Tuesday, July 14, 2009

On Using Food and Treats...

(Firstly... I'm pleased to announce I have launched my dog training services in Toronto under the banner of When Hounds Fly! - www.whenhoundsfly.com - Many of my posts will also appear over there in the Articles section.)

I use food and treats liberally when training dogs. 95% of dogs out there are food motivated. When I meet owners who say their dog isn't that into their food, it's normally because their kibble is, well, bland and tasteless. Put some cheese or diced sandwich meat in front of them and their food motivation surfaces.

If you talk to someone who says that using food in training is a bad idea, run, don't walk, away.

These people might also tell you that its bribery, and that dogs don't teach pups how to behave with food, and that using food can make a dog food aggressive - ask them where the science behind those statements are. They don't have an ounce of academia to back them up. Brad Pattison of "The End of My Leash" fame on Slice is the worst offender (and although I love the cute dogs on the show - he's the least qualified and worst dog trainer I can imagine - his self-taught techniques embody NONE of the benefits of positive reinforcement training and FEW of the benefits of traditional punishment training).

I'm often asked by new clients, especially ones that have been brainwashed by shows like The End of My Leash or people that have never worked with a knowledgeable positive reinforcement trainer the following questions:

"If I use food, doesn't that mean I'll have to use and have food all the time, or else Spot won't behave?"

"Will he respect me if I'm just a pez dispenser?"

"Won't he get fat?"

Here's a few points that explain how food SHOULD be used for training.

There are at least three functions of food. Firstly, it can be used as a LURE. An example of this is if you are trying to teach your dog to climb a ramp, keeping a piece of cheese in between your index finger and thumb, and guiding the dog's nose up the ramp can get him there. Secondly, it is used as a REWARD. Once the dog has reached the top of the ramp, he's accomplished the desired behavior. You can give him the cheese. Thirdly, it can be used as a bribe in the case of an emergency. A classic example I've seen at the dog park is when a dog who hasn't learned a recall is collected. The owner reaches into a pocket and pulls out a treat and calls their dogs' name fifty times and waves the juicy treat in the air, hoping and praying that their dog will come back.

Lures are used early on in teaching a new behavior, but only initially. This is when the dog really doesn't know the behavior and its not natural. Rewards are used liberally at first, but over time, phased out, and eventually eliminated. For example, you might give a 5 year old a reward for spelling their name right or answering 2+2, but that behavior is expected once they're 7. Lastly, a bribe as I've described is probably the biggest reason why food training has a bad rep. This is simply a case of a useful tool being totally misused by an unqualified handler - like a tennis racket being used to pound nails.

Regarding respect - a dog ultimately respects the person or thing that has control of the resources. Resources in a dog's world include food, water, shelter, access to play, access to rest, toys, and affection (and probably more). Using food in the ways I've described is a respect-neutral behavior. Conversely, using punishment (hitting your dog, yelling at your dog, choking your dog) is a respect-neutral behavior too. However, how do you think your dog's confidence and your dog's bond with you is affected?

Lastly, you're in control of your dog's caloric intake. Every calorie of food should be worked for - a bowl full of food given for nothing is a waste of a training opportunity. If you are hell bent on building a relationship based on respect, then demanding a behavior for every morsel of food is something you should build into every day. For example, when working on the behavior of not rushing the door when the doorbell rings, why not use meal time as an opportunity to practice running into the crate when the doorbell rings? A bowl full of food can be used both as a lure (after you or someone else ring the doorbell, you take the bowl of food and throw it into the crate) and a reward (after going in the crate, your dog is rewarded by a satisfying meal). It won't take long for your dog to learn that the doorbell means its time to go into the crate. You've made your dog work for it, helped shape a desirable behavior, and stimulated your dog both mentally and physically.

No comments: