The Unmotivated Dog’s Food
“My dog is not interested in food and it won’t play. How can I get it to track?”
Last month we looked at making a dog keen to Play, Retrieve, Chase and become Possessive.
This month we’ll look at dogs which are indifferent to food.
In the heady world of Behavioral Jargon food is always stated to be the primary reinforcer. The degree-clad behaviorists will bang on long and hard about wolf packs, they will talk about how the only thing that will drive a starving dog will be trying to survive by obtaining food; “old school” trialists will chant refrains about how “all dogs can track, it’s natural there’s nothing difficult about it”. These behaviorists will do all their pontificating about wolf packs from the warmth of the fireside- if you question them closely about the wolf packs they’ll probably admit to seeing a program on ‘Animal Planet’; their talk of primary reinforcement will come as they are sitting in the armchair sipping ‘dry white wine’ . The “old school” trialists, while they talk with great knowledge, won’t necessarily be in contention on control day in a TD ticket.
So let’s get real. In our world starving a dog would be considered a no no. Last month, when we talked about retrieve work, we considered how the dog’s lifestyle might well be playing an important part.
Look at people who take serious exercise; they miss at least the meal before the exercise. We were told when we were children not to eat before going to the swimming baths- “you’ll get cramp”. There is usually some foundation behind these old wives tales- what do we do after a big Sunday Lunch? Go to sleep. The body requires rest to be able to digest a large meal. A number of people who turn up for training and when asked will say “he has only had his breakfast” often 50 % of his daily intake.
When I talk to beginners about feeding, a large number who say “Oh he’s not at all greedy, I just leave his food down all the time” then the response continues, “No we never allow him to scrounge food while we’re eating, he knows the only place he’s allowed to eat is from his own bowl” I know this would be considered an extreme version, but there are parts of it we all tend to use.
The following suggestions are simply that, based on opinion and experience, not on any veterinary knowledge To use or not the following methods is entirely your choice.
Starting at the beginning, when we bring our puppy home, the breeder will have given us instructions about feeding- probably 4 meals a day evenly spaced etc., with instructions as to content. If the puppy is the only dog in the house its perception will be that “food is always available, so no hurry”. As ample food is always available, the dog will perceive no urgency in eating it. Habits around food are as relevant as anywhere else.
To begin changing the dog’s habits and attitude, to we need to think about it logically. First make sure the dog is at a weight which is suitable for work - this not only applies with regard to food motivation but also if a dog is heavier than ideal, think about all the extra stress that the long jump and scale will be putting on its joints. Assuming the dog is close to an ideal weight we need to help it to appreciate food and enjoy taking it from hand.
During most meals the dog which is unexcited by food will break from eating his morning or evening meal; watch carefully for the dog to move away from his food then remove anything not eaten. If the dog starts to guard his food stay close but do not attempt to take it (the guarding is a sign of the dog’s increased interest in food). When the dog has had a few short meals you will find it will become a habit to finish eating.
The next step - miss a meal altogether, then instead of feeding at the normal time feed a little late but instead of simply putting the food down in a bowl feed the dog by hand. (It’s worth a mention at this point that the food you are going to feed by hand should be a favourite, not your basic dry ‘all in one’; make it chicken, tripe or even a tinned meat.) At this point somebody usually says “ooeeeu- what - tripe from your hand? It gets under your fingernails and makes your hands smell”. This is a good time to ask yourself if trials are for you; it is inevitable that in the near future you are going to make the close acquaintance of mud, cow pats, various kinds of manure from; chickens, cows, pigs and virtually anything that tastes good fried from Tesco’s; this is all part of the picture we call trials. A bit of tripe or tinned dog food under your finger nails is a small price to pay for motivating your dog. Feed the dog its whole meal from your hand. Probably doing this only a few times will change the dog’s idea about you and food. When this is all going well, start asking the dog to perform small tasks in return for its meal. We are building the habit of doing things in return for being fed. If you keep the dogs overall intake at a level where it is usually slightly hungry, your dog’s level of motivation and vigour will be at an altogether higher level. When this state is achieved, tracking for food, should become a matter of course.
If you find the idea of keeping your dog slightly hungry but maintaining his weight, is unacceptable or cruel don’t do it. I’ve heard heelwork to music is a nice sport.
