Dog’s Eye View: Mistaken identity — my dog will only do what I say if I have food in my hand
Often, new novice trainers are drawn into the notion that their dog will only do what they ask if they have food in their hand.
“He knows if I have food, and if I don’t, he won’t even listen,” they often say. But it’s not the food; it’s the timing and presentation of the reinforcement.
There are so many aspects to becoming a good dog trainer. In the beginning, it can seem overwhelming. How do I stand? Which hand do I use to signal the behavior? Why do I need to be so fast with the reinforcement?
Our dogs operate on a different speed zone. They live on freeway speed, and most of us live on school zone speed. The dog trainer’s first job is to figure out timing. Working small, energetic dogs requires lightening speed to mark and reward even the simplest behavior of “sit.” By the time the dog sits, and we reach into a pocket or treat pouch, he’s off to the races again. We’ve lost the opportunity to reinforce sitting, so our treat delivery might actually be reinforcing standing.
I am a believer in “hands off” training. That means I don’t touch the dog or have him on leash if I’m working in a client’s home. In the quiet of your own home with minimal distractions, we can begin training.
I use food reinforcers to jump-start training, because it’s easy and the results are immediate. That’s the good part. Using especially tasty treats gets your dog “in the game” and focused on you for communication signals and reinforcement.
The challenging aspect to clarify to new handlers is how quickly we need to fade the use of the food for the simple specific skills we are teaching the dog. It begins by pairing the delivery of the food reinforcer with happy verbal praise. By adding your “happy voice” to give positive feedback to the dog, the food reinforcer becomes “icing on the cake,” so to speak. As the behavior becomes more reliable, we continue to fade the food reinforcement and pump up the verbal praise.
Getting the behavior with food is the easy part. It’s also the “spot” where most new handlers get stuck. Pairing food with verbal praise right from the start is really important.
If you continue to constantly have food in your hand, then that food can become a bribe. We phase the food out quickly for simple behavior and begin to add environmental reinforcement.
The learning curve for the new handler can be daunting. Keeping the progression of training and setting criteria for reinforcement takes time to assimilate. Here’s a sample overview on the basic progression for training the behavior, “sit” to a new puppy.
Let’s use food to lure your puppy to sit.
• Steps one through five — Lure your puppy by placing the treat close to his nose and gradually move the food up between his ears. If he wants the food in your hand, his head will go up and back and his bottom will lower to the floor. As soon as that happens, you praise “good boy” and offer the treat. Repeat this four more times.
• Steps 5 through 10 — Use the same hand motion you would if you had the food in your hand, but your hand is now empty. Your puppy will follow the motion of your hand and his bottom will lower to the floor. As soon as “sit” happens, you praise your puppy, “good boy,” and then offer a treat from your other hand. You have eliminated the food as a lure. Good for you.
• Steps 11 through forever — Randomly reinforce (reward with food) “sit.” You can step up reinforcers to include asking for sit before play. Getting to play is an environmental reinforce: “If you want to play, sit first.” “If you want to go outside, sit first.” “If you want to come back inside, sit first.”
Sitting gets him what he wants now, and that might even cure scratching at the door. You have used the things he likes already to reinforce the behavior of “sit.” Now that cue (sit) has become relevant and is rewarded by doing something fun.
Laura Tyler is a certified professional dog trainer with more than years of experience. She has earned associate certification through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and owns Total Teamwork Training LLC here in Northwest Colorado.
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