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How to Motivate Yourself to Train or Exercise Your Dog—Or Do Practically Anything Else!

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Originally published on 1/1/2010. 

Secret to success

Psst! Do you want to know the secret to getting things done?

Do you feel guilty about not walking your dog every day? Or not training as often as you should, or even not training when you really need to?dog sleeping on couch

Are the winter blues making it hard to step out into the cold night air? Is the summer heat sapping your energy? (What time of the year doesn't provide a ready excuse?)

Self-motivation is actually very easy. All we need to do is apply what we already know about dog training to training ourselves, the trainers!

Become a splitter, not a lumper

In dog training terms, a "lumper" asks a dog to achieve or figure out too much at one time. A lumper fails to break the task down into achievable chunks.

Self-motivation is actually very easy. All we need to do is apply what we already know about dog training to training ourselves, the trainers!

On the other hand, a "splitter" takes a task and breaks it down appropriately—not just into what he or she thinks is achievable chunks, but into what the dog can do successfully. Those chunks are then trained one by one until the entire task is learned. As the ancient Chinese proverb goes, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

A simple task like taking the dog for a walk should be achievable, even when it's really cold outside. So what stops us from achieving that?

Perhaps our perception of how simple the task is blinds us to the fact that we are actually struggling to achieve it? Could it be that the task we know we ought to complete is not the task that is most reinforcing at the moment?

Sometimes we don't see that even very simple tasks can be broken down into smaller chunks. I read an article by Kevin Hogan suggesting that rather than trying to motivate yourself to go for a run, you just set a goal to put your shoes on. What would happen if we focused solely on getting up off the couch and putting on walking shoes? What would happen if our only thought was to decide on the next training task for our dog? Next would be the simple task of finding a clicker, and then some treats or a ball...

See how it goes? Think of the applications for "splitting" in other parts of your life!

Reinforcing your own behavior

A simple task like taking the dog for a walk should be achievable, even when it's really cold outside. So what stops us from achieving that?

Reinforcement is really a "proof is in the pudding" thing. Something cannot be called a reinforcer if it doesn't increase or maintain behavior.

Finding a reinforcer for training yourself is a matter of observing and measuring your own behavior. You might like to keep a calendar on the wall and mark each day you take your dog for a walk and for how long. Not only does this routine help to measure your behavior, you might also find the data reinforcing.

Others might find the regular exercise or time spent doing something fun with their dog reinforcing. For many people, the knowledge that your dog will be happier, healthier, or better behaved is reinforcing enough.

If mere knowledge isn't enough, you will need to tie actual results to your behavior—notice how much fun your dog is having, notice how relaxed he seems after a walk, notice how your dog can wait politely at the door, or how much more likely he is to come when called. Observe—and make a note to yourself that this positive change is linked to your behavior. Congratulate yourself!

Follow the Premack principle

In this age of being able to get what we want when we want it, it's no wonder that "Grandma's Rule" isn't followed very often—we go outside to play before we clean our rooms.

Use sitting down and relaxing as a reward for exercising or training your dog.

Have you noticed that not much gets done after you sit down and relax in the evening? It's important to relax, especially before bed. But if you plan to walk or train your dog in the evening, do that before you relax, or the walking or training probably won't happen. Use sitting down and relaxing as a reward for exercising or training your dog. Not only will it mean you exercise and train your dog more regularly, but it will make it easier for your dog to settle down and relax with you.

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Casey Lomonaco's picture

Really nice job, Aidan!

What a wonderful piece this is, certainly good advice not only related to how we interact with our pooches, but how we approach life's tasks in general and follow through on New Year's resolutions specifically!


Casey Lomonaco

Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner

Rewarding Behaviors Dog Training


trainer@caninesinaction.com's picture

primary reinforcement?

I can split very well, thank you. But where is my trainer with a click and a handful of chocolate?!

In all seriousness, what I need is a way to combat the boredom of long duration stays -- formal competition obedience stays, that is. I just can't stand still and not move for five minutes... it isn't natural for either one of us!

Laura &

  • Ascomannis Laevatein YTT RL1 CD-H CGC BH RN CD
  • Inky (couch dog!)
Aidan Bindoff's picture

reinforcing yourself

Hi Laura, doing 1 minute stays is NOT splitting when you should be doing 5 minute stays. That's just called "cheating" :-)

It's got to be Premack. The cool thing about this situation is that I bet it's the same things you like to train that Laev likes to do, so it will Premack you both.




