I like to use food to train dogs whenever we can for many reasons. First, food is what’s known as a primary reinforcer. That’s a fancy way of saying “the dog needs it to survive.” Think about it, dogs (or us, for that matter) can’t live without food. So it’s pretty important to a dog. Second, food is usually a really nice reward for a dog. It tastes good. It smells good. They like it and will work hard to earn another tasty tidbit.
However, some dogs are picky.
He refuses chicken. Won’t take a hot dog. Won’t even consider a dog treat. Which limits my options for using food as a reinforcer. I mean, if Schooner doesn’t like it, it’s not a reinforcer. Period.
I’ve found that he does like cheese. It’s relatively cheap when bought in the econo-saver blocks and it lasts over a week in the refrigerator. It’s easy for me to handle — not too sticky or goopy and easy to deliver one small piece at a time.
The problem: Schooner tires of cheese relatively quickly. Meaning that it’ll work great for 15 minutes, then he begins refusing it. He needs more than a 15 minute session. Sometimes we’re out running errands for a couple of hours — I needed to find a way to mix in a different, non-food reinforcer.
The solution: I happened upon a solution while I was in the yard working on his loose leash walking skills. He had worked nicely for about 15 minutes, as usual, then began turning his head away from the cheese. Ugh, what am I supposed to do?! He needs loose leash walking practice!
He’s huge, it’s easy to forget he’s still an adolescent dog. But I figured, what the heck, I’m going to try getting really silly with him after he walks nicely for a few steps (instead of clicking and giving him an unwanted piece of cheese).
I wish I had video of our original play session. He was as animated as a baby deer or foal — bucking and romping through the yard. I had to pause our training session briefly to get my giggling under control. This is a “re-enactment” of our play session and, while you can see he enjoys the opportunity to be goofy, I can assure you it’s not nearly as enthusiastic as that original session.
In the video, you’ll see me click and treat with the cheese. Notice how frequently I’m clicking and treating. Also notice his attention and enthusiasm. Both are pretty dull when I’m using the cheese. Then I switch to using play as the reward for loose leash walking. Look at the difference! He’s got more pep in his step, I’m getting a lot more steps between rewards, and he’s much more engaged with me.
The results: He liked it! He enjoys the opportunity to get a little silly (I dare say we all like that opportunity!) and it gets him interested in training again. He’s an eager participant with the opportunity to play, whereas with the food he’s more of a passive learner.
The takeaway: I’m not going to abandon food in training — there are places where play isn’t appropriate (restaurant, movie theater, doctor’s office to name a few) — but play definitely has a place in Schooner’s training plan.
Every dog is different. Most dogs I work with (Labradors) love food and will work long and hard for the tiniest piece. Other dogs don’t think food is as great and need a different reason to work. I’m flexible. I’m willing to find out what works.