I use treats when i exercise. My customers too. With positive reinforcement training having more than 25 years of experience in the canine world (backed by studies confirming its effectiveness), the use of treats in training has become widely accepted and recognized.
However, there are times when you can’t use goodies. Your dog may not be particularly motivated by food. Perhaps there is a medical reason your dog cannot have food right now. Or maybe (horror!) Run out of treats. The good news is that food isn’t the only form of reinforcement we can use in training. There are a number of other ways you can improve your dog’s behavior.
NOT LIFE MOTIVATED?
The fact is, all dogs need to be food-motivated to at least some degree or else they will really starve. We all have to eat to live.
But it’s true: some dogs are more interested in food than others: Labrador Retrievers are notorious for being “food dogs”. A recent study found that this breed is more likely to have a very high interest in food because of its specific gene mutation linked to food obsession. (Flat-coated retrievers have it too, but it wasn’t found in any other breed.) Even so, all dogs need to eat, so the first questions we need to ask are:
* Why is my dog no longer interested in treat training?
* Are there things I can do to increase my dog’s interest in training treats?
* If I can’t get him to care more about treats, or if for some reason he can’t have treats right now, or if I’ve inexplicably gone out, are there any other boosters I can use in my exercise program?
There are several reasons why your dog may not seem motivated by food while exercising:
* Medical causes. We always want to consider and rule out or treat or contribute to any possible medical causes for a conduct disorder, including anorexia. If your dog really has little to no interest in food if you haven’t already, please discuss this with your veterinarian as soon as possible. There is a long list of possible medical reasons your dog may not be interested in food, and some of them are very serious.
* Treats are of little value to your dog. You may have heard the suggestion to use your dog’s regular nibbles for training. This might work well for a lab and other food-focused dogs, but nibbles may be too boring for dogs that aren’t that into food.
* Easily bored of your high quality enjoyment. Some dogs get bored with large numbers of the same delicious treats (or just too full to care too much). Prepare yourself for a list of treats your dog finds valuable, and switch to a different one when his interest in one wears off.
Most dogs love chicken (baked, boiled, or thawed strips of frozen chicken), and yet at our academies we often see dogs getting tired of having been trained with treats throughout the day. Other treats dogs love are roast beef, cheese, cooked hamburgers, meatballs, peanut butter squirted out of a tube, ham, baby food – the list is endless. When your dog is less excited about food, your list of potential high-quality treats needs to be longer.
* Your dog can be easily distracted or there are too many or too distracting distractions in the area. If your dog is on the easy to moderate end of the continuum of food interests, environmental distractions can serve to distract his or her cravings for treats, especially if he is easily distracted and / or if you haven’t done your homework to generalize their behavior on various Places. If this is the case with your dog, try higher quality treats and / or do more exercise in a less distracting environment before moving on to more distractions. (Your yard seems perfect – but not with squirrels racing around the trees or the neighbour’s dogs barking at you through the fence.)
* Your dog is not hungry. This is a concept completely alien to the average Labrador, but many dogs who aren’t as crazy about food as the lab will be less enthusiastic about working for treats once they’ve just finished a meal. This is a simple solution: schedule your training sessions before meals, not after meals, and don’t feed your dog right before training.
* Your dog is stressed. This is one of the most overlooked reasons dogs turn up their noses at their training treats. For survival reasons, it is biologically appropriate for their appetite to decrease when your dog is stressed. When the brain signals “danger”, the last thing an organism should take – if it wants to survive – is to take a break to eat. The part of the brain that controls appetite is turned off until the danger is over.
If your dog is reluctant to take treats because he’s stressed out, you may be able to tempt him with higher quality treats. The best solution, however, is figuring out how to relieve the stress – or at least get enough of it for it to do so happy eat again. (When she can normally handle gently, but gets off in a stressful situation Not If she gets the goodies blindly grabbing at the food, sometimes shaking hands, her stress level is still too high for effective learning. keep moving away from the stressor.)
Sometimes a dog learns to manage (she just gets used to) its stressor by getting used to it, although a concerted effort to condition and desensitize it to the stressor is more effective and quicker. (See “Counter-conditioning and Desensitization”, WDJ March 2020.)
