Working with food 1: giving you space

back-off-foodMany dogs get quite overexcited around food.

Especially if they have not been trained with food before.

Some of them will try to snatch and grab any food that is in your hand.

Or engage in a concerted ‘break-in’ attempt on your treat bag.

If we are going to train a dog using positive-reinforcement, we first need a dog that behaves appropriately around food.

Your first task may well need to be,  teaching the dog to ‘back off’, and to give you and your treats, a little space.

Step away from those treats!

This first exercise teaches your dog that there is no point trying to get at your training treats,  but that he should ‘back off’  and wait for you to give him a treat.He will know that it is time to ‘take’ the treat by the way you present the food,  in the open, flat, palm of your hand.

Your first objective is to end your dog’s frantic attempts to get at the food, in your hand, your treat bag, your treat pot, whatever you are using.    We’ll start with teaching the dog to back away from a hand containing food.

To do this you will be marking and rewarding him for ‘backing off’.  Check out the instructions in the ‘Mark and Reward’ article before you begin.   Because both your hands are involved,  a verbal event marker is probably the best choice for this exercise.

I use ‘good’ when dog training, but  you can use ‘yes’ or some other word if you prefer.

One hand will hold your spare treats, the other hand holds the food ‘lure’.

Calm and distraction free

Keep your treat bag closed and to one side, you don’t want to be constantly delving into it at this point.  Ignore any attempts by the dog to get in the bag.  When you give the reward to the dog,  keep your movements very slow and calm.   We want to keep the dog’s arousal level to a minimum to create a calm and relaxed working environment.

You are going to offer the dog the food in a closed fist to begin with.  Keep your other hand, the one with the spare treats in, well out of the way  –  behind your back if necessary.

The first exercise is just to show you the principle of the process. It is not a bad idea to practice without the dog, so you are confident of which hand is doing which job.

Exercise 1 – back away from the food

  1. Place several low value treats in your left hand.
  2. Put one treat into your right hand.
  3. Make a fist of your right hand with the food inside
  4. Stretch out your arm and offer the closed fist to the dog. Be ready to ‘mark’
  5. The instant your dog pauses in his attempt to break into your fist, say ‘Good’ and be ready to reward
  6. Deliver the reward using one of the treats in your left hand.  Place the treat on the  ground in between his front paws. Don’t feed him the treat in your fist.

When you first try this exercise the dog will probably try to get at the food in your fist.  Resist the urge to say anything or to snatch your hand away.

He will sniff and poke at your hand, he may even scrabble or chew at your hand.  This is more likely if the treat in your hand is too high value for this first exercise.  If your dog is very excited about your fist, you can try switching to something more boring like a little piece of carrot.

If he loses interest in your fist altogether, put something smellier and nicer in there!

We don’t want the dog may get into a pattern of attacking your fist, backing off, and attacking your fist again. What we want is for the dog to back off and stay off.   So once you have figured out what your hands are supposed to be doing, press on with the next exercise.

Exercise 2 – stay away from the food

In this next dog training exercise, you are going to attempt to deliver multiple treats to the dog.  One after another, without a break,  literally a treat per second, whilst he remains away from your fist.

  1. Place several low value treats in your left hand.
  2. Put one treat into your right hand.
  3. Make a fist of your right hand with the food inside
  4. Stretch out your arm and offer the closed fist to the dog. Be ready to ‘mark’
  5. The instant your dog pauses in his attempt to break into your fist, mark the moment with ‘Good’
  6. Mark and feed the dog repeatedly at one to two second intervals whilst the dog remains calm and is not trying to get the food from your fist or bag.
  7. Keep going for ten to fifteen seconds or until you run out of treats from your left hand
  8. Withdraw your fist and reload your left hand
  9. Once you can deliver six treats at one second intervals, repeat from step 1 but space out the M&Rs a little.  Make them 2-3 seconds apart
  10. In your next session space out the M&Rs even more

As you can see,  we are teaching the dog that exercising self control in the presence of food, is rewarded.  You may not get opportunity to give multiple rewards in the first session.  But sooner or later the dog will offer longer periods of restraint and you need to be ready.  This is what the extra treats in your  hand are for.

