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Assess the Dog...

WHY Should You Use Treats as Rewards?

Lots of people think that using treats as reinforcement is a 'copout'... that it's somehow *cheating* at the Training Game.  It's not.  Using food treats as reinforcement, if you HAVE to look at training as a way of 'keeping score', is more like "leveling the playing field".  You can't TELL a dog what you want him to do, so you have to devise a way of SHOWING him not just WHAT you like, but HOW MUCH you like it.  Food rewards give you a way to do that. 


Try this to illustrate what I mean:  with a friend, take turns teaching each other how to do something.  Put a piece of tape across both mouths, so neither of you talk. You can choose a word or hand signal to represent this thing you're teaching, but it can't be the word that all humans associate with it (for example, 'cup' means 'down').  In addition, I want you to show them HOW MUCH you like their attempts (remember the game from childhood "hot/cold"?)  How hard is it to get your idea across?  If you use a piece of cheese to lure, is it easier?


And, if you're wondering "Why food?  Why not toys, or walks, or car rides, or access to other dogs?" it's only because food is the one thing that your dog will immediately accept, and the easiest to manipulate...  if you've known your dog for awhile, and already tried training using correction, you might have to have some help starting out... because unless you have perfect or near-perfect timing, it's easy to damage trust when improperly-timed corrections are applied.  I'll help you, don't worry. If your dog has NO training history with you (if he's a rescue, for example), it's easier, believe it or not, even if they have a history with harsh training methods.  If it's a puppy, you have a nice clean slate to work with, yay!!  The point is, the training and methodology are relatively easy to learn, and you don't have to learn to train ALL dogs... just yours.  You can stop reading after learning the basics, and your dog will have the basic manners stuff... maybe just get someone (hint, hint) to show you how to tweak things.  You can incorporate those other reinforcements later, after you've both learned the Rules to the Game.  In fact, once your dog figures out what you want (and you do, too!) it's recommended that you use ALL those other forms of reinforcement... because you won't always have food on your person to offer as reinforcement.  You don't HAVE to learn to do this.... you can just reward with food for the rest of his life.  There are options.

What About Praise?

I'm a talker.  I cannot seem to keep my mouth shut, even when training.  But using praise as a training tool by itself is ineffective... if you combine praise with food rewards, though, it can be really effective. So, I use a combination of praise and food rewards when I start training with a dog, to get the point across that THIS is what I like.   Over time, pairing the 2 forms of reinforcement WILL increase the value of the praise reward, but you'll NEVER see me use ONLY praise if I have anything else to offer... because praise is a weaker form of reinforcement, when compared to other forms.  I always try to arm myself with the tools that will skew the odds in favor of the quickest learning, and that means using the reinforcement that will get the job done quickly.  Praise will not teach AS EFFICIENTLY as other forms of reinforcement, by itself.

Starting Out: Assessing your Dog's Eagerness to Accept Treats

First: will he take a hand-delivered treat?


The first assessment that I have to make when deciding what treats to use when meeting a dog for the first time is how the dog responds to hand-delivered treats.  If he takes treats from the hand, then I can quickly ascertain his stress level based on his body language and how hard his bite is by gently and carefully introducing my fingers into his mouth with the treats.  Basically, the harder he bites on my fingers, the more stressed he is (and rightly so, he doesn't know me!)   This initial 'bitiness' gives me a starting point, so that I can compare our progress week to week... the hardness of bite will lessen over time, as he becomes more comfortable with me (note that I'm only talking about 'bite' as defined as teeth hitting skin... if there's blood involved, it's a different matter).  If he balks at taking treats from my hands, then I find another way to deliver the treats that will get things rolling (like tossing the treat on the floor) and move to teaching him to associate the treats with me, affecting what's called a Changed Emotional Response.  This process is a longer-term process, but it's one of the side effects (fall-out) of using this type of training... it's the first step in teaching him to be happy to see me, which helps to lay the groundwork for all the rest of the work.  When I've taught the dog to take from my hands, then I can work on assessing how hard his bite is... there are lots of times (because dogs are individuals) that you have to 'work around' quirks.  It's part of the process.

A dog who refuses hand-delivered treats has to be handled in the opposite manner at first -- use really good treats , like bits of cheese or liverwurst, and work with the dog when he's hungry. You may find it necessary, once he finds out just how good the treats are (and that your hands do not pose a threat) to switch methods. Start by tossing the treat on the floor, away from you, rather than using hand delivery. This will give the dog a chance to trust in the reward system, and to understand that his taking the reward is met with praise -- it will allow you to build a reward history, from the moment you begin working with him. When he is confident in taking the treat at a distance from you, then begin offering the treat from successively closer distances -- it will help, if you are seated, rather than towering over him. When you can offer the treat by simply laying it on the floor next to your hand, you can begin offering by putting the treat in your palm, laying the back of your fist on the floor, and opening your hand -- allow the dog to take the treat, even if he snaps for it! With your hand so closely involved in the delivery, he may feel it necessary for awhile to move quickly -- if you close your fist, it could startle him, or even cause him to inadvertently nip your fingers -- allow him to become comfortable. Once he becomes comfortable with this, the time is right to begin on the manners part -- the same way as before -- closed fisted offerings.

