There is Hope: One Trainer’s Journey from Liverwurst to Kibble

Recently on a dog training Yahoo group, a trainer wrote about needing to use hot dogs and lunch meat to train her dog. She was dismayed that her dog wouldn’t work for kibble. She asked the group if she was going to have to be cutting up hot dogs forever.

There were about 20 responses, all with suggestions for other high value treats that might be less messy or less expensive.

But, but, but…..that wasn’t the question! It was a great question! Not the old, “Am I going to have to carry treats forever?” question. (To which the answer is “yes” for most of us.) And not, “What are some good treats I can try?” Rather, it was, “Am I going to have to carry high value treats forever?”

I have an answer to this from personal experience.

I don’t have to anymore!

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Summer practicing “Lazy Leash” on the front porch for kibble

Not all the time, anyway. And that’s a huge improvement.

I have written about the value of treats before on this blog. In “Ant-Sized Treats” I described the experience I had when I learned that my treats were too small and hence not high enough value. I want to reiterate that the point of that post is not to prescribe a certain size or value of treat, but to urge everyone to pay attention to their dog, observe what works and doesn’t, and ignore prescriptions such as “eraser sized” or “the size of your little fingernail.” Your dog might need them bigger, or could be fine with them even smaller. You just need to observe to find out. I don’t want you to waste as much time as I did because I followed somebody else’s prescription and stuck with it for a long, long time, thinking my dog was just a little hopeless.

That experience built in some habits for me of using high value treats. This did wonders for both Summer’s and Zani’s agility performance, and made both of them, and Clara when she arrived, really enjoy our training sessions at home.

I have read many times, and even passed on to others, the recommendation to let dogs work for part of their kibble. But ever since I upgraded my dogs’ performance from lackluster, I had unconsciously written off that option for us. Rewarded behavior continues, right? I mean my own behavior! I was reinforced by great performances from my dogs when I gave lots of high value stuff. Why would I change? So instead of using part of their kibble, I habitually used higher value stuff. I decreased their meals when necessary to avoid over feeding.

Then one day on the Training Levels list I read a post by Sue Ailsby about how she was using part of her puppy Syn’s meals every day to teach a certain behavior and how fast it was going. I don’t know what was different for me that day; why I finally considered it. But for some reason I found myself wondering if there was a behavior for which kibble would get a good performance from my dogs. I was rehabbing Summer’s sit stay at the time, and I decided trying kibble couldn’t hurt. I mean, it’s a STAY, right? I loved the idea of not having to cut up treats Every. Single. Time. we trained.

I tried it and Summer stayed interested and motivated. I tried it on Zani. I tried it on Clara (who I had always figured, correctly, would work for about anything). Before I knew it  I was having daily training sessions with all three of them for part of one or both of their meals. Man, my treat life got easier!

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Zani staying away from food on the ground and keeping the leash lazy on the front porch for kibble

Hey folks, my dogs now work for kibble! With drive, motivation, and pizzazz! And I can prove it!

The following video shows Summer and Zani performing several of the Steps from Level 2 Lazy Leash from Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. We had already practiced these in every room of my house, on my back porch, and in the back yard, and in the front room with the door open. But the front porch was still a big leap. And it was quite exciting out there, with joggers, neighbor dogs in their front yards, and next door neighbors out and about.

(Link to embedded video for email subscribers)

You really need to read the other post to get what a big deal this is. Summer is (was!) a hard dog to motivate, and has some behavioral issues that make lots of things extra hard for her. She is hypervigilant and anxious about quite a few things. Zani has a very steady temperament, but is a mix of breeds that are infamous for their independence and, er, hobbies. (She’s probably beagle, dachshund, JRT.) She’s also extremely friendly, so human distractions are very potent for her as well, just for a different reason.

Summer and Zani both now work with me in almost any environment with great attention for much lower value treats. Classical conditioning, transfer of value: whatever you want to call it, it happened to us. (Susan Garrett calls it “Being the Cookie.”) Working and partnering with me is a major focus of both of their lives and a major source of fun.

I no longer have to carry around the liverwurst, baby food, and tuna omelette that it took to get us to this point. Kibble, Natural Balance roll, and the occasional goldfish cracker will do. They still get high value stuff too though; I want their lives and training to be fun and interesting.

