Last time we talked about schedules of reinforcement (http://helpingheidi.com/blog/2013/07/20/scheduling-treat-ment/), or how often we need to treat our dogs and how to wean them off the treats. This time we’re going to talk about the quality of treats and other things that may be motivating to your dog!
When training, especially when you are increasing one of the “3 D’s” (Distance, Distraction, or Duration), you need to be more enticing to your dog than anything and everything else that’s going on. Sadly, for most of us, we alone are not motivation enough when that squirrel goes running by, so we have to find the thing that will tempt our dogs to remain focused on us until our training is solid enough to not need treats. Just as all people are different, so are our dogs. I would be most motivated by chocolate cake or cookies, while my husband prefers cheese cake. So while your last dog may have been happy to work for a Milkbone, your new pup may require something tastier to pique his interest.
Fact: All dogs are motivated by food. It’s true. There’s no way around it, some dogs may find something else more motivating, but when it comes right down to it, they have to eat to survive, so this is probably the best place to start.
Sometimes it helps to make a list of things that your dog likes, and rate them. This way you’ll know what you are working with. Here would be a sample list for my Boxer, Sally:
- Rare Beef
- Beef Hotdogs
- Pork Roast
- Peanut Butter
- Dry Dog Food
- Tug Toys
- Tennis Balls
So I know that for Sally, she’s not going to really do much for the ball. Things that she knows well: sit, down, stays without distractions, she’ll gladly work for her dog food. For things that are a bit more difficult, a 50 foot stay, or a stay with a dog barking in the neighborhood, she may need something a bit higher on the list, such as the peanut butter or cheese. For something really hard, like lying still while I trim her nails, or a down-stay while a jogger with a barking dog runs past, she’ll need the beef!
“But I don’t give my dog people food!” “I don’t want him to start begging at the table!” To these statements I answer: your dog’s sense of smell is around 1-100 million times better than yours*. Where you smell spaghetti sauce, she smells tomatoes, onions, basil, salt, pepper, parsley, etc., probably even the metal of the pan. Dogs can sniff out cancer for goodness sakes! You better believe she smells that roast on the table and will probably beg regardless if she’s ever tasted it before or not. Besides, we can teach her to lie down politely while we eat if begging is an issue.
“Hotdogs are high in sodium.” “Cheese blocks my dog up.” Your are not going to be feeding your dog massive amounts of hotdogs and cheese. I cut them up tiny. Teeny tiny! Small as, or smaller than a pea-tiny. This way, your dog smells it, tastes it, sucks it right down, and you can move on to the next thing. He’s not sitting there crunching on a biscuit for a minute, not being over-fed, and not getting an upset tummy!
Back to the goodies! Sometimes a dog is less interested in the food than you think he ought to be. Try a few different things before you bail on the food! When I was apprenticing there was a dog that would only work for a certain kind of mozzarella from a particular deli. More recently, Sir Gentleman Jack decided that the hotdogs his mom was getting were not as good as the all beef Sabrett’s that I get for Sally. Some dogs just have a more discerning pallet, unless of course they can eat that dead animal on the side of the road! I’m not advocating you buy your dog special cheese, I’m just saying he may not go for turkey dogs when someone else is getting beef.
Then, there’s dogs like my Mathilde. My German Shepherd, Tilly, had no interest in food if there was another dog in the area. I could put raw beef in front of her nose and she would try to bark around it, even if she hadn’t eaten all day. It didn’t seem to matter how far away we were, if she knew the dog was there, she was going to bark. It was so frustrating! Then I remembered when I first got Peanut and I couldn’t get her attention on walks unless there was a squeaker in my pocket. So I got out the toys that I knew Tilly liked to play with and shortly discovered that the tennis ball is the be all and end all for her. If you think this may be your dog, that’s great! But test it to be sure. We put a piece of rare prime rib on the floor next to a tennis ball while she was in a sit, then released her to grab what she wanted. She dove on the ball and pranced happily around the room, she never even glanced at that meat, and it wasn’t a small piece either! Tilly now happily walks through our neighborhood without reacting, even past the pair of barking Dobermans that charge the fence, all because I may or may not toss her the ball when we get past!
If your dog is more motivated by toys, try to get them excited about tug toys. When your dog is tugging they are engaged with you through the toy, if they are fetching, they are engaged with the ball away from you. In my experience it will help them to remain focused on you during training if you are playing tug. Just be sure to have a solid “drop it” cue!**
You can also use the toys to get the dog excited about food, because let’s face it, it’s easier to carry around a few bits of food than to stuff a tennis ball in your pocket! With Tilly (starting in a low distraction environment) I would offer her a bit of hotdog, if she took it I would throw her ball. Soon she was scarfing the tidbits I was offering and associating them with her beloved ball. Now I can use treats to reward her in all but the most frenzied of environments.
What if you have the opposite problem and your dog is too excited about food? Then go down the list to the least motivating thing. If he’s eating your hand for meat, try cheese. If he still takes off your fingers for peanut butter, try his dry dog food as a reward. Some dogs, (especially Goldens and Labs!), lose their little doggy minds when there is food around. If this is your dog, try training him on a full stomach. You can also practice some self-control exercises to help teach him to not be so ”grabby.”***
One more thing before I go. Some people, and even some trainers, will want you to only reward your dog with a bit of verbal praise and/or a pat on the head. Neither is particularly rewarding to most dogs. For many dogs, a pat on the head is pretty aversive (go ahead, try to pat your dog on his head and see how he likes it!) I personally would not do a job if I wasn’t being paid for it and didn’t find it rewarding, even if someone was telling me what a great job I was doing or trying to pay me in hugs, I’m just not much of a hugger. Sitting and staying while a cat chases a butterfly in the next yard over is like sitting in an office building just off the beach where they’re handing out free ice cream; the pay had better be decent for you to not skip out and reward yourself! And I promise (again!) that you won’t always have to have a treat in your pocket, as long as you use them properly.
So go out and find what motivates your dog, I’m going to go make cookies…