Hare Hunds Training

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

Behavior Hare Training

How to Train a Hare Step 2: Desensitisation

Kit won’t eat unless he feels safe. It’s really hard to make a hare feel safe, them being food for a lot of animals and almost entirely reliant on their ability to outrun danger and all. In my previous post I talked about safety signals and how they helped to put Kit in a more calm state. But safety signals really only inhibit fear. The next step to train a hare is to avoid fear all together. Well, as much as is possible. Fear is critically important in keeping animals safe and a prey animal that is fearless isn’t going to last long. So we’re working within limitations, here.

I’m going to take a moment to have a short rant about how this is often neglected in dog training and why it’s important for dog trainers not to neglect it. Dogs in particular may appear to take a lot of the things that go on around them in their stride without us doing anything at all. It’s tempting for us to never even consider whether they are comfortable or not. I mean, they’re dogs. They are embedded into our lives so deeply we just kind of automatically assume they can cope with all the things we can and more. And when they can’t we declare they have a behaviour problem and often our answer is to attempt to suppress the behaviour they are using to tell us they are not comfortable. The behaviours I am talking about can be as obvious as an aggressive lunge or attack, or as subtle as persistently crooked sits. What’s more, dogs can be highly functional while they are being uncomfortable with their surroundings. For example, Erik is still quite obedient when he’s uncomfortable, and can even learn things. He just doesn’t work at his usual level of enthusiasm, reliability and focus. In contrast, Kit mostly gives me a really obvious fear response I couldn’t possibly mistake.

So my opinion is that dog trainers should get into the habit of asking themselves if their dog is truly comfortable with the environment and all the objects and beings in it. They should particularly ask this whenever training is not going according to plan or if they are having reliability problems or even if they are having trouble getting a dog to work closer or farther away from them. And that’s not just looking at the dog and going “Oh yeah, his tail is wagging, he’s fine.” You need some kind of benchmark. I use how engaged the hunds are in training, usually. I know what they are like at home, so the assumption is if they can do what they can do at home then they are comfortable with their surroundings. Don’t use a default behaviour as your litmus test! Erik can down in the most ridiculously uncomfortable situations and I suspect he falls back on it in times of stress. If in doubt, there is nothing to lose from a bit of desensitisation or counter-conditioning. Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed book and dvds are packed with techniques to help dogs cope with their environment and become comfortable. Counter-conditioning is a big help for more specific problems. Check out Karen Overall’s Protocol for Relaxation for a great systematic desensitisation method. Adapt it for your own uses.

Back to hare training. I have a hare that’s no longer dashing into hiding every time I show up, but before I can actually do any training, Kit needs to be comfortable with anything I’m going to expect him to work around. He has a pretty wireless pet containment system and controlled environment, so mostly that comes down to me. It is truly incredible just how many ways you can startle or worry a hare, even one that has been raised by you from an early age and lived in very close proximity to you for most of his life. Just being there puts him on alert. He has a bubble of personal space he needs to preserve. The size of the bubble depends on how safe he is feeling. The more safe he feels the smaller the bubble. It takes a long time to get small and a very short time to get large. Every time I move when I’m with him he gets nervous I’m going to get too close for comfort and the bubble gets bigger. That’s what we have to overcome first. I can’t do any training if he won’t let me near him.

Every day I go into his cage and I crouch down to make myself smaller and less threatening and I wait for little signs from him that he is relaxing. When he is steady I start gentle, smooth movements. I tend to do them to a rhythm. Frightened animals like rhythms. I possibly made that up. I think they like rhythms. I throw in the odd faster movement when I think he’s ready and carefully don’t look at him until I’m settled again. The aim is to expose him to steadily more intense experiences without ever causing him to feel like he needs to move away from me. I don’t always achieve that, but that’s the aim. The most challenging aspect of this work is patience. I really want to touch my hare! I want to work with him. I have to constantly remind myself to wait until I’m sure he’s ready, not just until I think that’ll do.

Below is a video of a recent training session with Kit. I cut out some of the boring waiting around for him to settle, but to be honest there’s not a huge amount of it. Considering to begin with I could wait around for 20 minutes for him to settle and end up giving up and leaving, we are making huge progress on that front. It’s kind of long at over 6 minutes, but because I’m moving so slowly there is a lot of body language from Kit as he processes each small change in my behaviour. I think slowing it down for animals gives both them the chance to adapt to what is going on and it gives us trainers an opportunity to identify important body language that we often miss. So whenever you are having a training problem, take a deep breath and slow down. Slow down and really observe your animal. Move them farther away from suspected distractors or triggers. Sometimes proximity and pressure can mask the behaviour that will tell you why things aren’t going according to plan.

Relaxation Protocol mp3 files:

Protocol for Relaxation:

Behavior Training

Behaviour is Perpetual

Last year I attended the APDT conference in Sydney where Ken Ramirez was a keynote speaker. Given how hard it is to find anyone with tips for training hares and Ramirez is one of the world’s great exotic animal trainers, I attended every one of his talks and even managed to corner him at one point to ask about training a hare.

One of the little gems I got from him over the weekend was that an animal is always “doing” something. Even doing nothing is really doing something. Are they standing quietly at ease? Lying down calmly? Sitting and staring into space? They all look like nothing, but they are still behaviours that can be rewarded. Can and should be if they are behaviours that are desirable in that particular circumstance. The example Ramirez used was rewarding an animal for NOT responding to a cue meant for another animal.

This is one I should pay more attention to given Erik can get a bit possessive of training, if that is possible. Just the other day I accidentally rewarded him when I asked Kivi to give me his paw and Erik leapt in and beat him to it with a very quick and perfect paw target. I rewarded it without thinking, because it was a beautiful example of what I had asked for, but I had temporarily forgotten that I had asked Kivi for it and had gone so far as to put Kivi’s name in front of the cue so both dogs knew it was for him. Anxiety in dogs is also a determining value of the of how seriously we should push the envelope in regard to perpetual behaviors.  Article reference from Lifestyle pets.

For me this idea has a broader application. Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, animals are reacting to the objects, events, and environments around them and learning what is rewarding and what is not. As Temple Grandin says, they are good at noticing details whereas we are good at noticing general patterns. They won’t automatically gather that a behaviour that has been rewarding in one situation will be rewarding in other situations. They will react differently in different environments, whether that be at the dog park, or at home in the yard or everywhere in between. Training never ceases, whether we take an active role in it or not. It sounds tedious, but guiding our animals’ learning and taking charge of their rewards can be as simple as always carrying rewards and looking for opportunities to use them.