Training with food and relationship, (My grandmother’s chicken and dumplings!)

Yes, I will be guilty of anthropomorphizing here. But my grandmother’s chicken and dumplings were the inspiration many years ago when I had the light bulb moment and became a cross over trainer. As early as I can remember, my grandmother (we called her Nannie) always made chicken and dumplings when we came to visit. It became my most favorite dish on earth, and still is to this day. I am nearly 60 now, and Nannie is long gone from this earth, but to this day I never eat chicken and dumplings (I have her recipe!) without feeling the love and remembering my Nannie who made that special dish for me. It was only an extrinsic reward, but it served as one of many reinforcements to our loving relationship. As Nannie grew older and could no longer cook for me, food of course did not matter. I loved spending time with her no matter what because we had the history of reinforced love between us. Our relationship was all that  mattered.

So we recently had a discussion in a trainers group about reinforcers, and of course there are many different perspectives here regarding food dependency in training and performance. In this particular discussion, the self -labeled “balanced trainers” said that clicker/+R training is solely about food and nothing more-a bribe as such. They also claimed that many dogs are not food motivated anyway. They did however see the value in training new behaviors with positive reinforcement-but they also believe that once the dog “knows the behavior”, corrections are in order when not performing properly on “command” .  So, the “balanced trainers” use food and +R in the learning stages, but then justify corrections later on when they have decided that the dog should be error-free. Of course that idea is all based upon the notion that as trainer/handler they are always perfect, so therefore the dog should also be perfect, or “be corrected for being wrong”. To quote Susan Garrett, “When you correct a dog, you are actually punishing him for your poor training.”  Yes!

The other side of the food dependency issue is that it can undermine relationship as the priority. I agree that food can certainly become problematic when used in training with no strategy or emphasis on relationship in the process. But when properly used, by prioritizing personal engagement along with strategic marking and food reinforcement, I maintain that food can and should be an enhancement to learning and relationship-not instead of. Food is ever present and necessary in our lives, and as humans it is not limited to being a primary reinforcer, (i.e. simply eat to live). It is also an event, a pleasure and enhancement to life, and a reinforcer of relationships as such (the chicken and dumplings).  It is a huge part of our everyday socialization and family relationships. We shop for and prepare meals together, enjoy the time spent eating together, eat out for fun and entertainment. The association of anything with food, including work and a relationship, can be very powerful-conscious or not.

I also want to emphasize here that most dogs are at least potentially food motivated. As Bob Bailey has said, “any animal that is not food motivated is dead”. As one of the most powerful motivators for all living beings, it is rare not to be motivated by food when it is used properly in the training process. And I am not referring to “nothing in life is free”-as in having the dog work for every morsel of food they get. To quote Kathy Sdao, “plenty in life is free”! As it should be. My husband and I frequently share food with our dogs just for being cute, funny, or just because we are eating something that they want too (as long as it is not bad for them of course, and they know to wait politely). We also just talk to them and tell them how wonderful they are, while they sit on our laps. We play with toys and take them for walks. We comfort them during thunderstorms-and yes we use food then too! Our dogs don’t hear harsh words-they don’t need to. Some might say that our dogs are spoiled. But they are loved, happy and willing workers and enjoy our company. And food is only a part of that, as it is a part of everyday life. Personal interaction must be present to have a relationship. So while food may be ever present in +R training as such, that does not mean we cannot or do not have a personal relationship with our dogs. Not anymore than it does with the rest of our family with whom food is shared.

So here are just some things that I have learned (some quite incidentally) over the years with regard to incorporating food into my training and building the kind of relationship that I want with my dogs. Hopefully it carries over into performance as well. Nothing really new here, but maybe some good reminders for those who might read this:

  • Build and maintain the positive association with the food and you into everyday life: I always hand feed my dogs and we often train for meals. But even if not training, I always talk to them while they are eating from my hand. We have a little ritual for meals and in doing so, over time, meals became an event and socialization between us, however brief. I originally started this many years ago to keep my dogs from bolting their food-and the added benefits have been enormous! This takes me less than 10 minutes a day (about 5 minutes, twice a day). And it is not necessary to hand feed, but at least make the mealtime a special event by personally engaging and teaching your dog to enjoy your presence along with their meal.

In training:

  • Always pair food reinforcement with personal engagement. Prioritize your relationship, not the food. After the mark (or click), verbally praise and pet (if your dog enjoys touching, some do not) while delivering the food reinforcement. Associating your interaction with the food adds value to “you” as a reinforcer.
  • For food to have value, your dog must have an appetite. Do not overfeed your dog, and consider the food used during training as a part of the total daily ration.
  • Variation– In actual training I sometimes just use part of the regular meal, and sometimes other treats. Variation is key-even higher value switched to lower value often doesn’t seem to matter, just being different can add value from the dog’s perspective. New or difficult behaviors might benefit from an extra special treat-but some dogs can become fixated on the food if too high in value, so observe carefully and choose wisely.
  • Delivery technique: Keep the food out of your hand until after the mark or click. This is hard to do sometimes, but I do keep it in mind always. This keeps your dog task focused rather than food focused. (The exception here would be if you are shaping novel behaviors-where the presence of food actually drives the offering of behavior for dogs who know shaping. That’s another topic.)
  • Randomization of food rewards: Once your dog is consistent at performing a behavior on cue with a history of high rate of reinforcement (food and praise), begin to randomize the food. But still always praise and engage as part of reinforcement. The randomization of food with consistent personal engagement builds the bridge to performance in the ring, and most of all a positive relationship.
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Treibball and the competition obedience dog…no herding required!

