Food rewards are powerful tools in the hands of a good positive trainer. Food is considered a primary reinforcer because it has innate value; a dog doesnt have to learn to like food through association. Using a clicking sound made by a clicker (or other reward marker, such as the word Yes!), followed by a high-value food treat is a quick and easy way to send your dog a powerful positive message about which behavior he could repeat to get reinforced again.
Food is also commonly used in classical conditioning and counter-conditioning, to create and build a dogs positive association with a specific stimulus.
But what do you do when your dog cant or wont take a treat? It depends on the reason he has to decline the food offering. Try these tactics:
1.) If hes too distracted: Try a higher-value treat. High-value treats for dogs tend to be meaty, smelly (like sardines or smelly cheese), or fatty treats, but for some dogs it might be slices of banana or apple, baby carrots, cat kibble, or buttery bits of toast.
Experiment with a wide variety of foods to find out what trips your dogs treat trigger. If higher-value treats dont work, remove your dog to a less distracting environment, gradually increasing distractions as hes ready to handle them.
2.) If hes too full: Schedule your training sessions before meals when hes hungry, rather than after. If he was eating treats but stopped, try a different high-value treat. Eventually even the best treat can get boring.
Also, cultivate a backup list of secondary reinforcers for use when hes full. These may include playing a game with you (chasing a ball, tugging on a rope toy, chasing after you), being petted, or hearing cheerful praise. Be sure theyre really reinforcing to him! Does he seek them out? Then they are reinforcing. If he turns away or declines them, they are not.
3.) If hes too stressed: Reduce your dogs stress level. If youre doing counter-conditioning, reduce the intensity of the aversive stimulus to a level where hell notice the stressor but still take treats. Increase the distance between your dog and the stressor, decrease the movement of the stressor, turn down the volume, etc. If youre out and about for example, on the first night of a training class just hang out in a corner with him until he habituates to (gets used to) the new environment and starts taking treats. Use backup reinforcers to improve your dogs emotional state: a game of tug may cheer him up enough to eat. If he wont eat from your hand, he may take treats dropped on the floor.
4.) If hes not feeling well: If your dog is too sick to eat treats, or in too much pain, you shouldnt be training. You can improve his associations and relieve his stress with acupressure and calming massage. Theres a calming acupressure point in a dogs ear: gently rub his ear flap, near but not at the very end, between your thumb and fingers in a circular motion. If he cant eat due to pending surgery, or to avoid carsickness but is otherwise fine, use alternative reinforcers.
5.) If youve run out: When you find yourself digging for treat crumbs in the corners of your pockets, youll be glad you have that list of alternative reinforcers! Also, dont be afraid to delve into your own lunch box or refrigerator for treat alternatives. As long as you avoid the obvious no-nos like chocolate, cooked chicken bones, grapes, raisins, and onions, most of what we call human food is fair game for dog treats.
Pat Miller, CPDT, is Whole Dog Journals Training Editor. Miller lives in Fairplay, Maryland, site of her Peaceable Paws training center. See page 24 for more information.