Learning is Not Breed Specific (Its Not Even Species Specific)


I can teach a cat the same way I’d teach a dog or a horse or a mouse or… You get the picture. It all boils down to motivation. Motivation is the factor that gets an animal to take action. It can be a positive motivator or a negative motivator, either way it gets an animal to do a particular behavior. Obviously, not all motivators work for all animals – not even for all individuals within the same species.

Primary Motivators

Safety, or the return to safety, is usually a strong motivator. Animals actively seek out comfort and safety – it is critical to survival. As a trainer, I just don’t want to be the one to remove that safety from the animal. It makes me look bad and doesn’t create a fun learning environment for the animal even though it is an effective motivator for most. For all animals, it is scary to lose control and can trigger panic and anxiety. Teachers are supposed to help students learn, not scare them.

Another motivator that is inherently important to survival is food. Food makes any animal, including humans, happy. Now that I can be a part of! All animals are motivated by food because if they weren’t, they’d perish. Training with food as a motivator gives us another advantage – it is a great way to judge an animals stress level. This can be especially important if we are working on changing their emotional responses to environmental situations.

Safety and food are what trainers call “primary reinforcers,” because the animal is born motivated by these factors in order to survive.

Personal Preference

Not all people enjoy all the same activities, right?  After primary reinforcers, we can start to look at the individual’s preferences by observing their daily routines. What do they actively seek out on a day-to-day basis? Some common dog motivators are toys, play, petting, acknowledgement, digging, barking, jumping, and so many more depending on the dog. In this blog post, Mary Hunter discusses alternative motivational ideas for training horses.

The next step to successful training is to make sure that the animal is motivated by these activities to work for them. When an animal is willing to work for something, trainers refer to that as a reinforcer. Reinforcers trigger behaviors to happen again in the future. This process applies to almost all living animals today, but the manner in which it is implemented changes for each individual.