This, if I’m honest is one of the main problems owners find when training; and what often stops them from making any real progress.
It’s also one of the main reasons that I feel a lot of people rubbish rewards based training; because their dog won’t take the food. When I hear of a dog refusing food outside, I don’t see it as my method failing; I see it as communication of the clearest kind.
Is food the problem?
Dogs are not robots. Not all dogs feel the need to inhale food anytime they come across it. To further support this, lets consider dogs that are hand fed. ‘Hand feeding’ is where dogs are solely hand fed every single morsel of their food allowance, where they don’t necessarily have to earn every bite, but every bite is used to build a relationship between the dog and handler. When done correctly, this should not be an aversive technique. It very quickly forces the handler to do more with their dog, and for the dog to realise that their handler brings the good stuff and is actually worth their attention.
In hand feeding, the dog is only receiving food whilst working with their handler, so in theory having an empty belly – it doesn’t change the fact that there are still countless dogs trained in this method that will refuse food in certain locations; maybe on the street, in the forest car park, or at the gate of a meadow. The reason for the food refusal is not that they are fully satiated, or its not tasty enough – but that they are over whelmed and the location is ‘too much’ for them to take the food. Similarly, dogs that are not purely hand fed, will also refuse food or play at some of these locations too for the same reason. They are too aroused to engage in what the handler is requesting. In short; your environment is too tough, and you, the hander have to do something about it. Your dogs not failing; but your set up is.
Signs your dogs overwhelmed:
- Lip licking
- Head pointed up
- Lunging at passers by
- Refusing food and toys
- Remaining completely disengaged
- Not responding to anything you do
It can be extremely frustrating. In your house, your dogs amazing! They can do tons of tricks. But the minute you step out the gate, or open the boot its like you don’t exist. Waving food under their nose, shoving it in their mouth, popping that collar – nothing works. The best thing we can do is start using food as reinforcement, not as a distraction.
How do I fix it then?
First steps, for me is looking at the relationship. Like, really looking at the relationship between dog and handler. I want to create safety in the relationship, but I also really want to create predictability.
To create predictability, and build that secure relationship I’m going to start by introducing a marker, usually a ‘yip’ or a clicker and spend quite a lot of time conditioning & generalising it. I will do it in all the rooms at home, the back garden, on a local walk and even in the hallway once the leads on before a walk. Once I’m getting a really nice whip round response to the marker in all these standard locations, I’m going to start training some behaviours, using the click as my marker for the behaviours.
Again, I’m going to do the same thing I did with my marker; I’m going to start to generalise the behaviours which means teaching them in lots of different locations and times of day. Using reinforcement based training, the dog is going to enjoy the behaviours because they will be heavily reinforced; by using food, toys, lots of different things they enjoy. Over time, this is going to bleed into other areas of their life. In different environments your dog is going to start looking at you for guidance and security, in environments they are struggling in they will seek your assistance as you have a proven track record of giving the dog an opportunity to gain reinforcement and therefore feel better about themselves.
Good training is built on solid foundations; good foundations are the difference between a dog that jumps out a van and can be trusted to sniff and investigate whilst being in tune with their handler vs the dog that launches out the van, running around with cloth ears and the exasperated handler screaming their name.
Boring as it may be; solid foundations are key and worth spending the time and resources on.