Don’t panic. This is a common problem and it often has a pretty clear path to a solution. Most important: you can still use positive reinforcement based training. It is not a dealbreaker!
I write a lot about how we can help dogs address life-limiting fears by performing desensitization and counterconditioning. It’s always important to keep the dog in her comfort zone (under threshold) when doing any kind of exposure work. One of the ways people assess whether a dog is comfortable in a situation is whether she will take food. This is an imperfect method since some dogs will keep eating food when they are starting to get upset. But it’s a start.
But if a dog refuses food, she isn’t necessarily afraid. There are other common reasons this happens. In this post, I’ll mention the possibilities and recommend a fix for the most common one.
How Do I Tell the Difference?
It is vitally important to know whether your dog is refusing food because he is scared, excited, has a medical problem, or is more interested in the environment. I’m sorry to say that I can’t answer that for you and your dog in a blog post. At the end of the post, I’ll include some body language resources. For some dogs, it can be hard to tell. If your dog refuses food when away from home and you are not sure why, you should get help from a positive reinforcement based trainer. If she refuses food more generally or it happens suddenly, a vet visit is in order.
The suggestions in the rest of this post pertain to dogs who refuse food in new, interesting situations but are not scared or ill. That scenario is also what you will see in the embedded movie.
The Common Culprit: Competing Reinforcers
Let’s say you have trained your dog to respond to a few cues in your living room. Perhaps you have trained “sit,” “down,” “target,” and “stay.” Maybe even walking on leash. You decide to take the show on the road and take your dog to a local park. You bring some good food and your clicker if you use one.
You get your dog out of the car and cue him to sit. But your dog is at the end of his leash, straining to smell something on the ground. You cue him again. Nothing. He doesn’t even seem to hear you.
You wait about five minutes. He is scanning, sniffing, and straining at the leash. But as it happens, you finally get a little scrap of attention from him. You click the eye contact and start to offer him something yummy. But at the sound of the click, he turns away and starts sniffing again. He ignores the food completely. Or if you get it into the vicinity of his mouth, he lets it fall out.
This is perplexing. At home, your dog is a real food hound. He will do anything for food and loves his training sessions. What’s happened?
If your dog is not afraid, what has likely happened is that there are competing reinforcers. That means that there are things that are more attractive to him right now than the food. New places are thrilling to many dogs. Novel odors! New things to see, like dogs, other animals, or even people! These can all overpower the attractiveness of food.
We can’t decide for our dogs what is the most enticing thing in a particular moment. Often it’s something other than what we are offering.
Show and Tell
I emphasize in this blog that I am not a professional trainer. It’s obvious from my dogs’ leash walking. Zani, who is featured in today’s video, actually has the best leash manners of all my dogs. But only when we are in my own neighborhood or somewhere else familiar to her. I don’t take her new places often enough for her to succeed in that situation (see below about practice!). So when I take her somewhere new to give her a little adventure (as opposed to training), I use a harness. I do let her pull me around somewhat. But I still reward richly for loosening the leash, offering attention, or walking at my side.
She does those things intermittently. But she won’t always take the food. So in the video, you’ll see her “ignore” my marker and just continue along. Sometimes she’ll turn for the treat, then decline it. You’ll also see her take treats after a nice behavior as well. (Hey, it wasn’t all bad!)
Sorry about Zani’s clunky, mismatched getup. This was an unplanned outing and she was wearing a borrowed harness.
What To Do About It
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. A keyboard player doesn’t start her studies by playing Liszt or Rachmaninoff. She starts with simple pieces. She works on scales. She attempts harder things gradually, usually under the tutelage of a teacher. If she is going to be a performer, she also widens her playing experience gradually as well. She plays on different types of pianos. She plays in different settings and for different groups of people. She learns to handle herself in lots of different musical situations.
Likewise, taking a dog who has practiced behaviors only at home (and maybe in only one room of the house) to a park and expecting perfect performance is like taking the first year piano student to Carnegie Hall, aiming her at the stage, and saying, “Knock ’em dead!”
She’s not ready. And neither is your dog.
Instead, teach your dog behaviors in your living room. Then in your kitchen. Then in a room with an outside view. Then on the back porch if you have one. Then in a boring part of your back yard. Then in an interesting part of your back yard. Then on your front porch. Then in your front yard. Then a few steps either way toward your neighbors’ houses. (I have a friend who had a big van with some open space in it, and she taught her dog to perform all of his behaviors in the van! How cool is that?)
You can also practice asking for your dog’s attention as part of her “getting out of the car” routine. Also even going out your front door. Both of these are common times for dogs to get excited and unreachable.
Be generous with the reinforcement. You are gradually introducing competing reinforcers, so yours needs to be good.
When you do get to the park, set her up for success. Pick a time when most people are staying home. Go to an area where you can practice on a parking lot or the pavement before you venture into more exciting areas. If you do mat training, bring the mat. Help your dog practice getting out of the car and straight onto the mat. Keep the first lessons short.
Get the picture? Work up to it. Set your antecedents.
High-value food is your friend when you are going new places with your dog. But it’s important to note that food is not a cure-all. You can’t just skip to a distracting environment and count on liver brownies to save the day. You and your dog will still need to work up to it. And some days, for some dogs–there just isn’t a high enough value food. Dogs are animals. We don’t live in a perfect world.
But It’s Her Walk!
That’s right. It may be important to you to offer your dog as much freedom as you can. You may want to give her time to acclimate and explore whenever you go somewhere new. But those goals are not incompatible with what I am describing here. My own teacher has encouraged me to see on-the-road training as a safety issue. I don’t have to have my dog’s attention all the time–far from it. But I need to be able to ask for it and get it.
Here is the place where someone is going to suggest the Premack principle. That principle says that you can reinforce statistically less likely behaviors (walking nicely on leash) with more likely behaviors (sniffing). After all, if the thing your dog wants the most is to sniff new odors, why not use that for your reinforcement?
It can be done, but Premack can be more complicated than it sounds. If you are a beginning trainer and your dog is so entranced by odors that you can’t get his attention for love or money, how can you get him back after you let him go off sniffing?
I do use sniffing as a reinforcer for my dogs when we are on my own street and other familiar places. I have it on cue and it works pretty well. The link above describes how I did it. But I rarely try it in a brand new place. Again, because we haven’t practiced enough for Carnegie Hall.
Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson