Perfect control outside
I am always a little surprised when people say this to me. Usually it follows them telling me something is working, going well or the dog has learned something new. Such as :
“Yes he comes back on his walks now… but it’s only because of the treats”
“She lies down just on the verbal command… but only because she knows she’ll get a treat”
“She’s much more confident around strangers… but only because they all give her pieces of cheese”
Let’s consider this in more detail because all of those statements are probably true but they only provide part of the picture.
Improved recall due to the use of rewards:
If a dog has developed a recall issue – running away from the owner on walks and disobeying recall commands then it is likely that the reward the dog is getting from ignoring the owner (playing with other dogs, hunting, chasing etc) is of greater value to the dog than coming back. The ‘wrong’ behaviour becomes the established behaviour through repetition and continuous reinforcement. Changing that behaviour then becomes complex and usually involves prevention of repetition of the wrong behaviour (i.e. keeping the dog on a long line); teaching or re-teaching of control commands such as leave (chase control) stop at a distance, recall; use of high value rewards, if it is food then cheese, chicken, sausage, liver cake etc (for some dogs a ball or toy may be higher value) sometimes changing location and repetition, repetition, repetition. A huge amount of time and commitment is required from the owner and continuous repetition to ensure the correct behaviour becomes the established one. Even if you haven’t had to correct a recall problem but have used food to create, establish and maintain a good recall then celebrate it, food has become a tool in your creating endless relaxed and enjoyable walks with your dogs and as such is of incredible value.
Lying down on a verbal command:
As most reward based trainers do, I teach the down command using food lured to the floor, the dog’s nose follows the food to the floor and with a little patience the dog usually lies down and is rewarded for doing so. In this scenario we are using luring and shaping to create a behaviour which can then put on ‘cue’ (command) and rewarded with (usually) food to give the dog the incentive to repeat the behaviour. Basic dog training. Moving to a situation where the dog lies down just because you have said the cue is a big leap forward. If you have established this then your dog has effectively learnt your language – theirs is body language. They have moved from dependency on the food being under their nose as a bribe and will comply to earn the reward, which should follow as soon as the behaviour is completed. It tells me you have an understanding of the training process and how to progress a command, how to use rewards effectively and that you have effectively been able to communicate this to your dog. Again well done!!
(NB this behaviour can also be taught through capturing and marking – clicking or verbal – a behaviour as the dog offers it or does it naturally, using the food to create the behaviour is not required in this method but is always given as a reward. Either method is reward based training and shows effective communication with your dog to create a reliable behaviour)
Improved behaviour of a nervous dog around strangers through the use of food:
Dogs can display nervous behaviour around people for a number of reasons, bad previous experiences, genetic reasons, lack of socialisation etc etc. Changing of this type of behaviour is often complex and can require a number of techniques and if severe – i.e. the dog suffers severely with anxiety or is displaying aggression, then your veterinary surgeon and behaviourist should be involved in this process. Without wanting to over simplify, in the process of changing this behaviour, food can play an extremely valuable role.
A simple example, might be a dog who has a fear of people who use walking sticks due to a previous bad experience. The association of a very high value food can be used to change the bad association to a positive one. Often this is done very slowly – the stick is left on the floor, the person is seated and feeds the dog pieces of cheese. Over a period of, sometimes weeks, the person might move to standing, holding the stick, walking with the stick. Gradually and as part of a behavioural programme and ensuring that only a positive response from the dog is reinforced then the dog’s negative association with the ‘stick’ will change from negative to positive. (Desensitisation and counter-conditioning) Again this is no mean feat and will potentially make a huge difference to the quality of both an owner’s and the dog’s life.
If you have managed to change your dog’s behaviour through the use of treats, then well done, it isn’t simple and shouldn’t be dismissed, changing any behaviour in a dog (or human) is incredibly difficult and requires, commitment, enthusiasm, perseverance, patience and a strong relationship with your dog. If you have done this then the pay off for you is likely to be a stronger bond with your dog, greater general control and mutual respect within the relationship with your dog. Congratulate yourself and celebrate the achievement. Certainly don’t dismiss it as “just because of the treats”.
Future articles to come in this theme
- Why do we need to use food in training
- How to fade out the use of food in training
- Problems with using food in training and how to prevent them