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Training with food

by | 3 Sep, 2020

I’ve used food as a reward in dog training right from the beginning. Training for the conformation ring taught me how to use food to get the dog the stay in the perfect stack (that can be decoded as: ‘stand still’ in case you didn’t know). Also how to sneakily use your high value food to subtly distract your competition from what they are meant to be doing – but we’re not going to discuss the ethics of the show ring here.

When I started obedience training with Smudge, my first Bouvier, I discovered the secret magic of using bananas in training. We were still very much in the coercive paradigm, and food was only allowed for teaching a sendaway. After a great deal of trial and error, Smudge’s sendaway in class ended up looking like this:

  1. Tell Smudge to sit and stay
  2. Walk away 10m or so
  3. Turn and face Smudge
  4. Ostentatiously whip banana out of pocket and start peeling
  5. Equally ostentatiously have a nibble
  6. Place banana provocatively on the ground
  7. Walk back to Smudge
  8. Reposition myself at heel
  9. Tell Smudge to go to the banana
  10. Cue a down as he gets there
  11. Rush up to him
  12. Share banana
  13. Return to start

This caused unending mirth for some reason.

What it taught me was that food could be a useful motivator to dogs. And you know what? Science proves this. It’s useful for training most animals, actually – this article explains how APOPO uses food as a reinforcer for training giant African pouched rats to detect land mines. Zoos are using food rewards as part of husbandry training all over the world (a quick Google search on this returned over 4 million hits!).

Once I’d been introduced to clicker training, food became a vital part of my training toolbox. I learnt that some food was better for the dog (roast chicken skin was a favourite) but not so much for me (slimy, stinky fingers).

I learnt that some shape and texture food was easier for me to handle and deliver. Tiny bits of roast chicken skin get stuck to your hand, for example and if they’re too small the dog’s convinced you didn’t actually deliver anything. Cooked chicken breast crumbles. So do many cooked biscuit-y treats. Your training session then ends up being interspersed with treasure hunts while your dog investigates the floor for delicious debris.

I learnt that small dogs (I have miniature dachshunds as well, don’t forget) actually do have a finite capacity for food. Dachsies generally don’t know this, but it is true nonetheless. So a 30-treat training session suddenly requires more planning (a satiated dog eventually loses motivation for food – unless it’s a Labrador <grin>).

I learnt that some dogs just aren’t that motivated by ‘usual’ food, so you have to bring out the smelly stuff (green tripe, offal wors, etc.). And to subdue your shudder response to handling it. I have taught all my dogs to take small amounts of raw food directly from a spoon because I just really, really don’t like handling it.

Offal Wors

Then along came Oliver, my fifth dachshund. He developed horrendous allergies to all kinds of things that meant my normal treats had to be tweaked so he could eat them and not spend the next week scratching himself until he bled.

I tried what seems like hundreds of recipes from the internet. Sort of. I summarised my research into homemade treats into a recipe book. People who know me well know that I NEVER follow recipes, so this book is appropriately more a guideline.

And I use my own guidelines as guidelines! Here are the notes from a recent experiment that came about when a friend donated a container of spent barley that is a by-product of his homemade beer project:

Take two bags of slightly frozen mixed lettuce leaves (fridge is playing up) and process with a squirt of fish oil and a glug of flax oil to finish the bottle. Add about 3 cups of spent barley and process until fairly smooth. Add the last bread crumbs from the ancient packet that was in the cupboard where the milk powder you wanted to use should have been. Squish into a baking tray and cook for about 30 mins on 80⁰C while you’re making something else. Move it to the bottom of the oven while you bake the other stuff at 180⁰C for 20 minutes. Leave in the turned off oven until cool. Realise they’re still soft so dehydrate at 45⁰C for 8 hours. Result – big thumbs up from the dogs. Not an ideal recipe/process though. Try drying the rest of the barley first, make into flour and go from there.

Spent Barley

This is based on Dehydrator Biscuits recipe from the recipe book. Dog treats are very forgiving concepts. Probably because dogs are fairly forgiving food consumers.

This was the result of test two, which involved drying the barley, using lots of eggs, a couple of very sad bananas and the scrapings from the peanut butter jar. This was VERY roughly based on the Nutty Veg Cookies recipe.

Spent Barley

If you want to have some fun creating your own treats, buy a copy of the book.
It’s available as a glossy printed A5 booklet or as a pdf e-book. You decide.

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Liz is a Certified Trick Dog Trainer and offers private and small class dog training. She uses force-free training methods and believes in developing the handler's skills as much as the dog's. She has worked with many different breeds, ages and ability of dogs. Liz doesn't use a cookie-cutter approach to training – each dog and their human get what they need to meet their goals.