Training with Food
Authors: Julie Van Schie & Kay Laurence
The Power and Problem of Training with Food
“Ouch! NO!” echoes across the training room.
While my instruction “Ask your dog to sit” is easily done, giving the food reinforcer presents a far greater challenge! “Snappy-dors” is my name for those dogs who arrive at class with enormous enthusiasm and hasty mouths. Their owners’ fingers are fair game in the rush to devour their prize.
Dogs Love Food.
That is why it is such a powerful reinforcer: they want it and we have it. What they do to get it is the basis of training using food. As with most things in life pros come hand in hand with cons; the desire to have food may lead to leaping, biting, pushing and demanding. If not dealt with, this can begin a battle between the trainer and the dog. The dog does what he knows to access the food, and the trainer does what she knows to stop the dog behaving this way. An endless cycle of poor communication and frustration follows, created because neither knows what to do.
Leave It! … Is There a Better Way?
More and more owners are turning towards methods that create motivation and build confidence. Classes that teach positive reinforcement methods are filling quickly. Beginner pet dog owners to more experienced trainers want enthusiastic learners with a library of behaviours built on trust and friendship.
To deal with the problem of food mugging there are a number of protocols designed around the misconception of teaching the dog “self” or “impulse” control. The dog is offered what it perceives as an opportunity to get food only to fail in its attempt. That failure is then reinforced with a click and food.
Is it best training practice to set our dogs up to fail in order to learn?
Food Snatching is taught by people …. Oops.
Pups often learn to lunge and grab offered food. In the interest of preserving our fingers we are inclined to pull back just as we see those very sharp puppy teeth opening for the bite.
That action of “pull-back” encourages the lunge forward.
To avoid this all puppies should take treats from open hands, not from the finger tips, with lots of practise to learn good eye-mouth co-ordination.
One of the most important things I have learned is that training outcomes, including failures, are my responsibility. As the teacher it is my job to set up learning that most clearly lays out the path to success.
What is missing in the self-control or Leave It protocols is an examination of our own skills. What are WE doing to cause our fingers to be bitten? How are we teaching, or what have we failed to teach that triggers our dogs to mug us for food? What do we need to understand and to do better?
Using food is a GREAT choice in training. Most dogs are highly motivated to work for it. On the surface it sounds easy: do a behaviour – give a piece of food, but the reality is that it takes skill to do it well.
Delivering the Food Well
Developing a clear, consistent and predictable food delivery pattern is the first step in the prevention of struggles with food. If the dog knows how and when the food will arrive, all he has to do is to wait for it. When Merlin was a pup this was one of the first skills I taught him and now, despite being a breed with a very long nose, he is very gentle when taking food.