One thing I notice about experienced trainers is how well they can deliver food to dogs. Usually their hand motions are both fast and quiet, and the food goes just where they intend. This may sound like a minor issue, but it’s not. The mechanics of training are the key to successful, efficient training and a non-frustrated dog.
The way we deliver food in training needs to further our goals. Sometimes we want to quietly hand the food to the dog or drop it on the floor or a mat under the dog’s chin. Sometimes we want to throw the treat away from the dog for the dog to chase. We may do this to build excitement or to put the dog into a good position to start the next repetition. Sometimes, especially in real-life situations, we just need to toss a treat accurately to the dog while she is holding a position. Missing the target in this case can ramp up the dog, pull her out of position, or even start a scuffle in a multiple dog household.
I practice treat tossing. I’m not a pro and you can tell, but my practice does pay off. Here are some exercises I do.
Unless I am intentionally building excitement, I strive for a calm, accurate throw that goes straight to the dog without any fuss.
I create my setup with some way to measure distance. Hallways are good for this, and they also limit how far the treats can go astray. Then I throw treats in sets of 5 or 10. I use the system described by Jean Donaldson and others to determine when to raise or lower criteria or keep practicing at the same difficulty level. For a set of 5 throws, that means I raise criteria if 4 or 5 are correct, I stay at the same level if 3 are correct, and drop criteria if only 1 or 2 are correct.
Here is a blog post by Yaletown Dog Training describing Jean Donaldson’s system, which is called Push, Drop, Stick. But remember: I am using it for my own behavior. In my practice exercises, there is no dog present.
The Plain Toss with Increasing Distance: Both Hands (Separately)
To practice the plain toss without a dog, I put a Snuffle mat inside a small, shallow cardboard box. The Snuffle mat serves two purposes: it prevents the treats from bouncing all over the room and it provides good auditory contrast. Treats land on the mat silently, but they click on the floor when I miss the mat. Using the mat also thrills my dogs, who watch from the sidelines. One lucky dog gets to clean up after my session as part of her dinner.
I usually set up in the hallway and mark off feet in pencil on my baseboards. I start at 4 feet from the target and increase distance as I meet criteria. Currently I need to practice the toss at 6 feet, as you’ll see in the movie. Interestingly, my left hand is more accurate than my right, although I am right-handed. It probably gets more practice since I generally keep treats in my left hand pocket.
Grounders with Increasing Distance: Both Hands
The other thing I practice is throwing grounders. Often it’s helpful to be able to roll a treat to a dog. This can actually be harder than tossing, since one has less control when a treat bounces across the floor.
When I practice grounders, I put down a bath mat and my target area is the front of the mat. I put a soft object about a foot back on the mat to serve as a backstop. A successful throw either stops right at the mat or rolls onto the front of the mat. It’s OK if it stops on its own or bounces gently back from the backstop. If the treat bounces hard and ends up in front of the mat by more than an inch or two, that’s a failure. In real life it could tempt the dog to leave the mat. It’s also a failure if the treat goes too far to the side and misses the mat, or if I throw it too hard and it bounces over the toy.
Here’s my movie that shows the above two exercises.
Here are some other exercises to consider that I didn’t show in the movie.
Tossing So the Dog Will Run After the Treat
Throwing the treat straight to the dog is actually a miss in this scenario. For instance, when I train a dog to back up or drop in the middle of a recall, I want the zone of reinforcement to be in back of the dog. Remote treat dispensers are good for this. But if I throw the treat, I usually want it to go over or around the dog so the dog doesn’t try to leap to get it.
The challenge in this arrangement is not to throw the treat too far, or if I’m in my house, not to throw it under the furniture.
Throwing a Mix of Items of Different Sizes, Weights, and Other Characteristics
Items of different weights, mass, and shape respond differently when you throw them. Sometimes to challenge myself I’ll toss a mixture of different items in a practice session. I will set up with a box as for a plain toss, but toss the different objects in turn. I rarely try to increase distance. I find a distance where I can meet criteria more than 50% of the time and rotate through the objects.
We throw things in agility, too, but this topic really needs a whole post of its own. In brief: I use a thrown item at the end of every sequence except when I reinforce in position on contact obstacles. I want the dogs thinking “forward” almost all the time. I can throw a toy for Zani or a ball for Clara, but I’ve stayed with throwing food for Summer. There are all sorts of fancy food-holding toys for this, but I just use a small plastic, food-safe container with a screw-on lid. All the dogs have learned to love running after this container. It always has high value food in it.
In this photo, which I like even though I am headless, I am throwing one of Summer’s favorite things: a chunk of white bread. I had gone to an Italian restaurant the night before. In the photo I have already marked for correct execution of the weaves, and she is looking ahead where she knows her treat will land.
A Note About So-Called Self-Reinforcement
In the past, I’ve messed around with the idea of reinforcing myself when practicing. I would administer chocolate chips when I met criteria. That made the game fun. But most behavior analysts say that technically, you can’t reinforce your own behavior in this way. For example, in my case, the chocolate chips were under my own control and I could have one anytime. The contingency depended only on my self-control or lightning fast assessment rather than an externality. Even though I set up criteria, my own mind was making the decisions about meeting them, so part of the process of reinforcement that is generally external to the organism was internal.
Also, since I was already motivated to improve my treat tossing, I was already getting reinforced by improving my performance.
It wasn’t possible to determine whether the chocolate had a reinforcing effect. There is evidence that behavior can improve due to something like my chocolate chip procedure, but the commonly accepted term is “self-administered consequences” not reinforcement. Here are some resources on that.
Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis. P. 499-500.
Kazdin, A. E. (2012). Behavior modification in applied settings. Waveland Press. P. 463-492, chapter on Self Control and Self-Administered Interventions.
Watson, D., & Tharp, R. (2013). Self-directed behavior: Self-modification for personal adjustment. Nelson Education.
Other Treat Tossing Practice Resources
The only other free online resource I found about tossing treats was from Pam Johnson: Treat Toss Game: Accuracy. She includes using a clicker and treat bag (i.e. more of the reinforcement process than I do) and tosses accurately into a small bowl after clicking.
If anyone knows of other resources, or would like to describe personal methods for practicing, please comment!
Copyright Eileen Anderson 2017