The last thing I want to do is let training get humdrum and for their performance to slide down into disinterest. I am not taking this new state of affairs for granted! I usually use the high value treats for brand new behaviors, high distraction environments, and behaviors that take a lot of energy expenditure. (For instance, when Summer and I went to the Rally Obedience trial last week I had not a kibble on me. Performing there was devilishly hard for her. I had salmon dog food in a squeeze bottle, baby food, and Natural Balance roll.) But sometimes they get the special stuff just as a nice surprise.

Clara works happily for kibble as well. (Clara would probably work well for cardboard.) But I also made a video of her doing something very challenging, incredible, actually, for kibble.

(Link to embedded video for email subscribers)

I know there are plenty of others out there with dogs that are a challenge to motivate. Here is a ray of hope. If you are currently having to use salmon or gorgonzola cheese or some other exotic, expensive, or messy treat: Keep with it. Do whatever it takes to build value for the activity for your dog. I think it’s safe to say that the more you do, the more likely you may not have to  forever.

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15 thoughts on “There is Hope: One Trainer’s Journey from Liverwurst to Kibble

  1. Something I’ve noticed with Rex that I’ve never really understood is – he used to be very reactive and when we would accidently get into situations that would put him very close to being over-threshold any thing, even kibble, would work to lead him out of the situation. When we were at distances that were good for CC/DS I needed to have much better treats to distract him from the trigger. I wondered if anyone else has seen this?

  2. OK. You have given me hope. I hope that it’s not false hope. 😉 I’ve used kibble when Jarah is HUNGRY. or sometimes, I can use kibble samples that stores give out. but i’ve chalked that one up to it being different than her normal kibble. maybe i can gradually lower the treat value, which is what i’m doing for counter-conditioning in the car to wean her off treats. i’ll try experimenting some…..

    1. I hope it works out! Let me know.I’m finding that if I just take a handful of their kibble (small handful; they don’t get that much to begin with) and do some rapidfire behaviors, it works for us.

  3. I have a highly reactive dog that like Mary’s dog is easier to lead away/ get control of in a situation where he is suddenly at tipping point. I chalk it up to two things- 1) he hasn’t had enough time to get so revved up that I can’t control him and 2) he trusts me to fix the problem. I think the second point is most important. We have been in these situations enough times and I have done the right thing for him more often than I have messed up so he looks to me for assistance. It took me making MANY mistakes over the years for us to get to this point.
    And thank you Eileen for your eye opening posts. I am sharing them with everyone I know!

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Sonya. I think your use of the phrase “tipping point” clarified it for me. That magic place where a decision has to be made. When the dog is far enough away not to be bothered, they certainly have less motivation to leave….

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  5. Dear Eileen, there is not one video of yours I don’t like. You just taught me how to add the kibble on the floor for the leazy leash exercice. I couldn’t not figure out how to do that without adding the cue for leave it , so now I know I should say the cue. ( I thought, maybe I should click as we pass the kibble, quickly give her another treat.)
    May I add a question ? : my dog don’t take a treat when I throw it at her face, so it makes the whole process slower for some exercices + the fact I must be the slowest of all ! Is it something I can train : taking a kibble, or a tennis in the air (she doesn’t do that either). I hope you are all doing well, can’t wait to learn more thanks to you.

    1. Hello Dear Josephine, you are always so kind! But you know, I don’t feel confident about advising you about teaching your dog to catch a thrown treat. I do want to mention that it’s something to be careful about; sometimes I actually work to get my dogs not to catch them, like if I am using kibble. I don’t want it caught in their throat. Maybe someone else will chime in here. Mine have all just learned it when I tossed treats their way. I’m sorry. Has anybody else taught this?

  6. I don’t think not tossing treats should slow the process. Lots of animal species do not catch treats (I work with horses mostly), but the rewards can still be delivered in a timely fashion. At the beginning when I am doing rapid fire C/T, I usually shove the food at their face with the treat in the palm of my hand. I am sure you can teach a dog to catch a tennis ball or treat, or a horse to catch a frisbee but it is not necessary for timely treat delivery. 🙂

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