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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Fine-tune your approach when offering treats to better communicate with a dog that is too motivated by food

I often use food rewards when I'm with my canine charges, and I do so for various reasons. It might seem like being a caregiver to animals is strictly a fun and carefree endeavor, but it's serious business and there's much work to be done each day to keep everyone on schedule, comfortable, and having the cooperation of my four-legged friends is essential.

It's common for them to want to linger a bit longer in their backyard on visits, or not focus as well on walks when they're dealing with a slightly different schedule than they are used to. In cases like these, using treats to persuade a pooch is valuable, as most dogs (but no, not all in my experience) are quite motivated by food.

Occasionally I'll be caring for a dog that is a little too focused on getting edible rewards. I find that one cause is the chronic reliance on treats by their people (as opposed to using a combination of praise, play and treats as rewards), the timing of the food reward and the value of it.

One example of this is demonstrated by one of my charges: she's a dog that won't do anything without a food reward, even at five years of age and having gone though basic positive reinforcement training. Most of the time she'll spaz out and commence to performing any number of commands that she thinks I might be asking for — a combination of sit/down/high five in rapid succession — hoping that any number of those might elicit the yummy treat she knows that I might have in my possession, as her people usually do.

There are a couple of things that can help resolve the issue of a misplaced focus, and they're easy to implement.

Right on time

As we know with positive reinforcement training, it's crucial to have a dog's undivided attention and focus when working with them. Treats are a big part of that but it's our timing of doling them out that best communicates with them. To do this, ask for the behavior that you want, ensuring that you don’t reach for the food until the dog has performed it correctly. Using the clicker or verbal marker is important because that is a consistent precursor to what they want — the reward. Always click or mark, then reach for the food or have it ready in your hand behind your back. (Poor timing is most definitely the root of the problem with my charge, as is the overuse of treats.)

Don't let a dog's sense of smell trump your requests

If it's one thing that I know, not all treats are created equal, and I use them all differently for that reason. Some are crunchy, others soft while a few stimulate super-high value real estate in the brain because they have a powerful aroma.

Potent-smelling treats are a boon and as a pro, I know to save them to have as a secret weapon in motivating reluctant or skittish dogs. Otherwise most dogs can't pay attention to me, my voice and what I need them to do; they're only interested in the yummy bits of food and expect me to be a human Pez dispenser. Instead, I use less-valuable food treats that don't over-stimulate their olfactory system.

Incorporating the use of the appropriate treat rewards (or better yet a combination of treats, lavish praise or a quick game with a favorite toy to keep a dog on their toes) and timing the reward and marker properly can help you to better communicate with your four-legged friend.


Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer -- most recently as a regular contributor on MLive -- and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

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