eileenanddogs

Category: Treats

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

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!

Screen Shot 2013-03-31 at 8.56.53 PM
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!

Screen Shot 2013-03-31 at 8.57.11 PM
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.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for:

 

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Ant-Sized Treats

Ant-Sized Treats

No tiny treats for my dogs!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: there exists research regarding the effects of using multiple smaller treats vs larger bites (aka magnitude reinforcement) when training.  But the basic premise that there exists a size of treat that is “too small” for an individual dog also holds true.

How often have you read the following words? “For clicker training you need some tasty treats for your dog. We recommend treats about the size of your pinky fingernail.”

If you Google “clicker training treat pinky nail” you will get page after page of hits with variants of this advice. Except some of them caution that the treats should be no larger than the pinky nail. Some say half the pinky nail. I saw one that said a quarter of the pinky nail.

If you spend any time on the clicker training Yahoo or other discussion groups, you will read conversations about treat size in which people practice one-upmanship regarding how many tiny pieces they can cut out of a single hot dog.

Guess what? This advice negatively impacted my training for years.

Many people have legitimate concerns about their dogs’ weight. Also, I think there is a bit of sensitivity in the clicker training community to criticisms by trainers who use other methods. I think some people want to minimize the whole treat thing.

At your peril.

Here is my story about treats. Summer, my crossover dog, borders on hypervigilance and does not appear to have been selectively bred for an abundance of the “joy with working with humans” genes. She is very environmentally turned on and it is very, very difficult to get her attention outdoors. So naturally, I decided to do agility with her. An offleash sport often pursued outdoors. In fields often bordered by wildlife habitat or in rodeo arenas loaded with animal smells.

For our first year or two, I didn’t have a private teacher, so we just struggled along. I did learn to use high value treats, but I cut them up nice and small as directed. Still, I doled them out fairly generously.

Summer and I got a great agility instructor after about two years. She encouraged the high value treats. I used higher value treats than anyone else in my class, and doled out more of them. Yet after about another year, I was still struggling to get Summer’s attention. My instructor started talking to the class about giving treats generously enough. I listened but I was sure she wasn’t talking to me. As I said, mine were better and I was giving out more.

Then one day in a private lesson, my teacher remarked that the treats I was using were pretty small. I immediately said, “Oh, those are my pocket treats. I have bigger pieces in the food container that I throw at the end of the sequence.” She didn’t say anything else that week. But the next week she took another look and said, “These are just too small. These are ant-sized treats!” I didn’t ask whether she meant they were the size of ants or or appropriate to feed ants. It didn’t matter. Both were embarrassing. I was still a little resistant to her comments since I always passed out several of the small treats. But I did as she suggested and started cutting up much bigger treats.

Around the same time I told her that I knew of something that Summer loved but I hadn’t ever tried. We had been struggling to get her attention for a year or two, remember. It was baby food. She asked me why I hadn’t used it and I said, and this is true, that I was afraid of “treat inflation” and that I needed to leave something at the top to use later. She kindly suggested I drop that concern.

I wrote about what happened next on a list in March, 2010.

But over the weekend, I tried something new. I took two dogs to our agility lesson. My highest value treats were pieces of commercial meatball, thrown in a food tube at the end of the run, and baby food in the jar for contacts. Even my
“pocket” treats were chunks (not little pieces) of chicken skin, hamburger omelette I made for them (just hamburger cooked with eggs), and hot dog. I know, horrifyingly fatty and gross.

And you know what: my dogs performed with the intensity and enthusiasm of my dreams. Like never before. Boy did I feel stupid. And I probably didn’t end up giving them that much more than usual in terms of calories, since one piece went a long way.

I had been like the proverbial frog in the hot tub, who ends up boiled since he doesn’t notice the rising temperature because it is so gradual. I have been settling for lackluster performance without even knowing it. Last week I would have called my dogs enthusiastic. Now I know better.

Dark meat chicken chunks for agility training

In addition to the very high value food treats, we also started reinforcing Summer in agility sequences by letting her play in water sprayed from the garden hose. It turns out she will do almost anything, with speed and excitement, for a chance to play in the hose. And the speed and excitement have “stuck” in her agility performance.

More than two years later, I still tend to use pretty high value stuff for training, but you know what? Summer gets turned on for training whatever I use. Indoors can be pieces of Natural Balance roll, kibble, goldfish crackers, or even bread. Outdoors, and for longer or more difficult behavior sequences anywhere, it is generally meat, fish, or purees thereof in a squeeze tube. And now even outdoors, my  high prey drive, curious dog keeps an eye on me all the time to see if we might do something interesting together.

Weaving for white bread

This is still a little difficult for me to admit to. It feels like I “bought” my dog’s attention. But either you’re a positive reinforcement trainer or you’re not. And if you are, part of the process is finding out what is reinforcing to your dog and using it. If you aren’t getting great results, you try something different. If I had had a typical border collie or retriever, I might have gotten equal enthusiasm from the start with something lower value. But I had Summer, and I (OK, my teacher did actually) figured out what turned her on.

While preparing this post, I needed some photographs. I cut up some hot dogs into “ninths,” then tiny pieces as in the pinky photo above. The dogs were excited by the smell of hot dogs, which they don’t often get. After the photo session I had a pile of tiny hot dog pieces, so I tried them on Clara.  But when I gave her the treats, even two or three at a time, she acted as though she wasn’t sure she had gotten anything. And this is a dog who will happily work for kibble much of the time. The pieces were just too small.

In some circumstances it seems to be very effective to dole out several treats over a time period instead of one big one. But I think even then, there is a minimum effective treat size. I’ve got two dogs (Summer and Zani) who clearly enjoy a nice big piece of good stuff for a difficult job well done.

I’m sure there are plenty of dogs out there who would be delighted with the hot dog treats I cut up today.  I’m not prescribing a treat size. I’m suggesting that we all listen to our dogs about what they want. Most importantly, don’t assume that the common recommendations apply to all dogs.

For two years now whenever I’m on a list and someone starts talking about tiny treats, I have a knee jerk reaction, and write a semi rant in response. Now I can just refer them to this post.

Has anybody else experimented not only with different foods but the size of the treats? Do your dogs like rapid fired smaller pieces or a big chunk?

Addendum, 8/24/12

Two astute readers have mentioned in the comments some things that I should have included. Pawsforpraise pointed out that you need to make sure not to make treats too large because of the danger of choking, especially in rapidfire situations. Good point. Marjorie M. also mentions pancreatitis and the dangers of too much fat in the diet. Also a very real concern. You can read the discussion in the Comments below.

Both of these points reminded me that I didn’t say anything about the need for balancing out the rest of the dog’s diet when they are getting some rich training treats. Summer and Zani, for instance, only get treats like the dark meat chicken above in one, maybe two (active, outdoor) training sessions per week. And I adjust their meals accordingly every time we train. I figured that to be self evident, but I shouldn’t have. My own problem with the tiny treats was caused by taking something too literally, so I sure don’t want to omit some practical concerns here and send anyone flying in the opposite direction!

Thanks for reading.

Related Posts

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2012

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson All Rights Reserved By accessing this site you agree to the Terms of Service.
Terms of Service: You may view and link to this content. You may share it by posting the URL. Scraping and/or copying and pasting content from this site on other sites or publications without written permission is forbidden.