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Teach Your LGDs That the Presence of a Food Bowl Equals Safety: Shaping & Cues - Annabel the Cow

Updated: Feb 7, 2023

These four-month-old pups have been taught, using shaping, that I will stay and make sure they are allowed to eat in peace, no matter what. I stay with these pups whether it looks like there will be trouble or not for many reasons.

I begin this training when the pups are old enough to have the attention span I need them to have, which is usually at about three months of age. Let's talk about how I taught them the behavior you see them doing, which is to calmly stay focused on their own bowl.

I am working with eight puppies here. I spread the food bowls as far from each other as I need to; for some litters, or ages of pups, the bowls might be 4' apart or 20' apart. I know what the pups need me to do by watching the pups; I place the bowls far enough apart that the pups ignore each other.

Some pups prefer to share a bowl. I'm fine with that as long as there is harmony between both pups. If I see a pup begin to approach a pup that is eating, I watch the body language of the pup that is eating. If he stops chewing, or lifts his head, or tightens his body, I know this other pup isn't welcome. That's fine; I step in front of the pup that is moving. When he glances up into my eyes, I verbally mark that eye contact, tell him he's wonderful, point to his bowl, tell him to "go eat,” and then take a step towards his bowl. If he glances at his bowl, I mark and reinforce for that, and keep walking toward his bowl. Often, I only need to go part of the way back with the pup. As he heads back to his bowl, I verbally reinforce him. When he pups his nose in his bowl, I attach a verbal cue to this behavior by giving the cue just before his nose touches the food; at that instant, I verbally mark his behavior. Then I very quickly tell him what a great pup he is.

Cue – Behavior – Marker - Reinforcement

This video shows how to physically redirect a dog, of any age.

My goal in this management is to be invisible to the pups, so I don't talk to them when they eat because I want them to keep their attention on their job, which is to eat. If I need to redirect a pup, once he's back to his bowl, I usually try to retreat from him a bit if I can, as long as he will keep on eating; I move slowly and quietly around the pups while they eat, as much as is possible.

On some days, I just lean against the nearby fence while the pups eat. Sometimes one or two pups need to be redirected. Some pups are more comfortable, sometimes, on some days, if I stand near them. The pups have a complex relationship with each other; food is very important in that relationship. When a typically confident pup shows me he needs a little support, I suspect something happened between this feeding and the last that was stressful for him. Usually, by the next day, he'll be his confident self again.

I use very few verbal cues with my dogs, and I never verbally scold them, so the sharp hiss I give this intruding cow doesn't concern them. Even when I move at the cow quickly, they aren't worried because I never move quickly at them; they know this isn't about them.

If a pup had lifted his head, I would have looked into his eyes, pointed at the bowl, and told him to go eat. If he shifted even slightly towards his bowl, I would verbally mark that and verbally tell him he's a great and wonderful dog; then, I would focus on the cow again. I body block her just as I do pups, but I am also willing to run right into her and push her, which I have to do a couple of times in this video to force her to go away.

When she gave up and went into the little pasture, I stood near the gate until the pups finished eating. When they were finished, I picked up the bowls and took them out of the field, quickly going back out to the pups to cuddle and spend a little time with them as further positive reinforcement for a job well done. This is my promise to the pups; you eat now, and we'll play after you are done.

Usually, in just a few sessions, I can shape most of the pups to stay with their bowls. Once they understand what I want them to do and know the cues I have taught them for this behavior, which are me pointing my finger at their bowl and/or saying, "go eat," I can ask for the behavior from a distance. Eventually, I don't even need to be in the field with my more mature dogs because I can shape while sitting in the lane in my Kubota. This is VERY efficient training! I have a video of me (somewhere) shaping eleven dogs while they eat their dinner, from the comfort of my covered Kubota

Verbal cues are challenging for dogs to comply with. I have fairly decent odds that they will respond to my verbal "go eat" cue because their dinner is a pretty rewarding experience. I use my pointed finger to direct my dogs in lots of situations; I usually teach them that cue by linking it to feeding time. Once they learn the cue, I can use it in other situations.

Dogs often "generalize" a behavior or experience; that means they will do the same behavior in other circumstances. If you think about a pet dog that knows to sit on cue and only responds to the cue when he is in the living room, the cue isn't generalized yet because he thinks the cue has something to do with where he is. In training pet dogs, cues are given in a variety of settings so that the dog comes to understand the cue only has to do with his body, not what is going on around him.

For my pups, I believe that they generalize that they can trust me in circumstances other than at food time because I have taught them, over and over, that I will protect them. This means that the pups will respond more quickly to other cues. Shaping a dog at feeding time, rather than using environmental means to ensure that they can eat in peace, allows me to teach the pups a base of trust and partnership; this extends FAR beyond feeding time.

If I didn't train my pups by taking advantage of feeding time, I would have to find some other way to build this super solid training relationship. The dogs need food to survive, so it is a primary reinforcement in itself, rather than a conditioned reinforcement such as touch or praise; conditioned reinforcements are learned.

Food is a basic necessity of life, so if I teach my pups they can trust me with feeding, I attach myself to this once or twice daily experience that they love and look forward to. I can plan what time I feed them to coincide with making the time available to myself to stay with them and train.

This is a good time to mention that feeding puppies near livestock must be closely managed. The perception of the pups with regard to if they feel threatened by the presence of livestock is what matters, NOT what you know to be true, in terms of the actual ability of the livestock to steal puppy food. A flock of sheep making eye contact with the pups as they eat, even if the sheep are not in the same field as where you are feeding the pups, is just as big a problem to the pups. The pups need to feel no pressure from the livestock whatsoever if you want them to view the livestock as animals to nurture and protect in other circumstances.

If pups learn to view livestock as competition for a resource as important to them as food, they can go on to generalize that resentment of the livestock in other situations. This is one of the most common ways owners fail their LGDs; this is where aggression towards livestock is usually learned.

Dogs are routinely euthanized in this country over this learned and preventable behavior. Protect your dogs! Protect your investment! Fifteen minutes of your day can save your dog’s life.

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