In this simple progression, Dusty received a reward for good behavior. She sat and the door opened. The praise meant nothing at this point in her training; instead it was the reward that helped her associate sitting by the door with the freedom to run in the yard.
The connection between accomplishment and reward is not always so easy to make, especially when teaching obedience commands or shaping complex chains of behaviors. That’s where food comes in handy as a bridge to understanding, an attention-getter to focus the pup on the desired reaction to an owner’s command. Food should always be accompanied by praise so the phrase “Goood puppy!” spoken with enthusiasm becomes the reward and treats can be saved for special occasions.
Most puppies will do just about anything for a treat. Although many stubborn owners insist on training without food rewards, there is no question that coaxing a puppy with food limits the frustration of teaching sit, down, come, heel, stand, and many other individual commands and sequences. With food, there is no pushing or scooping the pup into position and no irritation because the pup bites at hands, wiggles away, or collapses into a pile of oozing protoplasm. With food, the action, the treat, and the praise are a package, and the pup will respond to the praise as much as the treat as her bond with humans grows.
Dr. Ian Dunbar, a veterinarian and animal behaviorist, teaches puppies to sit, lie down, stand, and come without man-handling. On his Sirius Puppy Training videotape, Dunbar demonstrates his technique: Hold the treat slightly above Dusty’s head, so the pup has to look up to see it, and say “sit.” When Dusty looks up and her rear end hits the floor, give her the treat. At the same time, touch her collar with the other hand so she gets accustomed to a hand reaching towards her when she’s sitting. This helps to keep her from grabbing and running and makes it easier to clip a leash to her collar when training gets to that point.
Hold the treat just out of Dusty’s reach to minimize the temptation to jump up. If she jumps or lunges, withhold the treat until she sits. If she backs up to keep the treat in sight, work with her back to a wall.
When the pup sits for the treat, teach her to go down on command by lowering the treat to the floor in front of her and coaxing her to lie down to get it. If her rear end pops up, no treat or praise.
Once she learns down, combine the two commands by telling her to sit, go down, then sit again. Give the treat at the end of the sequence.
Teach her to stand on command by holding the treat in front of her while she’s sitting and saying “stand.” Move the treat forward so she has to stand to get it. Incorporate stand with sit and down in sequence and give the treat after she obeys a string of commands.
Commands like sit, down, and stand make up basic good manners training for all puppies, but they only work if they are reinforced. Just as parents require children to use good manners at home as well as in public, so dog owners should expect the same of their canine family members. Puppies should always sit to be fed, get a treat, get petted, have leash attached to collar, go out the door or get out of the crate or the car or any other time when they are told to sit.
Puppies should also lie down or stand to be groomed, stand for a veterinary exam, and lie quietly in a crate.
Food treats for training should be tiny, easy to eat, and as crumbless as possible. Small cubes of hot dogs or chicken work well, and there are several soft treats available in pet supply stores and departments.
Some puppies love cheese in a can, but handling the can is awkward in training sessions. For cheese-loving puppies, string cheese or small cubes of cheddar are more convenient.
Big crunchy treats like dog biscuits interfere with the flow of training because the pup loses concentration while chewing and looking for crumbs. However, small pieces of non-sugared cereal such as Cheerios or Kix can be used successfully.
Whatever food treat is chosen, the training session should be held when the pup is hungry. The treats should replace part of the daily food ration so Fido doesn’t get a head start on a lifelong weight problem.
Some trainers use food for every new command they teach, then gradually diminish the use of treats as the dog gains in understanding and proficiency. Others use food only for puppy training and depend on praise and a strong dog-and-person bond to teach adult dogs new tricks and skills.
Phasing out the food takes determination, especially if it has not been accompanied by praise from the beginning. Owners often fear that Fido works only for the food, not for the praise that comes with it, and they hesitate to take the step. However, if the pup has been praised for his successes, the bond will develop, and treats can be reduced to every second or third time the command is obeyed, then eliminated altogether.
Food helps in a myriad of training opportunities. If six-month-old Rambo weighs 60 pounds and is a brat, treat training is safer and less frustrating than the traditional scoop-him-into-a-sit method or the old push-his-rump-to-the-floor method.
Even a boisterous, out of control dog can be coaxed to behave with treats so that a bond can flower and grow. However, dealing with an already rambunctious dog accustomed to running amok requires far more patience than teaching a puppy with little on his mind but pleasing the human who feeds him.
Rambo already has his owner bamboozled, so a steely backbone and an iron constitution are necessary to cut him off from all affection and rewards until he obeys a command. Sit and down can be taught in the same fashion as with puppies, but a more savvy dog will use his wiles to get the treat without doing the deed. Owners who give in for expediency or out of frustration will find themselves ruled by an iron paw.
The first few days will be rough, but the quicker the pooch learns that all good things flow from the boss human, the quicker he will find himself more in control through obedience than he was through bullying tactics or oily charm.
A word of caution: if an out-of-control older puppy or adult dog growls or bears his teeth to get his way, head for the nearest animal behavior specialist or dog trainer specializing in solving aggression problems. Pet owners are generally not equipped to handle canine aggression; trying to do so is likely to result in tragedy.
Treat training can be tough in a family with young children unless kids and dogs are separated during meals and snack times. Sally and Mark should not be expected to keep their food away from the dog, and an untrained dog should not be expected to listen when Mom shouts at him to drop Sally’s cookie.
Dogs that continually steal food from children are poor candidates for treat training because they already have access to whatever tasty morsels they want. A tiny cube of hotdog or cheese as a reward for sitting cannot compete with a handful of cookies or a chicken sandwich stolen from tiny hands.
The solution is really rather simple: Kids should eat at the table, not toddling around the house or sitting in front of the television set or at the computer, and dogs should be confined so that they cannot steal food from little fingers.
No training method fits all situations. No training method is foolproof. Dogs that are very shy or very bold take more patience and ingenuity than those middle-of-the-road dogs that almost seem to train themselves. However, food training is an effective shortcut for owners who want to build a good relationship from day one with a puppy and for those who want to instill manners in good-hearted but over-indulged teenaged or adult dogs.
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