New to Trials Part 5
Playing with Food
I teach several fun ways of delivering food to my dog. Dog training is my passion and my hobby, as well as my profession: so I like to have fun doing it. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than seeing my dogs having fun as they learn. By changing the delivery of food you can alter the dog’s emotional state and accelerate learning, so it is well worth spending a few minutes to consider the merits of different ways of feeding during training.
Food circuits are a fantastic way of rewarding most dogs. They encompass the thrill of chasing food that is thrown (just like a toy) and the double whammy -food to eat!
What is a food circuit?
For a demonstration of food circuits see video clip
To do a food circuit your dog has to run around behind you to chase and eat a piece of food that you throw in front of you. The dog has to run round behind you to start otherwise he will just stand out away from you and wait for the food to arrive. Food circuits can be repeated as many times as you like so the dog runs round gets a piece of food, races back round you in anticipation of the next piece. This becomes a great game.
When should I use food circuits?
Food circuits have a multitude of uses; they are fun and teach the dog to focus on you, they are great for winding a dog up before working him, and they can be used as a jackpot at the end of a training session and also to break up and reward any dull or boring exercise. Whenever your dog is stressed either by not understanding his training, or by a loud noise, or another dog having a go at him, release the stress with food circuits. They are also great for improving recall issues as they stop the dog from standing in front of you just out of reach! To overcome recall issues, simply add a sit, or down as the dog goes behind you (more or less in the heel position) and reward the position before continuing with food circuits. If you do this fairly regularly you will break your dog’s bad habit of not recalling and you can begin to praise, feed and clip the lead on whilst he is still beside you. Food circuits are a great way to keep your dog focused on you and can use them in the park to keep your dog focused on you whenever there is a situation that you prefer to keep your dog away from.
In short, food circuits are great for improving domestic control as well as enhancing your competition training.
How do I teach my dog to do food circuits?
To begin you will need fairly large pieces of food so that your dog can easily see them in the grass (or whatever surface you are working on). Use food that is easy to see and will not crumble, such as; large kibble, Edam cheese, cooked meat; beef, lamb, liver, heart, sausage, etc. (avoid crumbly things like cooked chicken and mature cheese or your dog may end up sniffing for crumbs instead of running round you ready for the next piece ).
Have a pocketful of the prepared food in a pocket, or pouch, on your right side ready and hold one piece in your right hand to start training. Show your dog the food in your right hand and lure him round behind your legs, swap the food to your left hand and gently toss the food forward – not too far to start. Whilst he is eating it, take another piece from your pocket, gain his attention, and lure him round again: he should be going right around you to complete the circuit. As he gets the hang of this new, easy game, begin to throw the food slightly further in front of you. Progress to having food in both hands and simply begin the lure with the right hand and pretend to swap it over and throw with the left hand. With lots of repetition your dog will be running around so enthusiastically that you will be able to just have food in your right hand, use the hand signal to send him round and throw the food from the right hand. This is much easier if you are right handed. Sending your dog this way round will always result in your dog being on the working side so you can progress to giving a position, as mentioned above, or you can go straight into heelwork on the move if you like.
You can of course do circuits with a ball, but your dog will need a fast and accurate hand delivery to keep the momentum going.
If your dog is athletic and naturally runs clockwise you might want to balance him by sending him round the other way. I use a verbal command to send my dog round. Introduce this when the dog will reliably follow the hand signal. Say the command and then lure as above. Your dog will learn that when you say “round” you are starting a circuit; he should run around behind you ready for the treat to appear in front of you. I use ‘round’ for clockwise circuits and (unimaginatively) ‘other way’ for anticlockwise circuits. I like to keep commands simple so they are easy to remember!
When teaching a dog a position that you want it to maintain, such as heel, or a present, it is advantageous to feed the dog in that position. Do not praise the dog and allow it to move to collect the reward; simply feed the dog where you want it to be. If you are a clicker trainer, you will know that the click ends the exercise so it is okay for the dog to break off to claim its reward: Yes but... if you require the dog to maintain the position it was in when you clicked, simply lure the dog back into position and feed it. Never ask it to do something else – that would be breaking the contract. You have informed the dog he is correct and has earned his reward, so simply lure him back into position with the treat and feed him as promised. After numerous repetitions of this, you will find your dog will hold the position longer without further assistance from you. As a clicker trainer another good tip is to click once and feed in position, pause and feed again without clicking. As a gambler, your dog will be more inclined to hold that position in the hope of more treats appearing. If you do not use a clicker, simply feed, pause in position, and feed again.
In moving exercises, if you want the dog to move faster reward him in front. If you want the dog to go slower deliver the food in such a way that he has to step back to reach it.
We have already noted that dogs are great gamblers and we can maximise on this trait by mixing the food in our treat bag to offer a ‘lucky dip’. Not knowing if the next treat will be a piece of kibble, a chunk of steak, or a piece of apple may keep your dog attentive for longer than offering predictable rewards. Whilst talking about predictable rewards, it is worth noting that if we use a particular reward for a given task regularly, the dog may refuse a different reward if one day you do not have the usual to hand. It seems as though they say ‘sorry that is not the right currency for this task!’ this will be particularly noticeable if swapping from a toy reward to a food reward – or vice versa. Variations seem to be better accepted if kept to the same type, i.e. swap a game of tug for a game of ball, or substitute one food for another. This phenomenon appears to be a direct contradiction of the above statement about the value of the lucky dip; however it is an interesting reaction that does occasionally occur.
You may be familiar with the term ‘jackpot’ and wonder when and how a jackpot should be given. I guess it is obvious that a jackpot is a whole load of treats given at once as a big reward for a job well done. Sure a jackpot could be given when your dog finally ‘gets’ what you want. Never blast him with a succession of clicks, just one click will do; followed by either a pot of food (what is left at the end of your training session) or you could click once and then deliver one piece of food, followed by another, followed by another as in food circuits. Do not be tempted to scatter the pot full over the floor. This will simply teach your dog to spend more and more time sniffing the floor – which is not a desirable behaviour!
I want my dog to end every session connected with me, so food circuits are good, however if my dog is exhausted I might consider the best jackpot on this occasion is to have all the food from the pot. Whichever method I use, I want to be sure that my dog leaves the session with a warm glow of success.