07 Nov Are you having treat trouble?
Indi is wonderful and sweet Bug (Boston Pug) that comes to my puppy class. On the first day of training he was not giving his owners any attention. After examining their food rewards, I recommended that they bring something better for next week. After all, it is puppy class and there are 7 others puppies, not to mention the tons of scents roaming freely throughout this doggie daycare. When you take your dog to a puppy class, you are competing with lots and lots of distractions. The next week Indi’s owners came to class with a smorgasbord of yummy goodness for a dog: cheese, and real meat. The difference in Indi was amazing. He still wanted to socialize with his buddies during playtime but when it was time to work, he was paying attention. So why do so many people struggle with rewarding their dogs with treats?
1. “If I train with treats, my dog will only work for treats.” This is the biggest fallacy in reward-based training. Good trainers and those who run the billion dollar slot machine industry know the power of ‘intermittent reinforcement’. Basically, this means, winning only happens some of the time. Giving your dog a treat each time, will actually impede your training. Your goal is to be a slot machine, not a vending machine.
2. “My dog isn’t food motivated”. Usually, this response requires some digging on my part. Is your dog free fed in the house, so they can graze all day? In last night’s class, a woman was telling me how her dog won’t eat from the bowl, but only from her hand. I don’t have a problem with hand-feeding, it’s great for training, but she also said that he hardly eats. Why would a dog not eat? Would he starve himself? or is it that the dog has learned that if he doesn’t eat his food, eventually he will get something much better. I’m going to ask a vet about this one. I don’t want to tell anyone to starve their dog on my behalf, but this is a serious training problem because the dog is not interested in any rewards in class.
3. “I don’t want my dog to get fat.” In the home or in environments will little distraction, use your dog’s kibble to train. Bring out the better stuff for more distracting environments. Break the treats into pea-sized pieces. Use real meat so you don’t feel like you are giving your dog junk. Reduce their meal portions when you give them lots of treats. Whatever, the case may be, you need to not be stingy with the treats. In Leslie Nelson’s really reliable recall, she feeds the dogs for 30 seconds when they come. She calls this ‘fine dining’ for a dog. In my recall class, we had a dog that would come to his owner, but once he got there, he would dart off and go see his buddies. Clearly, he did not care about the rewards. After switching the rewards and feeding him for a really long time after his recall, he followed his owner right back to his seat.
For a reactive dogs, treat dispensing become even more complex. In the case with Tyson’s fear of large dogs, the behaviourist recommended that he only get his favourite treat in the presence of large dogs. As soon as the large dog goes away, feeding stops. So armed with Ritz Cheese Crackers and regular kibble, Tyson and I roam the parks. I’ve done this in the past but never saw the strength of the results because like most people I was guilty of being stingy with treats. Now I count the treats as I give them to him. For an excellent behaviour he may get as many as 30. Forget my budget, forget his diet. I’m seeing the results and that’s the most important thing for me. Of course new problems always surface when your train. Recently I noticed that my box of Ritz crackers is depleting too quickly. Unfortunately, my husband also likes Ritz Cheese crackers. Not sure how I’m going to solve this one.