Training proceeds much more quickly with a dog willing to work for treats. Sometimes, a dog cannot or will not eat at class for one or more reasons. Here are a few of those reasons and tips for what you can do to address each of the issues.
- Stress – this is one of the most common reasons dogs will not accept treats at class. Fearful dogs especially may not eat their first night of class. Before owners of these dogs can focus on training, they must first focus on stress reduction. Stress reduction techniques may include: the use of visual barriers like gates, calming aids, exercising your dog before class, manipulation of distance (working farther away from the other dog/handler teams), massage, T-Touch, and implementing stress reduction strategies outside of the classroom environment (your instructor should be able to offer you advice).
- Not hungry – Often, people bring their dog to class and, when he won’t work for treats, tell me that he’s not “food motivated.” Too often, the dog is free-fed at home (having constant access to unlimited amounts of food can be dangerous for a dog’s health and also devalues food as a reinforcer), or has just eaten approximately 24 cups of kibble forty-five minutes before class starts. If you free-fed your dog, transition to regularly scheduled, measured meals. If your dog eats twice a day, consider feeding him half his normal breakfast on class days and no dinner before class – he can eat dinner when he gets home after class!
- Overweight – This is really a subcategory of “not hungry.” If your dog is fat, chances are he gets too much food and too little exercise, both of which will leave you at a significant disadvantage when it comes to training your dog. Remember that food companies are in the business of selling dog food – if the “recommended feeding guidelines” for your dog’s age and weight are leaving you with a fat dog, reduce his food by a 1/4 c. every two weeks until he is at an ideal weight. Get him out for more exercise as well!
- Yucky treats – Remember, a “treat” is whatever your dog wants to work for in that particular environment. Kibble may not be a “treat” at class. Think in terms of higher valued food rewards, favorite toys, and “life rewards” as well. Your instructor should be able to help you with reinforcement selection and should also instruct you on how to use “real life rewards” to reinforce your dog – for many dogs, an opportunity to greet a friendly person or favorite doggy playmate is a much more potent reinforcer than a small bit of string cheese! Also, reinforcement values are subject to satiation – dogs can get bored with even high value treats if they get them all the time. Bring a variety of treats at every class, and make sure that each week you bring at least one high value treat which is novel (was not used in the last two weeks). This keeps your dog guessing and adds excitement to the training environment.
- Distraction level too high/Overarousal – This topic really merits a blog entry of its own. Luckily, I already wrote one! For a number of techniques on how to work with your dog in distracting environments, check out What Squirrel? 10 Techniques for Training with Distractions on Karen Pryor Clicker Training. (free registration required, but worth it, because Karen has a great resource library!)