In this mini-series of posts, I am exploring in more depth how we can teach the dog to work through distractions. AKA train him to come back when he’s called, no matter what! If your dog won't take treats when working outside, this post is for you!
In Part 1 I outlined the different components influencing learning and choice of behaviour (The ABC’s) and focussed on how we can manipulate the outcome or Consequence of a behaviour to strengthen it.
If you missed it, or want to refresh your memory – you can read Part 1 here:
For Part 2, I am going to dive a little deeper into one component of the consequences influencing the dog’s current and future choices – the rewards we use, or more specifically their value.
I’ve talked previously about the fact that it is the dog that determines what he finds rewarding. (You can read about that HERE, but come back afterwards!) But as with most things in life, including dog training, it’s a little bit more complicated than that.
The value of a reward is really judged by the dog at the time. It is tied in with their motivations i.e. what will be the consequence/reward in that set of circumstances (the things preceding the behaviour or Antecedents).
In any situation, the dog is (probably) weighing up the following, although not necessarily in this order:
1. Which action do I have most experience and therefore most likely known positive outcome for?
2. All things being equal – which behaviour will get me the most valuable reward? Going to say ‘hi’ to another dog and having a game of chase; or getting a few words of luke-warm verbal praise for returning to my human?
3. Which action will ensure my safety?
I covered number one in the previous post (Part 1). That comes down to training. The more repetitions of something, the more likely it is to become the behaviour of choice. The more you practice, the better you get.
In terms of value of reward, we know every dog has preferences for the ‘category’ of reward e.g. food, toys, social interaction. Often that also has a link with breed type, but not always. It’s useful to know what that scale is for your dog, so you know what is going to keep him coming back for more, and what will cause him to blow you off for something ‘better’. So of course, if he loves to play tug, you might create a stronger reinforcement history by using a tug toy as a reward for recall.
The obvious problem is that it’s not always convenient to use his absolute favourite. Probably best not to reward your pup for sitting calmly while waiting to cross the road with a ball game. And that’s often why we use food as the ‘go to’ reward. Food is easy to use and carry, and small pieces provide lots of opportunities for repetition during training.
However, I’ve lost count of the number of people who tell me their dog is not motivated by food. Sorry, but it is just not that black and white. Every dog is motivated by food to some degree, because it is essential to their survival, in the long term. Having said that, lots of people find their dogs won’t take food treats when they are outside, away from home or in a more distracting environment.
It’s the circumstances and motivation in the short term that are going to dictate whether the specific food in question is rewarding/worth the behaviour in that moment.
If your dog doesn’t take food when outside, first try the following:
Adjust the relative value of the food you are using
I’d perform (or at least attempt) a handstand for a Curly Wurly – but never try to feed me chocolate with peanuts in. I’d rather starve!
The mistake some people make is in assuming all food is of equal value to the dog. The very first thing to consider is – can I give food of a higher value? Research shows that dogs prefer meat/animal protein over other food groups. They even prefer things that ‘smell’ of meat. So make sure your treats have a high meat/protein content. 100% meat is obviously the highest value.
Introduce elements of his favourite activity using the food
Can you introduce some element of what the dog loves into the delivery of the food?
For example, throwing treats for dogs that love to chase introduces an extra reward as they get a little internal hunting/chasing buzz as well as the food. (The neat thing about this is that over time the value of the chasing gets transferred to the food too!)
Make it easy to eat!
When dogs become emotionally aroused, their physiology changes to prepare for potential action. In the early stages of arousal, or at a low intensity, it is possible to encourage the dog to take on board the treat if you make it easier to consume. Huge, crunchy biscuits are far too difficult. He’s much more likely to turn his nose up or spit it out. (Even though in other circumstances he can destroy a stuffed toy in seconds!) To make it as easy as possible, go for small, single bite sized pieces. Make them soft so no chewing or crunching is required. Small pieces of cooked meat work well here. (Are you sensing a theme? 😊)
Still not eating?
As described above, dogs who become alert/aroused in a situation, whether that is because they are concerned or excited, do not function in the same way as relaxed, engaged dogs. Energy, blood flow, oxygen and hormonal activity are diverted away from digestion and other bodily maintenance functions and are put into what is often described as the ‘fight or flight’ response. The dog is literally, although not consciously, preparing to either run away or deal with a threat or run towards and interact with the thing from which he will get pleasure. How fast can I run away from this huge dog? How fiercely can remove the threat of the person trying to grab my collar by biting them? How quickly can I get to that game of football?
If the dog is still not taking treats (or indeed responding at all to you) – you are getting the biggest piece of information about his motivation. He is way too concerned about his safety/desire to get to the distraction.
No amount or value of food or any other reward will help here – and you will never get to bank any successful repetitions to build the history of positive outcomes in that context.
Move him away from the situation and return to the training plan. Train in much less intense/arousing situations where he will take the food for more repetitions for now. Build that history. Then slowly increase the intensity of the distraction.
Now we’re getting into how we manipulate the Antecedents, the things that occur before a dog performs a behaviour, and that’s a story for another day and another blog post…
Watch this space for Part 3 - Managing the environment.
For easy-to-make, high value training treats: Grab your FREE recipe book here!
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