I watched the dog and handler carefully. They were practising their heelwork and it looked lovely! The handler strode out, confident and sure; her dog trotted along next to her, attentive and happy. Then I noticed the fly in the ointment…
“Can you do that again for me please?” I felt bad about breaking into her ‘happy place’ but that’s what I’m paid for, so that’s what I was going to do. “This time, can you do it without food on you?” Her face fell. Yep, I’d found the problem. Her dog looked lovely because she had food in her left hand. Oops.
A ubiquitous problem
If I had $1 for every time someone said “my dog only listens if I have food”, I wouldn’t actually need to work! Doesn’t matter if the person is a ‘pet person’ with no interest in competing or an aspiring sports handler. The ‘no food = no interest’ is ubiquitous across all fields where food training is common. Does that mean using food to train doesn’t work? Is it bribery? Shouldn’t be done? No, no and no.
A bad workman blames his tools
And a struggling trainer will often blame their dog. However, in both cases the problem is the misuse of the tools. Food is a terrific training tool but it’s very easy to misuse it.
To be honest, the same can be said for toys, but for some reason I don’t hear many people complain that their dog won’t listen if they don’t have a toy in their hand. Maybe because toys are more often in the pocket and out of sight? Maybe because people don’t seem to worry as much about having to have a toy rather than ‘bribing’ with food? Who knows – but just be clear that the following discussion will apply just as much to toy use as it will to food use, assuming you would like your dog to be responsive to you without having to ‘show the money’ up front.
And the problem is?
As the title of this post suggests, the problem is that without evidence of payment about your person, your dog refuses to listen to you. A complication of this is the dog that checks out the value of the goods on offer and then decides they’re not interested! Now what’re you going to do? Damn. What’s happened is that your goodies and ‘payment’ aren’t acting as wages – they’re being used to bribe your dog. And as you now know, the value of the bribe can be assessed and then be rejected.
Wages come AFTER a job well done. Bribes are displayed up front to make the job happen. There is a fundamental difference between working because you’ve been paid before, and trust you’ll be paid again (reinforcement history) and working because someone has laid a cheque, in your name, on your desk.
Why does training with food go wrong?
Training with food goes wrong because so often us humans are lazy and we’re looking for a shortcut to get the result we want. We often use food to show our dogs what we want them to do. Who hasn’t moved a tasty morsel over a puppy’s head to get them to sit? Or lie down? Or walk next to us? We use food in the initial stage ALL the time and there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is that we stay using those lures for far too long. The food on display becomes part of the picture the dog understands. And food in front of the nose is probably the only thing about the picture the dog noticed!
The other BIG factor is we forget that our dogs are super smart at reading patterns. We forget that they notice what predicts them getting fed – and what is missing when they don’t.
How many times has your dog watched you prepare treats, pop them in your pocket or bait-bag and then been rewarded for their diligence with a fun training session? And how many times have they done as you’ve asked, when you don’t smell like a deli or have a bait-bag on…and they’ve NOT been rewarded for their compliance? Can you see why a smart dog might think that it’s not worth listening if don’t have food on you?
What can be done about it?
So, once we’ve dug ourselves this training hole, how can we extract ourselves again? It can be tough convincing a dog that one of his core beliefs is incorrect. The big stumbling block is: if the dog won’t listen or respond to you unless you have food, how can you get the behaviour to reward when you don’t have cookies?
Set up for success
First up, make sure you train somewhere quiet and distraction free. You’re about to mess with your dog’s mind and you don’t want them choosing to find an easier game to play, rather than sticking with you. You’re going to need a small number of relativity boring treats, maybe your dog’s normal kibble (if they will usually work for that), and some high value, tasty treats such as cooked meat, cheese, or tuna cake.
Avoid preparing treats and then immediately training. Why? Because you’ll end up with a dog who will respond well when you’ve been through the ‘pre-training routine’ but not in other situations. Prep your treats; put them in the fridge for later. When you want to train, load your pockets or containers without your dog watching and place containers in the training area BEFORE you get your dog for the session.
Curing ‘lure dependency’
If you’re reasonably early in your training journey and still using food lures to get behaviours such as ‘sit’, ‘down’ or ‘walk next to me’, the easiest way to get off the lure dependency is to use low value and high value treats and some sleight of hand: Use a LOW value treat in your lure hand and have HIGH value treats either in your opposite pocket or within easy reach. Do your best not to show your dog the high value treats (prepare them in advance and have them in a sealed container or zipped pocket.)
1) Lure a behaviour, mark and instead of giving your dog the low value treat in your lure hand, surprise them with a HIGH value cookie from somewhere else with your OTHER hand. Repeat with different behaviours.
2) Repeat in different places
3) Get rid of the food in your ‘lure’ hand
4) Pretend to get a treat in your ‘lure’ hand. Physically go through the motions of getting a treat out your pocket or bait-bag – but make sure your dog can’t see that your hand is actually empty. ‘Lure’ the behaviour with your ‘fake lure’, mark and reward with a high value treat from your OTHER hand. Repeat with other behaviours and in other locations.