In some cases, behavior modification drugs are appropriate if the dog’s stress persists. This will require further discussion with your veterinarian. If your veterinarian lacks behavioral skills, they can schedule a phone appointment with a veterinary behavioral scientist to determine which medications are right for your dog. Your veterinarian can find a list of certified veterinary behavioral researchers at dacvb.org/search.
One of the great things about using food as a reinforcement in training is that the dog can eat the treat quickly and move on to the next behavior immediately. But anything that your dog perceives as “good stuff” can theoretically be used as reinforcement. For example, playing is an excellent, very powerful “other” reinforcer for many (but not all) dogs. Note, however, that other reinforcers will take more time to deliver and regroup and are more likely to disrupt the flow of training.
Now that the use of food in exercise is so widespread, it’s easy to forget that there is Variety other ways to enhance your dog’s behavior.
The definition of a reinforcer is “something that causes behavior to increase”. In positive reinforcement training, we teach our dogs that certain behaviors cause “good things” (reinforcers), so that our dogs learn to offer these behaviors to make good things possible.
Food is what we call a primary enhancer, which means it has innate value to the dog. Dogs don’t have to learn to like food. You are born in search of breast milk. A scratch under the chin feels good – it’s innate value – so that’s another primary reinforcer.
Oral praise, however, is a secondary Amplifier; It gains value by connecting with a primary enhancer like treats, arousal and scratches under the chin. Toys are also a secondary amplifier. They gain in value through their association with the predatory chase. (Doubt? Have you never met a dog who was initially mystified and not interested in toys, but learned to play with them over time?)
USING A NON-FOOD AMPLIFIER
If you want (or need to) use other enhancers as food in your training, first make a list of all the other things your dog loves. Here are some potential non-food enhancers:
• Tennis balls or balls with a pleasantly muddy texture
• Squeaky toys
• Play tug
• Play “Chase Me” games
• Ride a car (a major pleasure for some dogs, an aversive for others; know your dog!)
• Leash walks
• Walking on a leash
• Swimming (again it is important to know your dog; some hate water!)
• Perform a favorite trick for a grateful audience
For each item on this list, write down how you can potentially use it as a reinforcement in your exercise program. Some are easier than others. Here are some examples:
* Use sniffing to reinforce polite walking on your dog’s leash. Politely let your dog walk with you for a reasonable amount of time (short enough for him to be successful!), Then give him a release cue and say, “Sniff!” (This works especially well at first if you let her say “Go sniff” if you know you are near something she would like to sniff.)
* Use the tug to reinforce your dog’s “stay”. Let your dog stay for as long as they can (set them up for success!), Return to your dog, mark them for stay, provide your release note, and invite them to pull.
Remember to pause different time periods before your release cue so that it doesn’t anticipate the release. You can even remind them to stay, hold up the tugboat, put it behind your back and hold it up several times so that the mere sight of the tugboat does not become an occasion to break away. This is a great impulse control exercise, by the way.
* Use a squeaky toy to encourage and encourage sitting and sitting movements. To curl a seat, hold the toy over your dog’s head like a treat. When she sits, squeak and throw the toy. To attract a down, slowly move the toy towards the floor and squeak and toss when it lies down. If that doesn’t work, move the toy under your knee or a stool so that she lies down to crawl for the toy. When she does, squeak and throw.
* Use a tennis ball to reinforce your dog’s recall. She comes when you call, you mark her for coming and then throw the ball so she can hunt. If she’s one of those who won’t bring it back, you’ll have several balls within easy reach so you can call her back and throw the next ball when she comes. If you want her to sit in front of you as part of your callback, wait for her to sit before tagging and throwing.
Now take your own list of enhancers and write down scenarios to incorporate into your training program. You will likely find some reinforcements that are inconvenient for training (e.g. the dog who loves to roll in deer faeces), but you should end up with a bevy of options!
If you want to use secondary boosters that your dog is not yet excited about, you can “charge up” them by associating them with something your dog already loves. If you want your dog to be happier with your verbal praise, praise him repeatedly, then toss his beloved ball so he can combine praise with the joy of chasing a squeaky ball. If she’s not crazy about driving, take short car trips that always end in a wonderful place (like the swimming hole if she loves to swim).
You have the idea. Whether or not your dog is not taking treats, if you look for and build a good long list of other high quality options, you will always be ready to empower your dog for appropriate and desired behaviors. She will love you even more for it.