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Strategies for Using Food Reinforcement with LGDs

Updated: Mar 13, 2023

Food is a primary reinforcer for animals, which means that animals don’t need to learn to value it; they value food because it is necessary for their survival. However, that does not mean an animal will eat food, even food he likes, in any/every context.

Animals have social, environmental, and situational considerations throughout their lives. These considerations continue to exist even in the presence of food the animal likes, and sometimes the presence of food adds stress or complications for the animal because of these three considerations. In my training of both companion dogs and LGDs, I have found that in order to be successful with my LGDs using food reinforcers I really have to pay attention to the considerations listed above. When animals eat, they experience an emotional sense of well-being. That is a nice thing to be able to tie into training sessions, so I think making the effort to condition a dog to look forward to treats is time well invested.

Most companion dogs are pretty easy to motivate with food. This is due to the way they live with humans, as well as their genetic selection. LGDs have been selectively bred to be suspicious of novel elements in their environment. They appreciate continuity in their lives, rather than welcoming change. This mindset is part of what makes them such successful guardians.

For most LGDs, food shows up once or twice a day, in their familiar bowl, at an anticipated time of day. This is what a “normal” food relationship is like. This familiar routine is comforting to the LGD.

Training is a change, in that it is inferred that the trainer may be attempting to teach the dog a new behavior. Puppies are generally more accepting of change because, for them, most of their lives thus far is all about new things. Many adult LGDs have had little formal training, or they may have been trained using methods other than positive reinforcement. Dogs that have been trained using commands/compulsion-based training may find the thought of having a training session quite stressful because they have learned it is possible for them to make a mistake. LGDs don’t have much tolerance for this type of training and will often leave (choose distance) rather than participate in training if they have that opportunity. If that training ever involved the use of treats, that means treats are now suspect as well because they are linked to the stress of the dog having made a mistake in the past.

So, given all this, can you see that if you walk out to your adult LGD and drop a hotdog in front of him, and he walks away, it does not necessarily mean he doesn’t like hotdogs? In fact, you may not have gotten much honest feedback about how he feels about hotdogs at all in this circumstance because the presence of the hotdog is novel, and the dog still has the three considerations listed above to deal with.

In a training setting, animals get to decide what is reinforcing for them. It may be something convenient, such as pre-packaged string cheese, or it may be the slow success of a belly rub. I have an adult male Maremma that likes cookies just fine; now, after extensive conditioning on my part to consider a cookie, but offered the choice between a cookie or a belly rub, he’ll take the belly rub every time. So, for us, repetitions of behavior are slow, but this is what works for us.

I had raised about fifty Maremmas by the time I attempted to learn clicker training. I had sixteen adult Maremmas here to do training with at that time. None of them had ever been trained using food reinforcement. That stopped me in my tracks, in terms of trying to teach them to be clicker dogs, because how was I to do that if they wouldn’t eat what I offered them? I click – they appreciate the treat, and eat it! Those are the rules, or so I thought, and it is certainly how the Karen Pryor Academy Dog Trainer Foundations course presents getting started in using clicker training with a dog. This is because most students in the course are working with companion dogs, so mostly this works, but the same cannot be said for LGDs.

A strategy had to be found. This is what I came up with. I decided to use dry, inexpensive dog cookies. When I fed my dogs their normal dinner, I added small, broken-up pieces of these dog cookies to the top of their kibble. Some of the dogs pushed the pieces of cookies out of the bowls, to begin with, but over time they all agreed to eat the cookie pieces. Then I made the pieces larger, so four pieces, and then in half, and then a few whole cookies, all placed on their kibble, in the bowl they expected me to use at a time they expected food to show up. OK, small success here. Then I started to drop a cookie or two near the dog’s bowl at mealtime, rather than in the bowl. When that became generally accepted, I began to drop cookies on the ground as I approached the dog’s bowl to fill it with kibble. Then I began to go out at random times of the day and drop a cookie or two for the dogs, making sure that the partner dogs didn’t become concerned about each other or the livestock they live with.

The presence of livestock near where you drop treats may worry your dog, in that he may view the livestock as competing for those new, cool, unexpected gifts. It is not relevant at all whether said livestock really cares about the treat you tossed the dog; the dog’s perception of this possibility is what matters. Also, if the dog has a partner, the way in which you train and deliver reinforcers in the presence of that partner dog is important.

To this day, most of my original adult dogs will not take cookies from my hand, but they will pick them up off the ground if I place them there in a way that each individual dog is accepting of. Some of the dogs will follow my hand with their nose. Some of them like the cookie placed near their front feet. Some of them prefer I set the cookie at my feet, and then take a step back, or more. Some of the dogs won’t eat the cookies if I make eye contact with them while the cookie is there.

My point here is that none of this has anything to do with if a particular Maremma likes a particular cookie; it has to do with conditioning the dog to understand why the cookie is there, and that he has the option, or not, of eating it.

From here, though, it gets easier. Once dogs understand that odd food can show up at odd times, and that it is OK to eat it, they become more broadly accepting of the concept. Cookies are a low-value treat. High-value treats, which are usually something smelly or slimy, often are more motivating to dogs, but again, the dogs may need to learn about these new, fancy treats in the same way they learned about cookies. When I started doing this training, I thought oh, good heavens, never will I raise another dog without teaching him to appreciate treats as a puppy! So much easier!

In practical application, in a training session with an adult trained as I have described above, when I click, I then deliver the treat in the way this particular dog needs me to. The timing of the click is very important. The speed at which the cookie is delivered is less critical, as long as the dog understands that the two events are connected. With dogs that I need to move slowly around I make sure the connection is there by using my voice as well: click – oh good dog I will bring you a cookie here it comes you will love this cookie thank you dog, and then I step back and see what the dog thought about all that. My voice can help connect the two events while my body moves slowly.

What if you are having a different problem? What if you are working with an adolescent dog with a mouth like a shark? There are times in adolescence when a young dog seems to be all teeth and paws. In a case like this, no part of me is interested in handing this dog a snack, but I can toss it on the ground in front of him. I can click him for eye contact and pay him by tossing a treat a few feet from me, and thereby slow the dog down and getting his brain engaged before he has a chance to fall apart in excitement and put his feet on me. I may do several repetitions of click/treat in this way, and never hand the dog anything directly from my hand.

It is very important that a dog never be scolded for inappropriately taking a treat. To do so creates a negative association with the treat, and your training goes backward. If a dog is inclined to be rough about taking treats, it is appropriate for you to change the way you deliver the treat, in an effort to help the dogs succeed, and to keep all your fingers in good shape.

For some dogs, in some situations, using treats at all amps them up so far that they can’t learn well. In this case, my voice and touch may be what I need to use. There may be a dog afraid of the sound of the clicker. I haven’t encountered such a dog yet, but I think it is theoretically possible. I click from a distance and carefully watch the dog to see what he thinks of the sound of the clicker the first few times. For a dog frightened by the sound of a clicker, a voice marker may be appropriate.

Using food reinforcements with LGDs often requires strategies, and time spent conditioning the dog. The way treats are delivered, and why, is a science all of its own. This is covered in the Foundations course, as well as in my training manual.

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