Currency in Dog Training

I use food a great deal in both training and behaviour consultations. Food, when used to reinforce behaviours, is a powerful tool, as it has the effect of calming and focusing a dog due to the physiological effects it has on the dog. Toys and play can have the resulting effect of exciting a dog, and when working with reactive dogs, this can be counter-productive.

Reinforcers only work as reinforcers if the dog is willing to work for what we are trying to use. The dogs decides what is a reinforcer, not us unfortunately. If a dog is not hungry, or is fed on a diet of tasty, human, cooked food, dried kibble usually doesn’t cut it for training.

I recently did a home consultation for a couple with a reactive Jack Russell Terrier. Now, a JRT has a stomach about the size of a crisp packet, if that (small bag of potato chips, for my international readers!). I tried to give the wee dog a couple of pieces of hotdog, usually a high value reward and was kind of surprised that he refused them. On enquiring about his diet, I was told by the woman who owned him that he regulary gets a fairly large bowl of pasta for his size, cooked chicken, tinned tuna and sardines, as well as left overs from the family dinner. He was a little rotund, but only a little as he had obviously been self regulating his food intake. The owner also stated, with a degree of surprise in her voice, that he would only “pick” at his dog food throughout the day. Not a huge surprise!

The first thing I advise for training a dog, who isn’t motivated by food, as in the case above, is to reduce his portion size for a few days. Dogs can easily go three days before starting to feel hungry and a well fed dog can go over five or six days before hunger will start to set in. When the dog starts to feel hungry, we can begin to use his hunger to get him to work for his food. In using normal, everyday kibble as his payment, we don’t need to rely on training treats, hot dogs, cheese, chicken or other high value rewards. This way, we can use a really high rate of reinforcement to get the dog addicted to those behaviours and gradually start to fade the food rewards out. This way, we can save the super high value rewards for truly excellent behaviours, really difficult stuff or for when the level of distraction of much higher than usual

Good behaviours get normal food, better behaviours or performances get more of the good stuff and the best or most difficult tasks get the best rewards.

Don’t give your dog the canine equivalent of £50 notes or $50 bills for free in the shape of cooked chicken or sausage and expect him to work for pennies (dry biscuits or kibble).

Our dog’s job is to be a good dog. Daily food is his payment. If you give an untrained dog food in a bowl you are essentially giving him payment for sitting with his feet up on the desk all day and then expecting him to do what you ask without help.  He needs help to know what to do. Once he routinely does all the god things, he has earned his food all in the one go either once or twice a day in a bowl.  Until then, space the kibble out throughout the day and he can earn it during times when you are teaching him what you want of him.

Seasonal behaviour and training

Our girl Kitty became increasingly growly over the years. We worked hard all the time, but a combination of her temperament, breed and my not really knowing what I was doing all those years ago when she was younger combined and over the years she would become worse over the winter and during the spring and summer, she never really got back to where she was the year before.

The darker nights here in Glasgow in the winter (it gets dark about 4pm in December and January) combined with the foul Scottish winters (cold and wet, I know, we’re very lucky) mean that our dogs generally get out less in the winter, and when they do, walks are shorter, darker and there are fewer people and dogs around.

Due to socialisation being an ongoing process throughout the dog’s life, dogs can become less familiar with people and dogs due to lack of exposure. This can especially be cause for concern in the guardian and livestock guardian breeds.

The solution to this is to get out as often as you can, whenever mother nature throws you a sunny winter afternoon and do a tonne of classical conditioning, which means, take your dog’s breakfast to the park, local cafe with outdoor seating, etc and point out all the things to your dogs.

“Look at that man with the beard”  feed feed feed.

“Look at that wee dog”  feed feed feed

“Look at that lady with a toddler in a pram”  feed feed feed.

When spring comes around, do exactly the same things. It’s a bit easier in spring as the weather is warmer, the days are longer and there are more people and dogs around. Saturday and Sunday mornings can mean trips to your local dog friendly cafe of restaurant where you can sit outside and feed your dog as the world goes by.

If you don’t have a eatery near you, use a public park bench and do the same.

Encourage passers-by to feed your dog with her kibble or extra tasty treats such as sausages or cheese,

All this goes a long way to helping your dog remain friendly and easier to live with year round.

Until next time


Glasgow Dog Trainer and Behaviour Consultant

Yo-yoing distance when training a recall

I worked with a couple of Jack Russells Terriers today and it made me think about recall training. Every once in a while, when I’m training dogs, something clicks into place about a method I’ve been using or the way I’ve been explaining an idea or technique. The idea of yo-yoing distance is something which has been rattling about in my head for a while.

Basically, when we start training a recall, we want to be a short distance from the dog and a long distance from the distraction (other dog, person, interesting smell in the grass, squirrel etc.). Highly praise and reward the dog for looking at or towards you or fully coming back using food, praise and/or a game such as tug or throwing a ball. Always ensure to touch the dog’s collar before the reward. A recall isn’t much use if we can’t take out dog’s collar when they come back. Move a little closer to the distraction, then call your dog again. Rinse and repeat.

When your dog is doing well with us at a close distance to the dog, and the dog a close distance from the distraction, we start again. We then start to increase our distance from us to the dog and gradually work on increasing the distance between us. When the dog can recall when we are further away from the dog, and the dog is far from the distraction, start to reduce the distance between to dog and the distraction.

Your training progress should look something like this over the weeks, months etc





This way, we are progressively making it more difficult for the dog as his level of competence increases.

I also use a long line to help, either as a safety net in case he bolts or as a very gently help with light pressure to encourage him toward us. Remember, don’t reel the dog in. As soon as he is moving towards you, there should be no pressure on the line.

