Let Them Eat Cookies! by Patty Ruzzo and Jenny Gattis
There is a colossal amount to learn and assimilate about training competition dogs with positive reinforcement. Exchanging food for behavior is at the heart of it. For the purpose of this article, we have decided to address the three most commonly asked questions about food training.
What about the dog who does not like cookies and will not eat during Obedience sessions?
Food drive and a willingness to work for food is present when compulsion is absent from the training program. Relaxed dogs will eat, (most) stressed dogs will not.
The quickest and easiest way to turn finicky into famished is to use really, really good treats to reward obedience whenever and wherever you observe it, be it during training sessions or in life. Cubed roast beef, chicken, beafheart, liver, cheddar cheese, cheese tortellini, liver brownies and pizza crust would all be considered high magnitude reinforcers. For best results, bring three different kinds of treats to training sessions that will be of long duration, and switch from good to better to best as the session progresses. Also, hand feeding every meal for one week will absolutely increase the dog's willingness to swap behavior for food.
Dogs will not continue to work for food they are teased with and never receive. Be generous! It makes much more of an impression on the dog if you reward him with many tiny pieces of food, one right after the other, praising all the while with "Excellent!" "Splendid!" "Beautiful!" "Perfect!" or "Nice Job!" than if you give a single cookie and a "Good." Pair excitement, praise, touch and obedience training with delicious, desirable food.
How do I get my dog to ignore distractions and pay attention to me in the ring?
Dogs who ignore distractions and pay attention in competition have interesting, creative energized trainers who are ultra attentive to them.
The dog show environment is a difficult and stressful place to achieve reliable attention. To do so requires the dog (and handler) to block out all extraneous movement, noise, objects, smells, people and animals. Trainers often think only in terms of Obedience exercises, so the tendency is to reward eye contact only during training sessions. Opportunities to reinforce (strengthen) attentive behavior during everyday life are being missed. Pay attention to your dog and he will respond in kind.
A dog's age needs to be taken into account when determining how much focused attention can be reasonably expected. The mature dog (3 years and up) has some life experience under his collar, and is a cool dude in comparison to the socially and emotionally naive adolescent.
Teaching a dog to pay attention is fairly simple.
- Reinforce an attentive behavior offered, whenever and wherever you observe it.
- Be quick, generous, variable and unpredictable with a variety of wonderful rewards.
- Repeat steps one and two throughout the dog's career.
Make watching you a game, not a chore. If the complaint is the dog leaves you during training sessions to go sniff the ground whenever he is not under command, the answer is a simple one. Be more interesting than a few crumbs on the floor. However long it takes, wait for the dog to look at you, and when he does, notice and appreciate. Smile, clap, do a dance, say YES! and feed him.
How about the dog who looks away from the trainer during the signal exercise? Again, wait until the dog makes eye contact, then reinforce that particular behavior. Run to where the dog is and feed him. Throw light colored, visible pieces of food to him and behind him, and release him to it. Place light colored food or a favorite toy on the floor behind the dog as you practice signals, and tell him "O.K. Get It!" when he performs all or part of the signal exercise with his eyes and mind on you, not on the reward. If after all that, the dog still looks away long enough to miss your signal cue, go feed his cookies to another dog! Some say their dog does not care about food in the presence of other dogs. The solution - use better food! When the degree of environmental difficulty is greatest, we bring out our very best treats. Liverwurst, bacon, crab cakes, Italian meatballs or teriyaki beef or chicken will get the job done where a ho-hum (yawn) dry dog biscuit will not.
When and how do I wean my dog off the food to get him ready for the ring?
Training obedience exercises with positive reinforcement is all about being generous, not cheap. Obedience exercises are made up of a series of unnatural, non-instinctive behaviors which are not inherently fun to repeat over and over again. Unlike herding, hunting, tracking or lure-coursing, competition obedience is not in and of itself reinforcing. So we pay the dog to work. We pay him to learn and we pay him to continue to do his job well. We reward him so generously that he comes to actually enjoy the work, and the time we spend together practicing obedience becomes precious to him.
We never stop giving the food, smiles, praise, touch, toys or applause. What we do instead is become variable and unpredictable with a wide variety of reinforcers. We feed lots of treats as we increase environmental difficulty. As we raise criteria, we raise rewards. When friends help us "proof " the dog, we remain the good guy who keeps the cookies coming. We continue to use food rewards during practice ran-thru's with a friend playing judge, and at all match shows.
True, we are not allowed to carry food into the obedience ring, but that does not mean we are without reinforcers in there. Often overlooked is the actual physical presence of the trainer, and the fact that we are allowed to smile at our dog, and calmly praise and pet him before and after every exercise. In fact, a handler who has the same body posture, breathing pattern, stride length, verbal tones and expectations in competition as they do in practice is essentially reinforcing his/her dog in the ring!
It is not a matter of "getting rid" of the food rewards. Once behavior is learned, being quick, generous, variable and unpredictable with all our reinforcers is the name of the game. For instance, sometimes we have the food on our person. but do not give it to the dog, we use praise, petting and play instead. Other times, the cookies are kept on a table or chair, away from the immediate training area, and when the dog does as we ask, we race over together to get the food.
Got a problem? Put a cookie on it!
We are generous with primary reinforcement (food) throughout the teaching phase, and we keep treating through the many, many, many repetitions it takes to achieve muscle memory of the task. We use food in each new and different environment until the behavior has been generalized, and we use even better food (and more of it) when distractions are abundant.
In the ring, it is relationship that takes over when the cookies are gone, and it is previous reinforcement history, clear cues and consistent handling that cause the dog to do his best when it counts the most.