Food Rules, or does it?

I am simply a hobby trainer who enjoys teaching my dogs (and letting them teach me!) as we play in various dog activities. I also enjoy learning as much as I can and sharing with others who also have this passion. Obviously titles and ribbons are an extrinsic human reward, and as the human half of the team I do occasionally enjoy that tangible that can only come through organized competition. But honestly, the true reward for me happens in every single training session when I am inevitably rewarded by some kind of epiphany. This experience with our dogs is a God given miracle that I am grateful for everyday. However as mere humans, motivating our canine partners on this journey that we choose for them can be quite interesting and challenging. And it seems we never tire of trying to figure out the best ways to do this!

As a positive reinforcement, force free trainer I rely on using food to teach, particularly in the early stages of introducing new behaviors. Food gets results, and fast. But using food properly to obtain reliable and predictable results when there is no food present, is an issue which many people struggle with and never get past. And, when used properly, food should enhance and build relationship, not diminish or marginalize it in anyway.

In thinking about my own evolution as a crossover trainer I realized over the years (decades at this point) that my own “food rules” continue to evolve. I have learned from my own personal experience, formal education. and most definitely from others-some famous, some not- and all invaluable. I learned that through training my dog I could realize a cooperative partnership-a real working partnership that goes far beyond being the provider of food and life’s other necessities.Teamwork, communication, mutual respect and trust-all of this comes through positive force free training methods.

So for those who may have interest, I have attempted here to articulate my rules for personal relationship and using food rewards in training.

Relationship rules:

1) If my dog makes an error in training, I know that I need to change what I am doing. In all fairness to my dogs, I can’t expect my dog to be perfect if I am not a perfect trainer. So I ask myself, did I communicate effectively to my dog? Did I teach that behavior with crystal clear and appropriate criteria? Was my cuing flawless? etc., etc. I never blame my dogs for my own inadequacies as a human teacher/trainer. I just try to do better!

2) I never ignore a dog ‘s request for affection or attention, even if only a brief interaction. If I need them out of my way for any reason, they are put in their own safe area of the house and given some other pleasant distraction or toy to occupy them.

3) Baby talk prevails in most of our dog-human conversations.

4) I only train if I am in a good mood! I never train if I am not in a good mood. Funny thing is, just thinking about it will usually lift my spirits and put me in the proper frame of mind act on it. That is the benefit of positive training-no negative associations allowed, it’s all good!

5) I never forget that training dogs is a privilege. I appreciate my dogs allowing me to teach, play and otherwise interact with them. They make my life better so I strive to do the same for them. They have little else in their life so it is up to us to make the very best of it!

6) My dogs love to learn because it is fun and only good things happen- attention, food, play, fresh air, etc. My dogs are never forced or intimidated into doing anything. I make sure that they have nothing to fear and feel safe. They have everything to gain by interacting with me and they are willing partners because they are comfortable with me.

7) But- try as I might, there are still times when a rabbit racing by or a pile of cow manure in our path proves more of an attraction than anything I can offer! A different part of the canine brain kicks in there, so I never take offense. After all, they are dogs! I just see those circumstances as training challenges, and if all else fails I just manage the environment to the best of my ability. It’s all good!

Food rules:

1) I feed most meals by hand-always talking, interacting or training at meal time. (This also helps prevents or minimize resource guarding and bolting of food.)

2) I often use the meal as training time, so the meal is portioned out as reinforcement. I feed the remainder meal after the session has ended, no matter how it went. Withholding a primary necessity of life is not something I will do. It is both unjust and cruel. Furthermore, the dog has no idea why a meal would be withheld.

3) When teaching new behaviors I allow the dog to focus on the task-which means I minimize talking and  focus on criteria, timing, and reinforcement. This where I find food to be most valuable-it is easy to deliver, has wide variety, and if used efficiently should not distract from learning or become a “bribe” or crutch.

4) As the behavior becomes stronger, I begin to use more personal interaction along with the food reinforcement-praise and play, etc. This is how I begin to bridge the performance with personal interaction and put less emphasis on the food.

5) As the behavior becomes fluent I begin to randomize the food +R and use more and more of myself in the form of verbal and physical praise.

6) I only use food when my dogs are hungry-either at meal time or a distance from meal time.

7) I also use toys when appropriate, and randomize food +R or use no food at all.

8) I vary food rewards, often using the lowest value of food that I can get results with. That is, I do not pull out the beef , chicken or baby food when their usual premuim dog food or something like cheese or cheerios will do. Away from home it will vary depending upon the fluency and difficulty of behavior and the environment. Keep it interesting and appropriately valuable for the task and environment at hand.

11) For teaching focus on the task, food should not be visible in your hand until after your mark/click. This is a difference between “bribe” and reward. Exceptions: In the case of luring a new behavior, food lure in your hand should be faded after 3-5 repetitions. With shaping, the presence of food drives behavior but it still must be faded out of sight once the behavior is fluent.

12) My dogs understand that food is not available without permission (hand feed, “ZEN” game teaches this). No grabbing, “mugging” or jumping up for food without permission, a “release to food” cue (my cue is “get it”).

13) I use food targets (or reward stations) to get the food off of me once a behavior is fluent. Ask for the behavior, or string of behaviors, praise, play, touch, etc., then send  to the target for the food reward. Targets are a great tool to bridge personal interaction and food rewards.

15) I generalize behaviors by taking everything I do at home “on the road”. Then in each new location, start over with +R for every repetition, and lower criteria. Build up again.


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