Motivational States Matter
To start this post off, we'll tackle that title: what exactly are motivational states?
One of the definitions of motivational states is: “… physiological internal states in the organism that play an important role in initiating behavior, selecting actions to perform, and orienting the actions to achieve desired goals”- Alarcón, 2021
Let's put that into layman's terms, shall we? Basically, motivational states make our animals more or less likely to perform certain behaviors or more or less likely to respond in certain ways to the environment. Motivational states are internal states that are effected by both internal and external factors.
Some examples of internal factors that impact motivational states include the animal’s mood and the amount of stress the animal is experiencing at that time. Some examples of external factors that impact motivational states include whether the animal is on leash or not, whether the animal sees prey nearby and, if their owner is with them or not. Motivational states change often and vary in intensity; they are not static! Some examples of motivational states include: tired (motivated to sleep), hungry (motivated to eat), cold (motivated to find warmth), hot (motivated to find cold).
You may be thinking “This is all well and good, cool science jargon, but why do motivational states matter to us as dog owners?”
Well I’ve got two reasons:
Reason number one: motivational states can and likely will directly impact your training progress, including playing a key part in determining what you are using to motivate your animal and if your usual rewards/reinforcers are going to work in that context.
Fluctuating motivational states influence the behavior of an animal; an animal’s priorities will change depending on what motivational state they are in. Once the motivational state is fulfilled, the animal is no longer in that motivational state and they can move onto a different motivational state (i.e. if a dog is lying in the sun and panting, and then they move to the shade to cool off, they will no longer be focused on cooling off, and may move into a sleepy, hungry, or playful motivational state instead!)
One very common example of motivational states playing into our every day lives is if your dog is really social with other dogs, and you bring them to a group class without giving them the opportunity to play that week. You’ll likely see that your dog will be LESS motivated to work for you and train, and MORE motivated to have social time and try to get to their buddies. This can make working with your dog more difficult in this environment. But if you have time before class to let your dog romp with their buddy, and then go to training, your dog will be much less interested in social time and much more motivated to work for their food! By noticing which motivational states our dogs are experiencing in a given context, we can influence how powerful our reinforcers are and adjust as needed.
The second reason that motivational states matter is that motivational states can impact our animal’s day to day welfare, or how good their life really is. Motivational states are directly related to our animal’s welfare through the positive or negative emotions they can cause. When an animal is able to successfully fulfill a motivational state they will feel positive emotions, but when they cannot obtain what that motivational state is directing them towards they will feel negative emotions. This can lead to decreased welfare and increased likelihood of behavior issues in our animals.
An example of this might be a dog that truly enjoys sniffing; if they are motivated to sniff a lot, but we never actually let them sniff, then we are stopping that dog from being able to fulfill that motivational state. Preventing the dog from being able to partake in an activity they truly enjoy is likely to cause frustration or other negative emotions, which in the long run can negatively impact that dog’s overall welfare in their day to day life.
The motivational states that our dogs wind up in can tell us a lot about what our dog’s preferences are, and can help us improve their welfare, if we just pay attention!
So, keeping all of this in mind now, what I’d like you to do is: observe your dog. What are they motivated to do, all on their own? What motivational states do they tend towards, and how often do they get to really, truly fulfill those states? I’d like you to make it your goal that they get these opportunities often. I’d also like you to creatively arrange your training sessions with your dog so that you can take full advantage of their fulfilled motivational states, and have the best chance at success in your training sessions and classes!