There are several ways of teaching a dog to track for food but they all require the dog to want the food, so the preceding advice is very relevant.
The way the Schutzhund people do it is usually with a small piece of hotdog sausage in each footprint; other methods include food drops at random intervals, food in plastic pots, the dog’s whole dinner split into portions at the end of several short tracks, and incases where there is interest in food but not in tracking for it, meat stew including gravy placed in a cloth bag and dabbed on the track, leaving spots of scent leading to chunks of food. Any of the methods mentioned will have to be progressed to tracking for articles, but until you have some form of motivation the dog is not going to learn to track.
A question that is asked regularly usually comes with a preceding statement.
“My dog is not interested in food and it won’t play. How can I get it to track?”
Anyone who has done any amount of instructing will have been asked this. My attempt to answer this will be put in the magazine over two months.
I’ll start with the play side. The negative question presupposes there is no solution.
This is rarely the case; the main problems come from the handler’s lack of effort, and commitment. A further difficulty comes with the dog’s lifestyle; a dog which has the complete run of the house and garden, large amounts of free running exercise plus food and tidbits on demand will be very difficult to motivate.
A ‘simile’ would be; a boy has grown up with wealthy parents and has lacked for nothing, when he reaches his seventeenth birthday his expectation is a car for a present. If when he looks at the gift, instead of the new Hot Hatch he is expecting, he sees a 12 year old basic model, he is going to be disappointed. However, if the boy is from a poor family who has struggled to survive, his expectations will be reduced, so if he is presented with the 12 year old basic model, he is likely to be pleased and grateful.
To put this into dog training terms the dog is comfortable, stimulated by available toys, exercised with a couple of hours of free running a day. When you come to this dog wanting it to play with you, it will be a real struggle to get the dog to be responsive, why make the effort. Why not just get back on the settee for a sleep, maybe nibbling a snack on the way?
Play is one of the most useful ways to guide the dog into the state we call motivated.
The basis of most play is, retrieve / prey - chase / grab and tug.
To start you will require an enclosed paved area with a ball of a suitable size for the dog.
(Too large and heavy will put the dog off, too small and the dog might get the ball stuck in its throat). Start by bouncing the ball from the floor to the wall and catch it. If the dog shows interest, only looking and following the ball visually, throw and catch two or three more times, then put the dog in a crate or a quiet room on its own and leave it for a couple of hours.
If the dog dives after the ball and tries to get it, throw it again two or three times making the dog miss the catch, then finally throw the ball in such a way that it bounces unpredictably back allowing the dog to get it. The dog must feel getting the ball is his victory, not your gift. Chase the dog playfully for a couple of minutes then ease the ball from his mouth, put it in your pocket, then place the dog in a crate or quiet room for two hours. After the quiet time, take the dog out, let him toilet, then repeat the process. Gradually the dog will become keener and keener. In the case of the visual dog, its interest should gradually increase in intensity until it starts to play.
A dog with little or no instinct to retrieve and a low or poor prey drive will be really hard work. You will have to use lots of imagination to “ring this dog’s bells”.
A few suggestions :~ try rolling the ball slowly along the floor gently, restraining the dog, then rushing after the ball yourself; use a rubber ring, roll it slowly so it wobbles as it rolls; the next thing to try is tie a string to the toy and by using unpredictable tugs make it come alive. Finding something to excite a disinterested dog can be a major task, there is untold opportunity to make oneself look really foolish, so this is best done in private. If you take a 100 dogs there will be a 100 different ways of ringing their bells, with some dogs the road will be quick and easy, with others long and boring, A very few will never respond but this percentage is thankfully small. To admit defeat, give up and assume the dog you are working with is one of the small percentage, is to limit yourself to only the lesser half of the potential motivational opportunities.
In the case of another dog the desire to chase will increase to the point where it is extremely difficult to stop the dog catching the ball. Keep allowing the dog to win, and he will start to get possessive over the ball and it will become difficult to get the ball away from the dog.
When you have reached this stage, take the ball from the dog as pleasantly as possible; this should not become a negative experience. When you have done this a few times finish the session with the dog in a quiet room to think.
Just to recap, the point of this exercise is not to teach the dog a formal retrieve, it is to tap into the dog’s inner drives to allow us to have an in, or handle on the dogs emotional powerhouse.