5) Reduce the mime of collecting that food lure. By now your dog should have twigged that they still get paid, even if the food isn’t right under their nose. After a few repetitions you shouldn’t need to ‘pretend’ to load your hand with the lure anymore. Your dog should now be responding to your hand signal without food in your hand.
If you mess up and move too fast, and your dog DOESN’T do the behaviour you asked for, DO NOT reach back into your pocket/bait-bag for a piece of food!!! That’s probably how you got in this pickle in the first place. If you immediately grab a cookie as soon as your dog ‘fails’, what do you think you’ve just taught them? Yep. “Do nothing and the cookies become visible”.
Instead, if you get the “Huh?” look, just shrug your shoulders and ask your dog if they’re tired, or give some silly talk. Take a break of at least a minute before trying the empty hand ‘lure’ again. Two fails in a row? Break off the session completely and go do something else for a while. Next time you come back to it, start at a slightly easier level.
Getting food off your body
The next stage of training is convincing your dog that he’ll still get paid, even when you don’t smell like a deli or have a bait-bag on you. The following method might sound a bit counter intuitive to begin with but stick with me…
Make sure you always have food on you. Always. When I have a puppy, I have kibble in all my pockets. Even my bathrobe has kibble in the pockets! I ALSO have jars and tubs of kibble and/or dried liver stashed all over the house. If you’re about to shrink in horror, don’t panic, it’s not forever.
So, my pup learns that I always smell of cookies. It’s just the way I smell. When I train I reward sometimes from my pocket (puppy comfort break at 3 in the morning? – I grab the nearest reward I can find!) but I also frequently make a point of rewarding from a hidden stash and NOT off my body.
Dial it back
Can you see where I’m going with this? My pups learn that I can conjure goodies from all sorts of places. After a few weeks of this, I gradually start emptying my pockets. My outside coat still has kibble in the pocket but the rest of my wardrobe starts to smell a lot more acceptable.
The next step is to reduce the number of tubs of treats I have all over the house. Now, if I want to reward good behaviour I say something like “let’s get your cookies!” and we both run to the nearest tub and have a little party! The running to the tub becomes part of the fun 🙂 Eventually I only have food at either end of the house and we run to either the kitchen or the bedroom to collect cookies. If I have a pup that loves toys I may run to a toy and have a game instead.
I now have a dog who understands that rewards happen anywhere around the home, whether I smell delightful or not.
If you follow the steps I’ve outlined here, you’ll quickly teach your dog that food doesn’t have to be present in the situation for them to get rewarded. Take your time with this – you’re changing how your dog sees the world and they’re highly likely to disbelieve you if you try to rush the process.
But what about out and about or in the ring?
I draw a distinction between ‘pet dog’ behaviours and ‘competition behaviours’. When I’m out and about and my dogs are being ‘pets’ I always carry food. They might not receive it, but I always have it – you never know when you’ll need it to get out of a sticky situation. I do vary the treats that I take with me to keep my dogs keen and happy to do as a I ask of them.
I always reward behaviours such as great recalls and calm behaviour around people and other dogs – but not just with food. There are plenty of ways to reward a dog without being totally reliant on cookies. If you want a well behaved ‘pet’ dog, I strongly suggest you do the same thing.
Now this is a whole different ball game! For a dog to be successful in a competition they have to be able to work for an extended time with no food or toys on their handler. For this I teach the dog about ‘remote reinforcement’ which is basically an extension of what they learn as pups in the house.
I set up a station (usually my training bag) where food and toys are kept. I have food on me to start with so I know that I’ll get the behaviour I want with the attitude and quality I need. And, just as I do with ‘remote’ treats indoors, when I get the behaviour I want, I mark and run to the training bag to deliver the reward.
Over time, I increase the distance I can work away from the bag, and empty my pockets. After a week or two, I have empty pockets and my dog is working with the understanding that rewards come from the bag, not directly from me.
I mix up training by sometimes rewarding from my body (using food or a toy they don’t know I’ve stashed) and rewarding from the training bag or a visible tub or toy on the ground. The hard yards of teaching my dog to work without needing to see or smell rewards is done waaay before I teach competition skills! You can see me go through the process with Felix here:
Food is a great training tool. All dogs need to eat and most will happily work for food. Like any tool, care needs to be taken in its use – or you can dig yourself a very deep hole. If you’re already in that pit, don’t despair!
3 rules for effective food use
- Be unpredictable – routines will build expectations which you might not want.
- Vary where your rewards are kept and keep your dog guessing.
- Avoid the cardinal sin of showing the money up front!
If you’re new to reward based training and you’d like to know more about good food use, you can get your free PDF guide here.
Sarah and the Gang
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