Thursday, January 13, 2011

Rocking His World- control the food

I had several lessons recently where we had to discuss the lifestyle of the dogs, and how things would need to change in order to motivate the dogs to work with their owners. I thought I would jot down some of those comments, as they apply to anyone either working a new dog of any age, or beginning to re-train one.

The goal is to become the Center of the Universe to your dog, so that, instead of having to nag and call and bully, you have a dog who wants to work with and for you, and who demands it.  Most dogs want a clear leader for their pack and tend to act out when that leadership is absent or inconsistent.  The pack leader is not abusive and does not have to physically dominate a dog; a leader controls resources.

What resources can you control?  Food, play and access are three.  Food is a powerful tool in training, but anything we use must have value to the dog.  If the dog can eat whenever he wants he can choose to refuse our offering because he knows he can eat later.  Food as a training tool is a better choice for teaching behaviors because we do not have to worry about all the rules of play/retrieve/release that come with using a toy. The first thing we control is the food, and we do that by determining how much the dog needs to eat to maintain a working, healthy weight.  Remember that this can change depending on the amount of exercise the dog gets, and if it is entering a growth phase. It is best to visually examine your dog each day to determine whether he needs more or less.

So this first change is to put the dog on a fixed feeding schedule, as opposed to free feeding.  When changing the way a dog looks at his meals and adapting your role to be more than that of just person who throws food in a bowl, I recommend feeding twice a day and feeding slightly less than what he would normally eat, so that he first begins to look forward to dinner time.  For the first few days of this change, I wouldn't ask the dog to perform an obedience command for his dinner BUT I would put down the dish and give him 10 minutes to eat it.  Later, my rule is that if the dog walks away from the dish, I pick it up, but at first a dog who is used to being free fed might think he can pick at his food at will. His world is about to be rocked! 

Make sure your family is on board when you make this change, so that they do not feel sorry for the dog and sneak him other treats. It will only serve to undermine what you are trying to accomplish. By feeding twice a day, you know the dog will have another opportunity to eat.  As a word of warning, he may go several days of only grabbing a mouthful or two until he figures out that the food is truly going away. We are not actively training during this time using food until we have created a mechanism to use as reward, which is desire.

Do not tease the dog with his food,  remove it or otherwise interfere with his eating once he begins to eat or you will create food guarding behaviors.  Instead, as part of your role as the "giver of all good things", drop a special treat or two into the dish as he eats.  You want him to look forward to your presence and interaction as a good thing.  If you had a delicious steak and someone kept taking it away from you as you ate, pretty soon you would position yourself to protect it and if the behavior persisted, you would probably clobber the thief!  Your dog doesn't feel any differently about unfair behavior than you would.  So instead, we show the dog that we are fair and bring good things to his table and that people near his food, or hands near his dish are good.

You can build on this by portioning off the dog's meals and then dropping handfuls or pieces into the dish.  The dog will eat the pieces and look at you expectantly... drop some more.  Again, you are simply showing him that your presence and contribution to his dinner time is a good thing.

When I have a dog who presents with food guarding/aggression OR I get a new dog, I immediately begin feeding by hand. With no dish on the floor, there is nothing to guard and the dog learns that all good things come from my hand.  When you do this, you can't be lazy about it and think you're just going to throw a dish down tonight because you're tired.. the meals MUST come from you.  My goal with the new dog in particular, is to attach him to my hand, so to speak, and have him working for his meals in a dynamic manner.  You can begin to put his obedience sessions on cue by saying something such as "wanna play" (which is my OB cue) and then beginning your series of spins, recalls, positions.. all for food.  The goal is never to have the dog leave you and "check out" during this session, the same as you would not reward the dog for wandering away from the food dish.

In addition to the positive attributes of controlling the resource for the purpose of training and establishing leadership, it can also be a critical element for the working dog.  Without going into medical detail, particularly with the deep-chested breeds that are statistically prone to bloat and torsion, we need to know when the dog has last been fed and how much so we can avoid exercise and water intake that could prove fatal.  By knowing when your dog has eaten you could potentially save his life.  You also know immediately when your dog is "off his food" and not feeling well.  In the case of some medical conditions, including a blockage this also could save a life.  If you know your dog eats 2 cups per meal and consumes it within five minutes as a rule and that same dog eats a mouthful and then coughs it up or chooses not to eat, you immediately know something is wrong, and to keep an eye on it or get it checked out.

As with all dog training, patience is key.  Remember that you are rocking the world of your dog as he knows it.  Dogs --and humans-- will cling to that is familiar and resist change.  For the dog, this may mean he refuses to eat under the new rules, at least at first.  Resist the temptation to chum up his food to entice him.  It would be an incredibly stupid dog who willingly choose to starve when there was food in front of him.  This is not to say they won't hold out for longer than you would think probable, as evidenced by my boy, Digit, who decided he no longer wanted to track and went four days without more than enough food to make his stomach rumble before he decided to surrender. 

Reward effort.  The dog who has never had to work in this manner or taken food by hand is possibly not going to be glued to you the first time you try.  Reward the small steps of success, to encourage him to keep trying.  If you set him up to fail, he will stop trying and we don't want that. Be sure that when he comes into your hand for food you mark it "yes!" and give him food!! Small, easy steps at first, building toward the final behavior.  The change may be difficult for both of you, but if you persist, it will be rewarding.