If you want to develop a dog’s work ethic, you can’t just throw them into a situation and ply them with treats (or worse yet, no rewards at all) and think that you’ve built something reliable. Using positive reinforcement well involves more than just feeding your dog lots. The how and when and where you place the reward, along with select environmental challenges, makes a big difference. And, above all else, you have to be able to GENUINELY PLAY with your dog.
In dog training speak, we want to “develop your motivators”. This goes beyond simply giving the dog something that he likes. Desirable things in and of themselves are only so valuable. For example, a ball (for illustration purposes, let’s assume a ball makes your dog crazy-happy) meant very little to your dog before he practiced playing with it. I know it may be hard to believe that there was a time when your wee little puppy didn’t know anything about a ball other than it moves curiously. Through playing with a ball, your dog learned how fun balls are. This same process can happen to all sorts of desirable things (like foods and toys and interactions).
Your top priority ought to be developing your motivators. While it’s likely your dog will be happy to get a chunk of cheese, you can increase the value of cheese through experiences where you delivered cheese in fun ways during enjoyable activities. Each time you play this way, your “cheese bank account” is increasing in value, so to speak. Begin by playing with cheese (or whatever desirable item) at home and other places where you don’t have competing motivators (i.e. distractions). Have FUN by tossing the chunks so your dog can leap around to snap them out of the air (cue, “Catch!”) or chase them down the hallway (and put your chase on cue with a phrase like, “Get it!” for use later when you want your dog to do other things (like pay attention) while cheese is rolling around). It isn’t just about the cheese, it’s about the game you and your dog are playing together. YOU and the interaction are what is the critical piece of the equation when you invest time developing your motivators.
Practice this kind of play, along with other play, for all sorts of different items (toys/foods/permission/engagement/access). If you are really playing, your heart rate is going up. Play involves a biological change with endorphins and maybe even a bit of cardio :)! Engaging with your dog regularly in this way is fundamental to building a work ethic. And, if you do a good job of this, you will reap the great reward of your dog wanting to “work” with you, choosing you over distractions much of the time because you are potently fun!
Your style of play and choice of items must depend on your dog’s preferences (which you absolutely should honor). My first agility dog did NOT like toys. And, while I could and did train her to fetch and tug as a trick, it was never inherently reinforcing with toys. Our relationship was so much better when I met her where she was at rather than trying to turn her into someone she wasn’t. That did mean that I had to explore other options for reinforcing her with something she really wanted. She was a pro at snapping treats out of the air.
An additional sidenote: if you work on play with your puppy, change the item often (like every week). That way you don’t invest a disproportionate amount of time developing certain items (like a ball) to the exclusion of other items that may just have easily become a favorite if only you had invested the love into it.
When I have a new dog in my life, my priority is play. I’ll take the dog out and around with my only real focus being on play skills (which require focus, if you think about it). If my dog can’t play, I have no business asking for anything more difficult! And, aside from it being fun, it is developing my motivators…tools that will allow me to pay my dog well for hard work in the future. So, I’m more interested in the ability to play in lots of different places and situations and can honestly care less about the puppy knowing how to sit (that’s a cinch to train). As you get better at this, instead of just asking for play, you’ll start to slip in “work”…first a little trick, later a chain of behaviors. The dog views the work as part of the play, which it really is if you make it fun and it pays well. And through these experiences, your seeds for a good work ethic take root and grow.