Tell Me What You Want (What You Really Really Want)*

What would it take for me to get you to do something? Well, you’re thinking, it would depend on what that something is. OK, let’s say I wanted you to:

  • Drink a glass of tomato juice
  • Run 3 miles in flip flops
  • Clean out the garage
  • Give up coffee for a month
  • Lose 10 pounds
  • Play Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 (on an actual cello)
  • Swim the English channel

Those happen to be in the order I would rank those behaviors, from easiest to hardest. You'd probably rank those behaviors differently. Go ahead, rank them in your mind. 

Now consider what somebody would have to give you in order for you to do each thing.

  • $10,000?
  • A date with George Clooney? (Oh wait, he’s married.)
  • A sincere thank-you?
  • A Louis Vuitton purse?
  • A pizza?
  • A bottle of 30-year-old, single malt scotch?
  • A new car?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course. I drink tomato juice just because I like it. A new car would probably entice me to spend months learning to play Bach on a cello. But a Louis Vuitton purse? I couldn’t pick one out of a pile; they’re meaningless to me. And sorry, nothing would entice me to swim the English channel. Deep, cold water, strong current. Just no.

This is why trainers say that some behaviors are more "expensive” than others. It’s behavioral economics. We do it instinctively with each other, with our children, and in the workplace. Only we don’t always do it with dogs.

Consider the stuff you’d like your dog to do. Here are a few behaviors I’d like out of my dog Bruce, from cheapest to most expensive for him:

© Can Stock Photo / adogslifephoto

© Can Stock Photo / adogslifephoto

  • Bring his ball to me and drop it
  • Allow me to take away his bone
  • Wait at doorways
  • Lie quietly in his bed while we eat dinner
  • Offer me his paw for nail trimming
  • Come to me when called, even away from a running deer
  • Drop that bunny he just caught

Try ranking those behaviors in terms of difficulty for your dog, or come up with your own list of behaviors you'd like to teach or maintain. The list changes drastically from dog to dog, and also changes over time as their skills improve and your priorities change.

Now, consider what you’re offering your dog in exchange for these behaviors.

If you’ve ever been told that your dog should perform for you out of respect or a desire to please, or for a sweet that’s a good boy!, I don’t blame you for believing it. It’s part of our mythology about dogs and what motivates them. But I bet if you're relying on this one-size-fits-all reward strategy, one of two things is going wrong:

  1. You get the easy behaviors, no problem. But you get lackluster performance on the hardest behaviors. He will only come to you when he’s bored, or after much cajoling and treat-can shaking. Or you’ve simply given up on him ever being house trained. Maybe he’s just stubborn, you think.
  2. Your dog must be threatened, scolded or forced into performing. He must be held down for nail trims. Or you must use your Drill Sergeant voice and swat him to keep him from jumping on visitors. Or he wears a prong collar on walks to prevent him from dragging you across the park after squirrels.

(For the record, most dog owners I know don’t like using training methods or equipment that hurt or frighten; they just don't see any other way to change their dog's behavior.)

© Can Stock Photo / stuartmiles

© Can Stock Photo / stuartmiles

Again, it’s behavioral economics. Your dogs, like the rest of the world's living breathing beings, are doing cost-benefit analyses all the time - what's in it for me? - and you can leverage that to your benefit. 

Make a list of the things that your dog loves most in life, from it’s kinda nice to it blows his mind. Don’t hold back. After all, we’re going for some very expensive behaviors. Here’s Bruce’s list:

(c) Can Stock Photo / robynmac

(c) Can Stock Photo / robynmac

  • Good boy!
  • Kibble
  • Zukes
  • Going for a walk in the woods
  • Peanut butter
  • Bully stick
  • Steak or cheese
  • Canned cat food

Choose a few rewards from your list that are easy to use. Payment has to come immediately after the behavior to have an effect, so most dog trainers go with food. It’s easy to carry, easy to dispense, and it’s at the top of most dogs’ lists.

(I’ve met a few dogs who would sell their souls for a ball throw, but that reward isn’t suited to every situation.)

For Bruce, we used steak when first training him to hold his paw still for a nail trim but, now that he's good at it, we've shifted priorities and reserve the big guns for when we ask him to curb his prey drive. He's always going to get mind-blowingly great stuff when he does a U-turn away from a running deer.

Remember, you get what you pay for.


Please note: If your dog is afraid of or uncomfortable doing something (such as visiting the vet or getting his nails trimmed), consult a skilled force-free trainer. Fear-based behaviors are more complicated and are not modified through straightforward exchanges of payment; you must first develop a strategy that keeps everybody feeling safe.

*Thank you, Spice Girls, for this fabulous line.