I have an 8 mth old koolie pup. Close to perfect behaviour at home, but when we leave the house she has very selective hearing. I have tried rewarding the good behaviour but I worry that she will not listen to me unless I have food in my hand. Do you have any tips on how I would eventually fade the treats to just a pat or verbal reward?
Thanks for such a great question Emily. The role of food in dog training is to reward wanted behaviour until such time as the behaviour becomes ‘conditioned’, in other words like a habit. Food allows us to practice with our dogs with enough success until such time as the behaviour is conditioned, then we can move away from using food as a reward.
Dogs do not generalise their behaviours well, so what they learn in one situation they will not be able to apply very well in another. This is why training is a journey and your dog’s behaviour will be a work in progress for the next three years. Think about all of the scenarios your dog will be presented with in life, training should take place in all of these scenarios, especially where you really need your dog’s attention such as the dog off lead park. Phasing out of food rewards can be done as soon as your dog is responding well to requests in any given situation. That means you can probably start phasing out the food rewards at home but will still need them outside.
For this you will need to take high value food to the park with you to train the behaviours you want, just like you did at home. Again, you keep rewarding with food until you see proficiency in the skill, then you can move away from food. Be careful that you are not using food as a bribe, rather it should be a reward for any behaviour you ask for, or any desirable behaviour your dog offers you (the latter is best).
Once a skill is conditioned to proficiency in a distracting environment you can use alternative rewards to maintain the behaviours you like. If your dog loves other dogs ask her to focus on you in a sit before you release her to interact with other dogs. Recall her frequently from play with other dogs and release her again. The release becomes the reward. Another option is to reward any good behaviour with a toy such as a ball throw or a game of tug. Think about what your dog loves to do and use this as the replacement reward.
Emily, realistically you will probably be having to use food for at least the next year or so. Go back to basics, you are hitting a difficult time in your dogs development so if you manage your expectations in line with this you will start to feel much better about your training and good things will come from that. Dogs are just like us, if there is no benefit to them they will simply refuse a request. Make your dogs effort worth her while with food then move to toys or pats or games for the reward.