(For the record, I am a proud Obama supporter and thought the above video was actually pretty funny. I also like the creativity of teaching a person’s name as a “leave it” cue! However, I wonder how the behavior was trained, with positive reinforcement or positive punishment. Notice the dog’s ears are back, the skin seems very tight against his brow, and he licks his lips each time she says “Barack Obama,” all of which can be emotional signals of stress in dogs.)
It is not uncommon for a dog to refuse treats on the first night of training class. Today I’ll discuss potential reasons this may occur and how you may choose to address each of them.
This is one of the more common causes of “sudden onset anorexia” in dogs. Reinforcement value is determined by the dog and must be contingent upon the difficulty of the performance and the environment the dog is working in. Sometimes students show up the first night of class with pieces of kibble, cheerios, or frozen peas or slices of carrot. While these may be very good treats for training at home (a less difficult environment for the dog to focus in), they are generally not as effective in a highly distracting environment.
When you are training at home, how often are there five, six, or maybe ten other dog/handler teams in your living room practicing alongside you? In all likelihood, never or very rarely. Class is a special training situation which merits special treats. Usually, soft, smelly treats are the most effective in these situations. Meats and cheeses tend to be particularly high value treats for many dogs.
A subcategory of “yucky treats” is “boring treats.” Often, a student will say, “My dog doesn’t like my treats!” I ask, “What are you using?” “Hot dogs.” “What do you use at home?” “Hot dogs.” “What do you use on a walk?” “Hot dogs.”
This is a typical case of reinforcement satiation – the treat has lost value to the dog because he gets it all the time. Varying your treat from class to class and bringing a variety of treats will make you much more interesting to your dog. I like owners to bring at least three different treat types to each class, with at least one of them being different from what they brought last class.
Hey, I like cheesecake, but not for breakfast/lunch/dinner/24/7/365. Get it?
Sometimes you see a dog that is five, ten, twenty or more pounds overweight waddle into the classroom. These dogs are often out of breath by the time they come down the one small flight of stairs into my classroom. They tire quickly in play. They want to lie down the entire class and are hard to motivate for recalls, loose leash walking games, and play with their handlers or other dogs. Fat dogs are rarely hungry, since many of them probably have multiple week’s worth of food stored in fat.
Free-fed dogs get food whenever they want, so it’s hard to predict when they’re hungry. Your training will proceed much more quickly if you can train when your dog is hungry and truly desires food. Measured feedings at scheduled intervals are generally best.
All students should avoid feeding their dog a meal right before class. I tell my students that feed twice a day to feed 1/2 their dog’s normal breakfast on class days and no dinner before class – they can have their dinner after they go home.
Many people think it is cruel to cut back a dog’s meal. (It always amazes me that some people don’t have a problem shocking their best friend and yet object to cutting back a meal to later make up for it in fun, positive training sessions.) Rest assured that wild canids do not have food bowls placed down for them twice a day or left constantly full and available. They hunt for meals. They gorge and fast. Some days they go hungry. Nobody is asking you to starve your dog. Watching how happily he’ll work for his food is great reinforcement to many reluctant owners!
If you know your dog is hungry, you have great treats, and yet he still can’t eat, chances are your dog is too overwhelmed and stressed to learn. Anorexia is often a sign of intense stress and is a signal that a dog has surpassed his stress threshold level. Stress, fear, and anxiety inhibit learning. Calm dogs are able to focus, learn more quickly, and retain behaviors more effectively than their stressed counterparts.
If your dog is too stressed to work in a group class situation, consider private lessons to reduce his stress level; perhaps with an ultimate goal of graduating into a group class environment.
Finally, if you have great treats, your dog is hungry, not displaying emotional signals indicative of stress, perhaps he is not feeling well. Observe your dog closely for 24 hours and if his appetite does not recover, schedule a check up with your vet.