A difficult case

I’ve decided to give an account of a very difficult case I was involved with last year. I’ve changed the names and breed involved in the case in fairness to the owner and his family.

Jim is in his late 50s and lives in an area which is not the greatest place to live. He has also had serious life threatening health issues which are exacerbated by stress, and a very stressful family life. His daughter contacted me last year. Jim had bought three puppies, two girls and a boy from the same litter from a cowboy breeder who would appear to have bred his dog in order to make some quick cash. The breed was a large breed, similar in size to a Dobermann. Jim took the boy, called Buster, and gave the two girls to his daughters as gifts. Buster’s two sisters didn’t develop any behaviour problems.

Buster had been kept by the breeder until he was 16 weeks old and had been kept in a run outside with little or no interaction with the outside world. After Jim brought him home, he became seriously ill and had to be kept inside for another 4 weeks. By this time, 20 weeks old, he had missed out on the sensitive period for socialisation, which is up to 16 weeks, and was now terrified of everything in the environment so much so that he would react intensely to anything he saw, people, dogs, buggies, cars etc. He did receive plenty of physical exercise, with long off leash outings to local parks and common ground either very early in the morning or very late at night when no one else was around. This went on for about a year until he was a year and a half old when Jim’s daughter, Emma, phoned me for help.

I spent some time on the phone with both Emma and Jim and agreed to come out and work with them. Buster now weighed about 45-50 kg, was incredibly well muscled and was a huge bundle of uncontrollable, nervous, terrified energy. I explained to Jim and his adult family that it was likely to be a long road ahead, and they would all need to get on board with his programme of desensitisation (DS) and counter-conditioning (CC). All were in agreement. When visitors cam into the house, Buster would lunge, bark and snap at them and, as you could guess, visitors to the house were becoming fewer and fewer and when they did visit, Buster was locked in another room where he would bark constantly. When Jim brought Buster out, he was wearing a muzzle, and lunged and barked at me. Jim’s response was to try to physically control Buster, pin him down and shout at him. I explained these things were adding to his anxiety.

The first session went well. We were able to use a local church hall and over the next hour, I managed to get Buster eating pieces of hotdog which was about 2 feet away from me without reacting. This was a reduction in distance of about 30 feet from the beginning of the session, so a good result. The homework I gave to Jim and his family, was to start to hand feed Buster a huge proportion of his daily food allowance while using the words “Good Boy” in a calm voice. This would serve to associate the words with the feel good feelings of the food through classical conditioning, which would allow them to give Buster feedback when he was doing the right things and increase Buster’s confidence.I also said they should feed Buster the remainder of his daily food from a Kong. This would help reduce his anxiety levels by increasing his serotonin and give him something constructive to do. I told them to continue to walk him late at night and early mornings as usual until we could work on what to do with him on walks.

I came back a week later. Jim was very agitated as there had been no change in Buster’s behaviour. I explained again that it would take time but he didn’t seem to understand or accept that Buster would react badly to everything as before, including me but no matter how I explained, nothing seemed to get through. He also said he wasn’t able to do any of the hand feeding I had asked for and hadn’t attempted the feeding from the Kong. I told him if he wasn’t going to implement the programme I had come up with, Buster would not change his behaviour.

We then went outside and tried to do some basic work of DS and CC, working Buster at a safe distance using high value treats. We made a little progress, trying to teach Jim how to handle Buster in and easy way to reduce anxiety for both of them. The session was satisfactory but not great. I told Jim he needed to walk Buster a couple of times a day for the next week until I came back out to see him, doing the same protocol we had been working on, always working Buster at a safe distance and concentrate on keeping as calm as he could himself.

Session 3. One week later. I arrived as usual and asked Jim how he was getting on. Jim reported no progress and very little work. I could see from the last session he was already giving up. Jim had also paid the first three sessions in advance as per our agreement. I again told Jim that Buster wasn’t going to improve on his own. Again it seemed to fall on deaf ears. By this time, I was able to handle Buster a little but he was still very flighty around me and we didn’t have a great session despite my best efforts. I left Jim at the end of the session with the same homework.

Initially Jim had asked for six session but after I attended for my fourth time, which was a couple of weeks later. Again I found Jim had not done the work and poor Buster had not improved. I think the task at hand was more than Jim could do. Jim had not prepared any high value treats, despite my repeated instructions and went through the motions during the session. At the end of the session, I told Jim I wasn’t able to work with him any more as it wouldn’t have been ethical for me to continue to take his money if he wasn’t going to do the work.

The whole case was difficult to deal with for a number of reasons. Jim and Buster have been the only case I’ve had, before or since, where the owner wasn’t at least partly on board. I’ve dealt with clients who have been contrary, argumentative, emotional and stubborn, but the common theme was that they absolutely recognised that their dogs needed help and they weren’t in the position to help them without professional assistance. Dealing with Jim and Buster was difficult because Jim was totally unwilling and/or unable to do the work i was asking him to do no matter how much I stripped the exercises back to the bare bones. I think Jim knew at some level the task at hand was more than he could manage and he somehow needed to rationalise to himself that he had done everything he could to help Buster.

Cases like this one can cause trainers/behaviourists to become burnt out because most of us have the interests of both the dogs and owners at heart. The can also cause damage to our reputations because if Jim is asked about me, my feeling is that he would give a less than positive review despite my best efforts.

Since this case, I’m more forthright to potential clients about their expectations and make it clear to them that the work is their’s to do and the responsibility of putting the training hours in lies with them.

Comments are always welcome.