Once the dog starts to become keen to retrieve the probability of the dog becoming possessive over the ball or ring is high. At this point in time, while we need to control the possessiveness it is obvious you can’t continue to work the dog if it’s avoiding you and when you do catch it will not give you the ball.
We do however wish to maintain the dogs increasing drive to retrieve, the purpose being to increase the dogs motivational potential. There are several ways to maintain the retrieve drive while controlling the possessiveness.
The one I try first is, having taken the ball from the dog throw it again immediately. If you get the timing of this right the dog will eventually start asking you to throw the ball again by giving it to you. I would from the very start make sure the dog is delivering the ball to hand not spitting it at your feet. It must always be remembered that a halt is called while the dog is wanting more, then to the quiet room.
A second way to control the possessiveness is with the use of food or tidbits. Before you start the retrieve work do a few informal recalls with the dog to tell it you have tidbits then start your retrieve work. The dog might be a little distracted by the fact you have food, but if you persevere the retrieve will come back. Because the dog is distracted it will be less intense, getting it to give you the ball will be easier.
Simply exchange the ball for a tidbit. Using a tidbit in this manner will have the effect of reducing the level of excitement within the retrieve. As you continue with your retrieve / play the uncontrolled excitement should evolve into a deeper power and determination.
(Note ) The reason behind the quiet room is to give the dog an opposite to the excitement of the retrieve work. Hopefully the dog will be wanting to do more retrieve as an alternative to the boredom of the quiet room. So release from the quiet room equals the fun of the interaction with you and the retrieve. When this is achieved we have the dog on the road to wanting to be with you and to please you, as this is FUN
Play with different focus
A game of tug: this creates in the dog a determination which if handled correctly will cause the dog to be faithful to the task and ignorant of distraction.
At the mention of a game of tuggy, or tug of war the reaction of most handlers, is off to the Pet Shop to look for suitable “tug toys”. They come back with all manner of things; a ball on a rope , a cong on a rope , a large rubber figure of eight shaped thing, a short length of thick soft rope highly coloured with a knot in each end. The problem with all these items is first you get the dog playing with them, then they become like a security blanket with neither the dog or the handler being relaxed when they are not around. They will not be around at competition because they are too big for the pocket and will not be allowed in the hand.
Let’s look at this from the other side. We have progressed past the early stages of training. Imagine for a moment the dog is working well and competitively, at this point what do we require from the tug toy? It must be able to fit in your pocket without causing you any discomfort. It needs to be producible in an instant. Timing is very difficult if you are having to pull your stomach in and need to use two hands to get the toy out. (This also says something about the pockets of your trousers) Seize the moment? not a chance with a ball in the pocket of tight denims!
What toy then? A Rubber Ring 4 ½ inch fits in most pockets as it’s flat, too big for the almost any dog to swallow, you can get two or three fingers in it to play tug with the dog. A Rubber Ring can be used as a throw toy and with practice can be manipulated in various ways to change the dog’s reaction, at the handler’s will. The Rubber Ring is one of my toys of choice.
The disadvantage; you will get your fingers bitten (no pain no gain).
My other toy of choice is the dog’s lead.
Just as a mechanic needs more than one spanner of each size, a good dog trainer will need leads both many and various; my preference is bridle leather. It might seem stupid to use a good leather lead as a toy, so here’s my reasoning the dog will only be allowed to retrieve or play tug with the lead, it will never be left to its own devices while it’s got the lead. The wear and tear on the lead will be minimal and if I have to replace a lead or two a year “That’s Life”.
The Disadvantage; Cost.
The Advantage; if you are working your dog you will always have a lead with you. So play, motivation and de-stressing are only a moment away.
When building a play retrieve it is a must to change from the dogs favourite toy to others, then onto items that can be changed into ‘articles’ for the tracking. A small piece of carpet (8 x 4 inches) rolled tight and tied, can make a good tug toy and as the dog improves, the size of the toy can be reduced until eventually the carpet will only be (2 x 1) flat; 9 inches of garden hose can be gradually reduced to 2 inches.
One Last thought
Judges in competition are going to be less than impressed with any excuses about the dog being unmotivated.
Do the work!