Rewards and Recall

Money, hard-earned, Oxford scholars, what ever you call it, for many of us it means the same thing- reward. Reward for doing a job, with which we can do lots of other things that we value. For some, it’s not money, but we all have something we value, our currency. Dogs are the same, we simply need to find their currency. For most it is food, and this is my focus today.

Food lends itself to training so easily as it is pleantyful, dogs need it to survive, and it offers a fast way to reinforce behaviours over and over again in a short period of time. Fresh meat is usually the best choice when it comes to rewards as it is highly valued by dogs, and because of this, it will work very well when there are distractions around, such as other dogs. Dried liver treats will not cut it when you are out and about with your dog. Reserve the more ‘boring’ food for indoor or backyard training.

Perhaps one of the best things you can do for your new dog is to hand feed them. Hand feeding means that rewards come in replacement of one or two large meals. Seperate your dogs’ daily ration of food in a bowl and take from it whenever you need to during the day. Your dog should get a small amount of food for lovely behaviour. The more you reinfroce any behaviour, the more likely that behaviour will continue. Hand feeding will also ensure that your dog does not become overweight. It is a great way to make your dog earn their food instead of being given a whole lump of food in one go, where’s the fun in that?

Hand feeding also means that you will be reminded of how regularly you can reinforce behaviour during the course of one day. Please do not think of hand feeding as forcing your dog to eat because they are fussy. Hand feeding means recognising your dogs’ great behaviour and rewarding it- training. Think of all the skills you would like your dog to learn and focus on reinforcing these behaviours with their daily food.

An example of this may be recall, the most important exercise you can teach your dog and something which you can practice over and over again by hand feeding. A fast recall can save your dogs’ life, it also puts an end to unwanted behaviours like rushing up to other dogs and people, playing too rough with other dogs. But aside from that, it is glorous to watch your dog respond quickly and come bounding towards you with a happy attitude.

The first step to having a fast recall is to set it up at home with minimal distractions. As with all aother exercises, you must set your dog up for success. Drop a bit of food on the ground or have someone hold your dog while you run away. Your dog should already be coming to you when you call him with a specific verbal signal like ‘come’. When your dog comes to you reward him with lots and lots of praise and bits of food. Be generous with your praise and food, remember, you have a whole bowl of food to get through by the end of the day and act like you really value this behaviour.

Once you have practiced the recall inside you can take your dogs’ food out with you and they can have dinner while they are out and about. You might like to mix in some extra nice goodies like fresh meat in to their meal for this. Practice the same recall exercises outside as you did at home and lavish priase and bits of food (one at a time) on your dog. This should still be done with minimal distractions, you can begin raising the level of difficulty as your dog becomes better and better at responding to you.

You can also use your dogs’ meal to reinforce behaviours when you are out like staying close to you. Simply reinforce your dog for being near by with a bit of their meal. I always had two recalls for my dog. The fast recall was ‘come’ the other was ‘hey!’ or ‘this way’ when I wanted him to make his way over in my general area I simply reinforced this with some low grade food and a ‘good boy’.

Eventually the time will come when you feel comfortable that your dog has learned all of the rules in your life, and at that point, you will find you can stop hand feeding your dog. However, I always recomend that at the least you take food with you to the park for the first year of having your dog.

Forget dog whispering and celebrity dog trainers, it doesnt have to be that hard. Hand feeding will open up so many opportunites for training your dog, and in no time, you will notice that your dog will be more attentive to you, and you will be shaping behaviours like the true dog trainer you are.


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3 Responses to Rewards and Recall

  1. Diane says:

    I have a dog that will chase deer or coyote and ignore me until she looses the track and then she will return . Are you advocating that food will break that impulse? I have asked my vet and have her opinion – but I’m interested in yours.

    Specifically, what level of distraction have you tested this ” hand feeding theory” on – and with what breeds of dogs.

    At this stage, I have resorted to leashing her because I simply cannot trust her to recall when she picks up a scent. And I will not use a shock collar because yes, I feel that is cruel.

    • katarina says:

      Great question and thanks for your comment.

      Food alone will not break the impulse. What breaks the impulse is conditioning a behaviour to a certain signal that you reinforce with food. The signal is your dogs’ name, then the word ‘come’. If you appropriately reinforce the behaviour you want, over time that behaviour will become stronger, and should become like a reflex- your dog wont help but to turn and look at you when you say her name.

      I have used the science of positive reinforcement conditioning with every distraction that presents itself in our local enviroment, usually birds, dogs, cats, possums. Some dogs that I have worked with have not been motiviated by any food (raw meat, roast chicken, sausage) so the race is on to find their currency- balls, squeeky toys, rolling toy doughnuts, frisbees. I use anything that the dog is motiviated to want over and above the distraction. I have worked with many different breeds and have found that the only difference is the ‘window of opportunity’ for training. Some dogs can practice skills all day, others have a limited time frame for working. The key is to know your own dog well enough to optimise training time and hand feeding is often the most efficient way to do this.

      It’s difficult for me to comment on your situation, and I would never judge you and your life with your dog. If you cant aviod walking in areas that have such wildlife roaming it can make it difficult to train an off lead recall. Presumably when you say your dog is ignoring you it means that you must be calling her while she is running away from you and that she is not conditioned to the signal to come. She has learned to ignore you and is also getting a ‘pay-off’ for chasing the wildlife, why would she come back when chasing is so much fun? Keeping her on lead is the right thing to do until you can teach her to come back no matter what. You can set up scenarios in your own home to call her back from a distraction. Have someone hold her toy or food without letting her have it, and work on calling her away from them to you, then give her what she wants with lots and lots of fuss made about how wonderful she is. Over time she will be conditioned to turn away from the distraction and come to you.

      A trainer by the name of Leslie Nelson details how to call your dog away from distractions in her book and video called ‘Really Reliable Recall’ this lady has trained Afgans to come back to her! If she can train sight hounds for a great recall then I’m sure her method could help you. Check it out.

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