When it’s time to get the food out of your hand-using food rewards for task focus and distance work

If you read my previous post on food and relationship then you already know that I believe in the power of food not only when  teaching and working our dogs but also to build and enhance relationship. As a trainer my priority is always relationship. But having said that, many people fall into the trap of building dependency on food during the learning phases of training and then get stuck there. It then becomes, “oh no, my dog won’t perform without food!” If clean technique was used and task focus developed early on, this should not happen. And even when good technique is used there are still  specific phases required in training for performance, and if any are skipped the ring performance will deteriorate. What I say here applies to toy rewards as well. And while we use extrinsic aids in the teaching process, I firmly believe that we must personally interact during the process as well. Since relationship is a huge topic all on it’s own-and there are trainers much better than I to cover that-the purpose of my article here is simply to address some ideas for effective mechanics in using extrinsic rewards in teaching our dogs. But keep in mind that all the while I am assuming a foundation based on relationship-and that relationship can and should include extrinsic rewards, but not be dependent on them.

So having established relationship as the priority and keeping that as a constant, we get back to the mechanics of using extrinsic rewards. My training focus in recent years has been more on distance work, independent thinking and problem solving by the dog. This can be very different from training a nice heeling performance or recall, where the rewards are often on your body; in a pocket, your hand, even your mouth (from whence you “spit” the treat out for the dog to catch in a perfect front position.) But even in training those behaviors, at some point you still must get the food off of your body in order for the dog to perform in competition.

So my intent here is to emphasize task focus, so that we can train our dogs to work from close up or at a distance without relying on the immediate presence of food or toys. A systematic approach and long term plan must be implemented if you expect to get a reliable performance from your dog in the absence of food in your hand or anywhere on your body. And please note that this step is to be used only after a behavior has become fluent by using a high rate of reinforcement followed by variable and random R+.

In my previous post on food and relationship I talked about hand feeding. Most of us know the “Zen game”- your dog maintains eye contact with you until you release them to take the food from your hand. That’s a great start! Over time then, for performance training we need to take this further with a systematic approach of raising criteria in two main areas: the level of difficulty of behavior required and the distance from the food. And finally, randomizing food R+ at a distance and close in. By doing this, your dog will learn to trust that the food reward will eventually come from anywhere at anytime if they just focus on the task. Using the Zen game as an example, the beginning behavior is: “make eye contact with me while food is immediately present”.

The key then, over time, is to ask for more difficult behaviors and chains of duration while increasing distance from the food. Once the behavior is completed, the dog is released to go and get the reward wherever it is. This can vary from a stationary food target, to tossing or feeding directly from your hand, or even multiple food targets and sending to a different target for each reward. Many of us do a version of this at trials, as in “let’s run to the crate for your jackpot” after the ring performance is complete. The difference in training this systematically by appropriately raising criteria over time, is that it builds confidence and focus on the task at hand. The food becomes tertiary to the game rather than the game being a means to the end (food). In order for this to be effective you will need to train a reliable “release to reward” on cue immediately following your mark or click.  AND, you should praise and interact with your dog after the mark and before releasing to food. I use “get it” after the mark and point to the target wherever it is, and then I continue praise while my dog is being rewarded with food; bridging praise with food increases the value of praise alone as reinforcement. Obviously this is a very general description of the process, and the specifics will vary depending upon your chosen sport and the required behaviors. But just as food can be a bridge to a relationship that stands on its own, it should also be a bridge to building a reliable and independent performance. In any case, the food should be faded as you interact and connect during progressively longer behavior chains in the ring. How  you personally interact and connect depends on many variables which you will have to determine based upon the sport, your dog, and you.

As always, the fundamentals and methodology are key to learning and teaching:

  • Take baby steps and raise criteria appropriately
  • Be accurate with your timing of marking and R+.
  • Always accentuate the positive and ignore the mistakes.
  • Praise after the mark to enhance the value of praise as reinforcement with the food.
  • Don’t be a robot! Be sincere and engaging when training.

Train with a smile or don’t train at all. And above all do no harm.



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