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Confessions of a Cookie Trainer

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May 3, 2015 by Julia

I need to keep my hand out of the cookie jar. And by jar, I mean bait bag. Don’t get me wrong, I think treat pouches are great for working on new skills with food rewards. I wish every one of my Beginners students would wear one and stuff it with tasty little tidbits instead of fumbling with plastic baggies or digging in their pockets. But at some point, you have to just say no.

Xena the Boxer bows at a cookie.

Bow to the almighty biscuit!

You see, when I first started taking Xena to training classes, I got a trusty little blue treat pouch made by Outward Hound. I dutifully stuffed it with goodies and clipped it to my waist for every class. We learned and worked and grew as a team. But then we’d come to a point when I needed to ‘get off the stuff’ so that we could use our skills in the ring and I would struggle to kick the cookie habit.

At the time, people around me were either using food or toys and Xena wasn’t toy motivated. Given her environmental sensitivity, removing the food often meant taking more notice of the things around her which in turn created more concern and less focus on the task at hand. I had to build the value of the job and reduce the (omni)presence of the treats at my hip. By the time we reached Open, I had started to get the hang of it. I would place a container of treats on the deck while we practiced skills in the yard. After a random number of exercises or occasionally a full routine, we’d run together to the deck for a “jackpot.” Then we had to proof jackpot anticipation because she started to veer off on her own when she finished an exercise or go wide if our heeling pattern was nearby. When we started learning Utility articles, I actually had to reduce our use of food because the recommended smear of spray cheese on the scented article resulted in Xena’s eye glazing over as she licked the bar. By the time she had cleaned it to a high shine, she’d completely forgotten what I’d asked. Still I had the can of cheese at the ready, giving her a little squirt when she brought the right article back.

I was only just started taking Xena to classes when we got Dash and I repeated many of the same mistakes with him. His behavior issues kept him from competing, so I didn’t see it as much of a problem when I didn’t weaned away the treats. Food rewards were involved in most of the early behavior work I did too – rewarding him for holding a position around distractions or clicking and treating when he looked at me rather than fixating on another dog, etc. In fact, I often used treats as a management tool, since high value foods could sometimes keep him distracted from possible triggers. My fingers were usually a little worse for wear, but a little discomfort was worth it to keep him from blowing up. It was only this past summer that I discovered what a disservice these rewards actually were for him. You see, it turns out that treats over-stimulate Dash. He “lights up” because of them, so I was increasing his chances of adrenalized behavior and reactions by keeping them in the picture. Now that I know, it seems glaringly obvious that treats were more like doggy speed than an effective tool for him. A dog who started learning “leave it” and “gentle” on his first week with me should not have been mauling my fingers nearly 8 years later, but that was how it was most of the time. Taking food out of the picture and bringing conditioned relaxation in has made a world of difference and has allowed more progress in 8 months than we experienced in the previous 8 years.

By the time I got Delta, I kind of knew better. But we were also in a new location and I did much of her early training on my own, so it was easy to fall into old bad habits. When I did work with other people, many of their methods still depended heavily on treats for the learning stage and weaning tended to be introduced a very long way down the line. Recently, I’ve caught myself automatically digging into the pouch to keep a treat in my hand every moment of agility class. The problem is that she’s beyond the stage of needing that sort of luring (or bribing) and often it sabotages our work rather than helping it. She’d be 8 poles into the weaves and pop out because she saw me instinctively reach for the bait bag. Tooling through a complex sequence and pull off course towards the goody in my pointing hand.

Barn Hunt has been a fabulous venue to help me fight my addiction. There is no question in my mind that finding rats is its own reward for Delta. She is the most prey driven dog I have personally experienced. It has gotten to the point where I’ve started exercising caution around small, fluffy dogs – tight coated dogs like Bostons are clearly dogs, but she looks at Shelties and Poodles with the same expression I see when she wants to bite her tug. Given her prey drive and the fact that she knows the only required “trained” skills already, it is easy to give up the goodies and let her success be its own reward. My strategy in Barn Hunt is to literally release her and stick my hands in my (empty) pockets. I try to avoid talking to her unless I need her to complete the required hay bale tunnel or climb. That isn’t to say there that food has been completely removed from that venue. I still have treats at the crate for goofing around during downtime and most of the time I can’t resist bringing a couple into the blind while we wait our turn. But they don’t figure in to our time in the practice ring at all, which has made transitioning to competition much easier.

Delta the Boxer practicing heeling.

Tug toy? Check. Security blanket bait bag? Check.

Unlike Dash and Xena, Delta loves to tug and I tried to work that skill with her from an early age. But I kept forgetting to really use it during our training. I think it is partly impatience – you have to break out of what you’re doing to tug, whereas you can just pop a treat in their mouth and move on to the next thing – but also not knowing how to put it into the mix. I recently used it in obedience class and after a couple of tug sessions to reward her, our obedience actually looked worse. Someone observed that her expression looked something like an annoyed teenager when I tucked the tug out of sight – “Boooring!” So I still dutifully carry the tug in my training bag, yet it only makes an appearance at classes once or twice a month, usually when I’ve caught myself with a perpetual hand in the cookie jar.

I know that, in time, I will learn when to use the tug effectively – so it will keep riding around with me as I look for an opportunity presents itself.

There is no doubt in my mind that food is a valuable tool in training. It is wonderful for luring and rewarding in position. It helps dogs see the value of humoring us when we ask them to try new (sometimes “strange”) things. But if any strength out of balance becomes a weakness then any tool can become a crutch. I know I am not alone in my struggle, not the only one limping and leaning on a trusty bait bag.

Are you right there with me? Is your use of treats advancing your training or do you need to get a string cheese monkey off your back? Admitting it is the first step on your road to recovery.


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