Building a Reward System, or “My Dog Won’t Work for Food”

This is for all the “my dog doesn’t work for food” claimants. Your dog will work for food. Every animal will. Some animals need a fair bit of coaxing, and others need a lot of foundation work first, but they will work for food. They have to eat, don’t they?

Let’s take a moment to remember that Kit won’t eat unless he feels safe. What’s more, Kit isn’t especially interested in taking opportunities to eat when food it is up for grabs. Yet, despite all this, Kit works for food. I’m currently using rabbit pellets, which is not even his favourite food. If he’ll do it, a dog that doesn’t think much of food will. It doesn’t just happen, though. It takes a bit of preparation. For Kit, this took a few steps.

1) Feed him 3-4 small meals a day so he’s a teensy bit hungry each time I bring food. This just gets him interested, and I stopped doing it once I had his attention. It also got him used to me visiting more often. I don’t agree with depriving animals of food to get them to work for it, but it certainly does work very well if you want the quick and easy route. This step can be transferred to dogs by using a number of short training sessions a day. You may decide to use the dog’s daily food allowance as your food reward.

2) Find a really tasty treat he only gets from your hands and nowhere else. For Kit, fresh or dried berries. For dogs, cooked or raw meat usually goes down well. I had a difficult house guest here for a week that to begin with would only work for boiled heart. I simmer lamb hearts for about half an hour and then cut them into little pieces. Roast meat tends to be very popular as well.

3) Practice earning food. This is where it’s all at, really. Make it really easy. All Kit has to do to earn treats is come close enough to take them. The hunds as puppies earn food by looking when their name was called, checking in on their own, hanging around like a bad smell, and for performing a lot of simple things they had been taught like sit or touch on cue. Any time they do something I like I pay it, whether I cued it or not. The aim here is both simple and complex. On the one hand, we’re really just trying to get the dog (or hare) into the habit of working for food when they are around us. But there are likely other interactions going on to help us. We are creating a positive association so that our animal just feels good when they are around us. And we are creating an expectation in the animal that when they are around us we will often give them opportunities to earn good things. We make it easy for them to earn good things so that they can do it a lot and build up a strong reward history. Now we are not just treat dispensers, or someone it’s nice to be around, but a good bet. When they are not sure what activity is going to be the most fun, there we are with our history of reinforcement and that puts us ahead of the crowd right there. It doesn’t guarantee the dog will choose us, but it weighs in our favor.

It doesn’t take long for a dog (hares are another matter – for months Kit flatly refused to work for anything less than fresh strawberries or blueberries) to change their demeanor about food entirely. My difficult house guest was working for every treat in the house by the end of the week. And he’s an emotional basket case. At this point, it’s important not to jump ahead and start trying to use food out in very exciting places. Even out on the street on leash can be too exciting. The trick is to weave very easy opportunities to earn food into new scenarios. If your dog’s mad sniffing has eased up for a moment and they lift their head, that’s when you call their name and reward when they turn around to look at you. They won’t do it until you have built up that reward history enough that they are starting to anticipate opportunities to earn food around the house.

As they become more attentive and start actively looking for opportunities to earn rewards, then I start asking for more challenging things.

So, why go to all this trouble to get a dog working for food? Particularly if they will work for other things like toys? In my opinion, it is very valuable to have a dog that will work for food in many environments. There is nothing like rapid fire food rewards to really get a dog’s attention and keep it. Food is really suited to shaping. And there is, I believe, a calming effect in eating if food is delivered at a slower rate. This can be used to lower arousal. That is just a few reasons why I like to use food. I love it, but I’m not dependent on it. My dogs will still do what they are told if I don’t have food on me. That is the ultimate aim, but that’s a little way down the track. While treats may be a prevailing factor, other methods that involve wireless pet containment system for training your dog in the more negative aspect, clicker training, electronic dog doors systems, wireless dog fence systems see www.electricfencesfordogs.com

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