How To Motivate Yourself

Hi Aidan!

Everytime I come to Ezine, I find an article that is just what I need at the time. Coming to this site is like getting a C/T everytime.

Do I ever need some motivation to get motivated! Winter came early this year, leaving out at least 2 wks of summer AND Fall. It's so much easier to curl up with a good (dog training) book or web site and watch the rain fall outside. I've come up with all kinds of great excuses to not work with the dogs.

So, I'm going to grab my training journal and start putting my baby steps in it. I think I need to put "throwing ball for Lacey, inside or outside," at the top of the list As you know, she defaults back to barking without just 5 minutes of fetch.

I don't know if this is appropriate to mention here, but there is a web group/program that addresses this issue, mostly for getting your house in order, and yourself in order (ie, not a dog site at all). And, it's all based on "Baby Steps." The site is www.flylady.net It's amazing how working with humans and animals is not very different.


as Aidan said

Splitting things up small steps at a time
Then sit down and think your priorities through
That might mean that you only clean one room today, or just clear the kitchen sink. And then take out the dogs. Or that you decide to cut back on the late music engagements. Or have a talk with you mother about which chores are yours in the house and which ones isn't. That is up to you to figure out - what is most important to you? then make the time for that. I myself? I use getting to play with the dogs as a reinforcer for the boring housechores. And sometimes I will take clean laundry and instead of folding it up, just out it out for the kids and myself to wear again tomorrow (hey, it's clean, who says it need to go in the closet before getting worn again) Or there will just have to be mud on the floor in the hallway today, I'll deal with it tomorrow, because *today* it is more important to: do the dogtraining I planned/bake buns with the kids/write an article/sit down with hubbie....
And remember... you can do a lot of mental stimulation of your dogs with only a little time... 5 minutes sessions...the time it takes to stuff a Kong or scatter their dinner all over the garden...
Best of luck

right on

That has been my problem for a few weeks now, well if I actually were to admit it, probably more like months. I have been using a whole plethora of excuses from starting college, to the music requirements that keep me on campus until late at night, house cleaning and even the compulsion that I "must" check my email.

My dogs have been getting ignored, recently I had an eye surgery and literally could not go out and walk or train them. That bugged me. I thought maybe it would give me more of an incentive to get out there because I wasn't making the choice to not walk or train them, it was being made for me. Yeah right. I'm worse now then I was.

I need to take your advice about not relaxing in the evening until after I have done what I intended to do. That's hard though. Unless it's working with dogs I don't like to break things into steps. If I start something I want to finish it. This is one of the main reasons I don't finish anything at all. It doesn't help when on top of school work I have all the responsibilities that should fall to my mother. She just lays around all day, but I digress.

Right now I am determined to do something with my dogs when I get home but I'm afraid that motivation will wane by the time I walk in the door of the house that never stays clean.

I am my own worst critic, but my dogs derserve more. They aren't getting the life they deserve right now, and it's driving me insane. I just wish I could do something about it. These just seems like a never ending cycle.

I have to go go choir, I have music engagements well into the evening. I don't get out of here until nine and then tonight I have a friend coming over who will be leaving soon for Iraq. I can't exactly blow her off for my dogs as much as I would like to.

Welcome to my life, a complicated mass of contradictions that twist and turn until they even contradict themselves.

Nessa and dogs,

any advice, if you can make heads or tails of this would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

Aidan Bindoff's picture

Splitting - a secret

You might find that you are too overloaded to walk the dogs every day, and that's fine. 5 mins clicker training is worth about 15 minutes walking. You can hide or scatter food instead of feeding a meal, total investment of your time= 1 minute, total value of activity for your dogs= 5-10 minutes. Check out my site for more ideas, look up "milk bottle game" and "free dog toys" using search on my site.

Exercise - you said "If I start something I want to finish it. This is one of the main reasons I don't finish anything at all." - you're going to love this -

Instead of planning a 30 minute walk with the dogs in the evening, try this (it's what I suggested in the article), just plan to put your walking shoes on. That ALL. DO NOT PLAN ANYTHING ELSE. If you go for a walk - great! If you don't - great! You did what you planned, you put your shoes on. You can make it a little harder next week.

It may sound a little patronising to plan something so small, but if you're not doing anything you need to plan smaller and give yourself a pat on the back when you do it. I'm totally serious about this.

You could do the same with some of the other things in your life that aren't getting done. You could even use this technique with other people you live with if you're really clever about it ;-)




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