Do you need competition obedience background to play treibball? No. The necessary skills can be trained within the context of the sport itself.  BUT the point is that if you are a competition obedience trainer and want to want to try a new sport that is very compatible with those skills in fun and creative new ways, try Treibball! I think you will appreciate and enjoy how much crossover training is involved.

My dogs and I have done lots of competition obedience and Rally over the years, and in training for Utility I came to appreciate what “distance work” really meant. After tons of reinforcement for heeling at my side and coming to front, I now had to teach my dogs that going away from me and taking direction at a 50 foot distance was also a good thing! Now for some dogs this comes easier than others. Some herding and hunting breeds are especially predisposed to working away from the handler. Not so for my 2 mixed breeds, which are a whippet mix and a “mystery” terrier mix. Training these two for distance work took some time, and it was worth it in the end. Over time they learned the go-outs with directed jumping and signals, etc. very well. And the key for me was to reinforce, reinforce, reinforce-“out there”- away from me-where they needed to be to do the exercises. For me, distance work is one of the most gratifying skills to train. It builds confidence and shows real teamwork to maintain that kind of attention and be able to work from afar.

Enter Treibball. Now we really needed to work on distance skills. Many who come into Treibball have herding and/or agility background. My dogs and I have neither (save for 2 agility titles, just enough to say that we “did it”). But having those utility go-outs made training the “send-away” to behind the balls a fairly easy transition. It took me a little while to figure out how I wanted to train what I refer to as the “clockface directionals”. But I have done that by envisioning a clockface and cueing accordingly for 3 O’clock or 9 O’clock, from the handler’s position at 6 O’clock. And retrieving…well, Treibball is basically a retrieving game, except the balls are pushed instead of being carried. Any of the obedience retrieve exercises- open dumbbell and utility directed glove retrieve- plus the directed jumping exercise, all provide a good foundation for teaching a selected ball drive. And the utility signal exercise and the open drop on recall provide skills needed for cueing positions behind the balls. And the recall to front- the perfect foundation for orientation to handler with the ball.

Are we fast and flashy on the treibball field? No, that’s just not our style. But we do get the job done and have fun doing it! It is most gratifying to utilize skills from another sport in a brand new and creative way. So while herding and agility can be a great fit with treibball, I have found that competition obedience by itself is also an excellent fit with treibball. I would also say the reverse-that Treibball would be an excellent foundation sport for any of the other sports mentioned, and fun for any dog and handler! Here is my 13 year old Abby, who is just learning Treibball after a lifetime of Rally and Obedience. Definitely not a herding dog!  http://youtu.be/FuZnC_ytpP0

Train your dog month!

January is National Train Your Dog Month. What fun to start off a new year thinking about training and improving your own skills and your dog’s. A great way is to try a new sport, or a new challenge within the sport you are already doing. For treibball this might mean to begin increasing distance, or add more balls, or work on ball control skills with challenging directionals. As long as your dog is ready for it, try a new challenge! One of my favorite  treibball training games is working corners-and during the cold months you can easily do this one in your house!

Corner game: Start by placing the ball in a corner with enough room for the dog to get behind it fairly easily. Click and reinforce any attempt by the dog to get behind the ball when you give your push cue. As they become confident getting behind the ball in the larger space, make the corner tighter and tighter until eventually the ball is right up against it. You want to shape your dog to use their nose to “dig” the ball away from wall with their nose/muzzle/head (but no paws allowed!) and then get their whole body behind it to push to you. Eventually you can transfer this game to corners all over your house, in between cabinets, etc. You can increase the sends from longer distances as you and your dog progress.

So have fun-play ball!

Treibball skills in a nutshell

So what are the elemental skills required to train and play treibball? Here is a brief summary:

Trainer skills include:

  • Cooperative working relationship with your dog
  • Positive reinforcement methodology
  • Good mechanics, clicker skills
  • Shaping, Targeting, Backchaining.

Dog Skills, Basic obedience:

  • Recall
  • Wait/stay
  • Sit, down
  • Heel position, right and left

More advanced obedience/distance  skills needed:

  • Send away/go out, to 35 feet and more
  • Distance wait, down, sit
  • Directionals- facing handler, and going away from handler
  • Walk up/on and wait

Specific Treibball skills:

  • Push ball- on cue, with good form and speed
  • Ball control
  • Ball selection on cue- back away, walk up, right, left, go on/out

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