Here’s a question for you: If $500 was automatically deposited into your bank account every day without fail, no matter what…would you go to work?
Let’s face it: A lot of the things we ask our dogs to do are like work for them. Sitting and lying down on cue aren’t exactly up there on the “fun for dogs” scale. And what about holding a stay while a super-awesome visitor comes in the front door? Or running away from a squirrel to come to you? Or walking on a loose leash while ignoring all the tantalizing odors drifting every which way? This is tough stuff!
Getting the behaviors we want from our dogs requires motivation. We have to make it worth their while, especially as the distractions ramp up. So, how can we make sure that what our dogs want matches up with our expectations? What do we have in our toolbox to motivate our best friends?
There are lots of things our dogs love – toys, play, their favorite people (us!), and the chance to do normal doggie activities like sniffing and chasing critters. But by far the easiest reward to harness in training is food.
All (healthy!) dogs are motivated by food. As the fantastic trainer Jean Donaldson likes to point out, if they weren’t interested in food at all, they’d starve themselves to death. Food rewards are quick and simple, and they make training fun for you and your canine buddy. What could be better?
But what if you’re trying to use food with your dog…and they’re less than enthusiastic? Some dogs will eat anything, anytime, anywhere. These guys are a breeze to train – they’re bottomless motivational pits. Sure, whatever you want, they say. I’ll do anything! Just keep the num nums coming!
And then…there are the dogs who will spit out perfectly good bits of cheese if the stars aren’t properly aligned.
This is where the direct deposit question comes in. A full bowl of food that’s freely available all day is like that $500. Given money up front, not all dogs are eager to play our silly (to them!) human games for an extra dollar here and there. It’s just not worth their effort. Does this make them bad dogs? Of course not! This is perfectly normal. But it does present a challenge.
So what can we do to add a sparkle to these dogs’ eyes when we’re ready to train? It’s as simple as picking up the bowl. When you offer food, give your dog a set amount of time – 15 minutes is a good chunk – to eat what they want, then take away whatever’s left until the next meal. Without the opportunity to snack at will, most dogs will be much more interested when you pull out their favorite healthy food rewards.
When we use food in training, it really helps to think of rewards as part of our dogs’ diet. Instead of handing everything over for free, we’re asking them to work for a bit of their overall food intake. In many dog food brands, the first ingredient is some variety of meat – chicken is a common one. Why not have our dogs earn a bit of that chicken?
If this seems kind of mean, like we’re pulling some Machiavellian trick on our best friends, I’d like to encourage you to think about this in a different light. Our dogs’ lives can be a bit…boring. We have work and school and sports and friends and hobbies. They have….well, us. Their genes have equipped them to spend their days scavenging and hunting for food, but they don’t have much of a chance to put that genetic software to use. Giving our dogs the opportunity to work to eat in training is a terrific outlet for the mental and physical energy they’ve got bottled up. And, as a bonus, any energy they put towards learning to sit, come, or shake is energy they can’t use to redecorate the house!
So, if you’re currently a free feeder, pick up that bowl and put that food to work! Your dog already loves you. Help motivate him to love training as well.