Multiple rewards and duration

One of the most common mistakes and difficulties that crossover  trainers have in moving from traditional training methods to training with food is in failing to master multiple and rapid food delivery.

In traditional training, when a good trainer builds up the duration of the ‘stay’ for example, he does this gradually, increasing the length of the stay in little increments,  two seconds, then three seconds, then five, and so on.    But there is usually only one reward, offered at the end of this time period when the dog is released.

In positive reinforcement training,  multiple rewards are often used in a single stay, to establish the initial stages in duration.  And the gaps between these rewards are then stretched out slowly.  By the time the dog is released he may have had a dozen or more rewards in the space of a few seconds.

This is a very effective and powerful way of reinforcing behaviour

Effective Treat Delivery

Some dogs will take treats quite gently without any training.  Others will snatch and grab as soon as they think you are about to deliver a tasty morsel into their mouths.

We’ll look at putting a stop to snatching later,  but you may find it best in these beginning exercises to place each treat on the ground.  Nice and slowly and calmly.  If the dog scrabbles at your hand with his paws as you deliver the treat, keep your hand over it until he backs off a little.

If at any point the dog goes back to your fist again,  or tries to grab at the treat delivery hand, stop rewarding him and put the treat delivery hand behind your back.  Keep your fist out and wait from him to back off.  Put something more interesting in your fist if he gets too focused on the hand you are using for delivery

The idea is to get to the point where he backs away from you for ten to fifteen seconds with just one reward at the end of that time.

Now you are ready to feed the dog by turning the fist, into an open palm.

Exercise 3 – recognising the ‘eat’ cue

At this point, your dog should be giving you a bit of space and not trying to burrow into your treat bag or break into your fist.  We are now going to give him a clear signal that he can take the food in your hand,  by changing the shape of your hand into one that he will recognise as a ‘feeding hand’

When you turn your fist into an open palm with the food in the centre, this is your dog’s cue that he can eat the treat.

  1. Place several low value treats in your left hand.
  2. Put one treat into your right hand.
  3. Make a fist of your right hand with the food inside
  4. Stretch out your arm and offer the closed fist to the dog
  5. Count to four in your head then mark and then, provided he is still waiting patiently, open your hand to let him eat the treat off your palm.  Move your palm right against his muzzle if he is unsure
  6. Repeat steps 1-4 but do not feed the dog by opening your fist,  this time feed him from the other hand as you did in previous exercises
  7. Repeat, sometimes feeding him from the fist and sometimes from the other hand.

If the dog remains consistently able to control himself, and to wait patiently for the food to be delivered from either open hand, then you can start teaching him to show the same restraint around very tasty treats

Control around delicious treats

The objective of this stage is simply to increase the value of the treats that you are asking the dog to show restraint around.  You can make this easier for him by doing it in stages.

Don’t go straight from carrots to roast beef.   Try kibble and cubes of cheese before giving him his absolute favourite temptation.

Work through each of the exercises in turn using medium then high value treats.   Now all we need to do is generalise the behaviour to make sure your dog has thoroughly grasped the concept of waiting for the specific cue of your open palm, before he attempts to eat any food you are carrying

Generalising the behaviour.

Be aware of how specific you may have been in your training sessions so far.   So, if you have been holding your fist out in front of you,  try holding it out to the side, or placing it  close to your knee.

Dogs are poor at generalising behaviours and it may surprise you just how your dog regresses when you make a simple change like altering the position in which you deliver the food.

You can start with medium level treats but be prepared to simplify using low value treats if your dog finds this quite difficult.

How long does this take

How quickly your dog works through this process will depend partly on his temperament, and on his previous experiences.   Some dogs will breeze through the whole thing in a day or two.  Others may need your help for a week or so of regular sessions before they are ready to work with food in training.

Next time we’ll look at getting some attention and focus from your dog, so that you can work together as a team.

This website is brought to you by Pippa Mattinson

Pippa's book Total Recall is a complete recall training programme for puppies and adult dogs, and her Happy Puppy Handbook is a definitive guide to puppy care and early training

by Pippa Mattinson on October 4, 2013

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