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 celebrately 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.