I give food to my dogs for all sorts of reasons. I use food to teach or maintain behaviors. I use food to address emotional issues. I give food because I have some, we are interacting in a pleasant way, and I like to share! I use a lot of food in training.
So what do I not do?
I do not give cookies for months or years on end simply for being alive in a working space. Instead I place them in a crate or use an endurance behavior that they understand and perform easily. Part of enjoying a trained dog is the fact that they are trained. If I cannot do anything else when my dog is in the vicinity because I have to keep feeding my dog, then the training is not working.
I do not give my dog twenty cookies for being quiet in their crate and then expect them to work enthusiastically for one cookie when it’s their turn. If food flows fast and free for behaviors that should be an expectation before being used practically, and then handlers show stinginess when asking their dogs to focus and work hard, then it should come as no particular surprise when the dog checks out in training. Hey, if your dog is lucky, you’ll put them back in the crate, and the food will start raining in again! It should be obviously better for your dog when working than when doing nothing. Switch up that Twenty to One ratio! How about one cookie when doing nothing, and twenty when working?
I do not give my dogs cookies when I am setting up for another exercise. I don’t think asking a dog to perform a one minute down stay is too much while I do other things. Is that a reasonable goal for a dog? To hold a one minute down stay while you talk to your instructor, move equipment, or decide what you want to work on next? I think so. I am not rewarding that down stay, because when I get the dog up and ask them to think and work hard, I want them to look forward to that! To be able to tell the difference. The reward for the down stay is an opportunity to work again. And if they get up? I put them back. And if they get up again? I put them in their crate; their behavior tells me they are not ready. I need to work on that down stay; probably in an easier environment first. Since dogs tend to prefer a down stay to going back to their crate, it works fine.
This is all a part of crispness is in training. If you’re not sure what I mean by crisp, search back in this blog and you will find a couple of recent blogs to get you on your way.
If you use food as a constant management tool and you look suspiciously like a Pez dispenser, and if your dog is struggling to give you what you want within work, or if you feel like your dog cannot manage the most simple management or endurance behaviors without constant feeding, it’s time to rethink what you are doing. You can train your dog and have expectations! If it matters to you, address it. If you don’t care, well… I don’t care either! Just be sure you don’t care.
Every time you hand over a cookie ask yourself, exactly what is this cookie for? What is the unit of effort your dog is putting out to earn it? My dogs only get cookies when they put out a unit of effort unless I am managing a specific situation.
Good training assumes raising criteria so your dog expects to give a “full unit of effort” for a reinforcer. If you have been at the same criteria for weeks or months or years, I guarantee you your dog is not putting out a unit of effort. Or if they are, your training needs to be reconsidered because it is not working.
If you decide to incorporate these ideas or make changes to your training, let me know in the comments!