The Economics of Dog Behavior

economics of dog behavior

“Everybody has a price.”

This is true of humans, and of all functioning living creatures. In the animal world, dogs included, every behavior has a price point, a consequence or consequences that make the behavior worthwhile or simply too pricey. People and animals alike are driven by the same system of economics, and the currency in that economy is what we call “motivators.”

Motivators are, put simply, the consequences of a behavior. Motivators are the price we put on a behavior to make that behavior worthwhile or not. Yes, the price points may vary, and there is often more than one way to purchase a behavior.

But at the end of the day, every dog has a price.

Humans are peculiar creatures in that our reasons to behave certain ways depend on factors like the expectations of society. In short, we’ve been “conditioned” to believe that we “should” do something, or because we value the inter-personal social currency of approval and reciprocation.

Dogs, on the other hand, are a little more straightforward.

The economics of dog behavior is incredibly direct: Appeal to the dog’s most desired currency in the right amount and/or haggle down the cost, and you can purchase the behaviors you want to see.

This is called “operant conditioning,” and it is the scientific foundation of dog training and behavior modification.

It’s Always About Motivation

Motivation is wildly misunderstood and misrepresented in the dog training community. The plain and scientific truth is that motivators – that being, consequence – are the gears that make dog training go.

There are a lot of myths out there contradicting this idea.

One is that you must be the “alpha” and your dog will become obedient out of sheer reverence for your domineering presence. While there’s definitely value to be had in being a leader to your dog and providing structure, no amount of rolling dogs and intimidation is going to fix unwanted behaviors and increase desirable ones. They can, in fact, be very dangerous for the both the dog and the human involved.

Another is that dogs simply have a desire to please, and that by building a good relationship with your dog, they will do anything you ask. At Lugaru K9 Training, we are all in favor of building great relationships with your dog, but being your dog’s friend will not train your dog on its own.

What it actually all comes down to is motivation.

Your dog needs to know two things in order for you to get what you want:

What do you want?


What’s in it for me?

In every given moment, and especially during those critical ones, dogs have a primary motivator. That might be the food in your pocket, the bunny rabbit across the street, the ball in your hand, the tasty-looking steaming pile of poo in your path, or the dog on the other side of the fence.

Ultimately, the behavior that wins is the behavior that “pays” the most.

As dog trainers (or as educated dog owners, too) our goal is to take control of the motivators our dog experiences and use them tactfully to get the behaviors we want to see out of our dogs. When you understand motivation, you can leverage it on a number of levels to get the best of your dog’s behavior.

Increase your Bid (Reward)

Reward is, in essence, payment for a desired behavior. It is a desired (by the dog) consequence for a behavior we would like to see more of.

When we pay our dogs with all the lovely things — food, praise, toys, and more — they are more likely to increase the behavior that got them that payment. After all, who doesn’t want to get paid more?

Similarly, mindfully withholding payment in specific situations can aid in the reduction of undesirable behaviors. Basically, refusing a payout when your dog is doing something you don’t like can help decrease that behavior.

If your dog’s primary motivator is your reward, you are in total control of the situation.

Haggle the Price Down (Correction)

What about when a behavior is too expensive? In a perfect world, we would be able to afford a dog’s behavior at any price, but that’s not how the real world usually works.

For those moments, we can apply a consequence that make a competing motivator less desirable, so that the unwanted behavior is reduced. In this way, we reduce the payout of the competition; the squirrel, the dog passing by, the jerk at the park who keeps trying to call your dog away from you to feed them treats.

By applying a correction, we haggle down the price of a behavior, and can then pay as usual. We create a window of opportunity in a bad behavioral economy, and can then come in with business as usual.

Getting a Monopoly on Your Dog’s Behavior

Understanding motivators is like having a complete monopoly in the market. With the right knowledge, you can keep your dog giving you the behaviors you want, and keep away those you don’t.

Take a dog that jumps on the counter to steal food. Rewarding your dog for keeping four paws on the floor or for hanging out in a place command with something that’s more motivating than what’s on the counter, and you can encourage a new behavior set. And if the counter is just too much of a payout for you to compete, you can reduce its allure by removing unattended food or applying a correction to the dog jumping up.

Some combination of the two can bring out a behavioral payout in just about any dog. Whether you are training basic obedience or getting into some more advanced behavior modification, the behavior that pays best will always win.

But competitors (the aforementioned squirrels, dogs, and jerks) don’t stand a chance in your economy. When you can identify competing motivators and plan your approach around them, you can ensure that your dog is always willing to work for you.