Treats And Toys in Training

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Treats and Toys in Training

2015-04-13 08.43.22Most handlers begin to use food as a reward in training their puppies when they join a club. The reason why treats are used is because it is such an effective method. We do not have to teach a puppy to eat and the puppy easily connects the offer of food to the preceding action like coming when called. It has been said that food to dog is like money is to humans and as a result it is silly not to make use of it when you start training your dog.
Food is also very useful when we want to capture a position such as the “Sit.” By moving a treat over a dog’s nose and eyes we can easily get the pup to sit down without actually touching or pushing the dog. The moment the pup reaches a sitting position we introduce the word “Sit” and at the same time the handler immediately feeds him. Now is also the time for praising and petting.

The “Stay” can easily be taught by pausing a moment or two before rewarding. When the dog is sitting the handler gives the “Stay” command. He holds the treat higher over the dog’s head to provide a focus for the dog to keep still. After a short pause, “Good dog one” “Good dog two” he lowers his hand and feeds the dog. After a few repeats of the “Stay” command he releases the dog with an “OK!” and praise.

The problem with using food as a training method is sometimes due to handlers not fully understanding the correct use of administering food. Because they experience how effective it can be, they continue to use it in training long after they have taught a specific move or sequence. I often see even experienced dog trainers continue to treat their dogs every time they perform a task correctly. This leads the dog to understand that he is working for food and when the handler/owner does not have food he does not want to perform an exercise or does if reluctantly.

The use of food in dog training should normally follow three distinct phases. Firstly it is used as a lure so that the dog can see the treat in the handler’s hand. Secondly the treat is hidden in the handler’s fist. Even though the dog cannot see the treat, his nose will tell him that it is present. The dog will willingly follow the handler’s hand signals and at the same time continue to learn sign language. The rewarding of food is reduced to 50% of the time and is reserved for quick or smarter reaction time. Finally the treats are left in the treat bag which is somewhere on the handler’s person. The idea now is to wean the dog from its dependence on food. Each time the owner/ handler now praises the dog enthusiastically while hand caressing also takes place. If the handler is particularly pleases with the dog, he can now slip in a food treat as an extra reward for being so good. Food is not allowed in the obedience ring and dogs should not need it to perform.

Do read; “Praise and Reward”

What I and most professional dog trainers do, is to substitute the food with a ball to be used in more or less the same way as when food was used. But we now also kindle the prey drive which is innate in dogs and use it to our advantage in our training routine. However, because the dog is now so much more aroused than when food was used, the context is different. The dog may bark and leap up to try and get it himself. Again the ball is held out of reach above his head and a “Sit” command is given. The instant the dog sits; the handler throws the ball to the dog and allows him to play for a short while. When a ball is used and thrown, the training rhythm can be disrupted and the dog can run away with the toy. That is why individual work on a 5 m rope is ideal. The dog cannot get away and running in a circle adds spark and drive in training. With experience an ordinary leash is sufficient to control a dog while using a ball. The exercise can be repeated a few times before a release is given

What is happening is that we now can combine, retrieving and the intense excitement it brings to our obedience training.

Unfortunately, although nearly all dog owners at some stage or other do play ball with their dogs, they make the mistake of not making a proper game of it. Dogs are allowed to chase a ball and destroy it, which ends ball games or the dog is allowed to drop it at the owner’s feet. Instructors will vouch for how difficult it is to get an older dog to do proper dumbbell retrieve exercises when they did not learn to carry and give when young.

Since we want the ball to become a prey item to the dog it is important to know how to use it as such. Beginner trainers/ owners are inclined to dangle the ball in the face of the dog. This “prey” (ferret or bird in real life) will not be on a suicide mission and is not going to jump into the mouth of the dog. It is in the withdrawal, away movement of the ball that interests the curiosity of the hunter. I play with the ball half hidden behind my leg and wait for my dog to come to investigate. Turning away as he comes to see what I have makes him keener to get at it. The game we now play is akin to what one sees when the matador teases a bull. I tease for a short while and then, as the dog chases the prey article, a quick, “Sit” earns the dog the ball and he runs around at the end of the long line carrying his prey with pride.

When dog owners bring their dogs for training they invariably have been using the ball or tuggy as a retrieve item and not as a reward system as is the case if food was used. The dog is sent to fetch the ball but now there is no reward system other than again giving food. I make a contract with my dog which reads something like: “I want the dumbbell and you want the ball. You bring me the dumbbell and I will give you the ball.” If the dog does not bring my dumbbell he does not get his toy.

The added advantage of using a ball is that it can be hidden in many places on your body to suddenly appear when used as a reward. I’m sure my dogs think I’m a magician because they know that by some miracle or other I always can produce a ball as reward and play with them. In addition, the ball can be “cupped” in your hand and turned so that the dog can only see the back of your hand during heel exercises yet remain fully aware of the ball.

Dogs that did not play with a ball when younger find it very difficult later to make use of toys for motivation. This often applies to rescue dogs. There are also those that also are not keen on food treats away from home. It now becomes the responsibility of the owner and the trainer to search and find an alternative method of motivation. Not all dogs are destined to do well in obedience competitions. At my club all dogs are expected to do the Canine Good Citizen test that is a great way to encourage continued training and is suitable for dogs of all ages competing against themselves.

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