Second, HOW does he take hand-delivered treats?


When you're working with a dog in lots of locations and situations, it's easiest to use food rewards, so it's important that the dog be assessed for HOW they take hand-delivered treats. I first teach the dog to accept hand-delivered treats -- all of my dogs are taught this -- it seems that they are either on one end of the spectrum or the other: either it seems that they're trying to include everything up to the elbow as a part of the offering (they are 'grabby', often raking your fingers with the teeth), or they refuse altogether. Depending on how poorly they've been handled, teaching acceptance of treats in itself can be quite a feat! At either end of this spectrum, the dogs have to be taught that 1) the treat is forthcoming, and 2) hands are NOT for hurting -- something that many of these dogs haven't had the opportunity to learn.

What Treats to Use?  Before or After Meals?

What treats to use? That depends on how the dog reacts to the initial offering: if he's snappy with treats, you want something a little less tempting to start with -- try dry kibble. Also -- and this is important -- with a snappy dog, work with him at first when he ISN'T hungry. Hold a single piece in the palm of your hand, make a fist around it, and hold your hand under the dog's nose with the back of your hand toward the ceiling. Get the dog's attention by saying his name, say the word "easy!", and wait for him to STOP MUGGING your hand.... slowly turn your hand over, with the treat slowly becoming exposed. I've found that the best method is to kind of "grip" the kibble in the folds of the palm of your hand -- it forces the dog to use its lips more, rather than teeth. If he lunges for it, quickly make a fist, say "uh-uh -- easy!", and try again after regaining his attention. He will very quickly come to understand that he only gets the treat when he takes it politely.  Seriously, it usually takes less than 10 repetitions to get this... practice it every day until he just sits and looks at you when you present the hand this way... then, start using other people, so that he learns this with everyone.

What is Reward History??

Reward history is what determines level of trust... any time that you teach Anything to Anyone (dog, cat, kid, hubby, neighbor) you make a series of associations between you and the methodology you choose to teach the lesson.  This is important because this is how your dog learns to TRUST.  Trust in rewards, trust in the Rules, trust in YOU.  And, just like there is 'negative fall-out' associated with correction-based training, there is Positive Fall-out associated with positive reinforcement training... and when your dog starts to develop a Reward History, he'll start to understand that the Rules Have Changed... and you can see it happen.  They'll KNOW that there is a reward coming, because they TRUST in this, and you... their eyes are soft, and they're HAPPY.  

When to Get Rid of the Rewards

Rewards are tools, just like the clicker is a tool, the baby gate is a tool, the stationary board is a tool, the leash is a tool... over time, as the dog (and you) learn, you'll need them less and less, so you'll be able to fade them out.  As you and your dog learn the progression, you'll see that you'll be able to reinforce already-known behaviors less (or with toys, walks, car rides, etc), or only when you want to 'tweak' them (behavior isn't static, it can change over time, so you might have to 'touch up').  You'll reward one behavior less with food, but start teaching a new behavior at the same time, so it'll be rewarded with food.  It really does work this way.

Learn Why Rewards are Important

Here's a way to look at it: if I'm hungry, just about anything I eat will serve to 'take the edge off' my hunger, and so will serve as a reward for many behaviors... but, my absolute favorite food is cheesecake -- most especially, the pumpkin cheesecake made at a certain bakery a couple of towns over (and my hubby knows this).  If I have just eaten my favorite lasagna (from a restaurant a couple of towns in the other direction), that cheesecake won't be as rewarding as it would have been if I were hungry... in fact, I might even turn up my nose at the cheesecake if I'm already full.  This is another aspect to think about, when deciding how to stack the behavior deck in your favor.  You might consider going to half-rations in your dog's food bowl, then using that other half as reinforcement throughout the day in a training session.  If you're working with more distracting circumstances (like strange dogs or kids running and squealing), then maybe work before a meal, and use a better (liverwurst-y) kind of treat, rather than kibble, which is lower value.

When considering all of this, you start to understand why it's not just a matter of grabbing up whatever treat you find in the checkout at the local pet store, huh?

Brenda Rushman, CCBC

Get Rid of Rewards...
Situational Rewards...


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