared process, the activity, the pleasure. Not for any other consequence, likes on YouTube, drawers of rosettes or peer approval. The pleasure is intrinsically wrapped in the pleasure my dogs demonstrate that evolves from constructional, positive training. No confusion, no frustrations, no failures.

If our motivation is low perhaps we have tied our incentive too closely to a consequence that is not under our control or is unreliable?


incentive gareden


If as trainers, we place our motivation entirely in the consequences, then we are likely to consider that the same model for our dogs. Sometimes we need to let the obvious consequences step aside and allow the incentive, that we can influence, inspire our motivation.

Positive training has every opportunity to motivate itself through a clear incentive and bonus consequences.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 6, 2016 1:24 pm

    I agree with those thoughts. I find that as soon as I feel pressure to reach a certain goal under pressure the process itself becomes less rewarding for both the dog and me. The motivation to work is replaced and reduced by time pressure.

  2. July 6, 2016 8:13 pm

    Good article and very thought-provoking.

  3. July 7, 2016 2:53 pm

    Nice to read such a wise reflection. Applicable to dog training and to life living 😉

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