I use treats for almost all of my training sessions, most all dogs are food motivated, and you can provide a wide variety of exciting treats for your dog.
So why treats over toys?
I am not against toys, and I use them sometimes in my training sessions depending on the needs of my dog. The main issue I see with using tugs, or toys for 100% of the training session is that sometimes (especially the high drive dogs) can become so focused on the toy that they lose sight of what the training session is about.
I have used toys with dogs that need that drive and need to be turned on, but if I have a dog who is already “on” and has great drive, I want that dog to be thinking and learning during their training session. I have seen many a dog so lost in chasing their toy after a set of weave poles, after a contact etc, etc, that they can hurt themselves, and the handler won’t even know it until their adrenaline slows down.
But my biggest gripe with tug toys is the tugging itself, from a massage and bodywork standpoint I have worked on so many dogs who have neck and back issues from the swinging and jerking that tugging involves. And I will make a disclaimer here, tugging is also great for dogs if done correctly, let the dog do the tugging, let them be in control of their body and determine the speed and “roughness” of the tug.
When I tug with my dogs i keep my arm lowered, so their head and neck are in line with their spine, I don’t jerk the toy back and forth, I let the dog choose if they want to jerk their head.
I also don’t pull back on the toy, I will hold it for them and let them control on much they want to tug.
I think tugging is a great tool in agility, and I play tug with my dogs to help build strength as well as build drive if I need it. But I let the dog choose how to use their body with the toy, I don’t like to jerk them back and forth or raise them up in the air.
I also don’t believe that in order to have a high drive agility dog they have to play with toys or tug, I believe you should use what works for you and your dog; as a team. Some dogs need toys to build drive, and I am all for that, but I don’t believe it should be a “must” for every single dog.
Using food for training
The most common thing I hear when I talk about using food for training is that it will teach my dog to stare at me. Some of the most amazing Superstakes dogs I know are trained with 100% food, it is all in how you use it.
When I am first starting out training a behavior the food will almost always come from me, depending on what I am asking the dog to do as the behavior progresses i will then start targeting the dog.
I use a clicker and a target in all of my training, with targets; I do not put food down on the plate I teach my dogs to touch the target. Sometimes after touching the target they will come back to me, and sometimes they will go on to another target or to an obstacle.
My secret weapon in my training is the moving wait. (Click here for the Moving Wait blog post)
A moving wait is where I will ask the dog while running, either between obstacles or target to stop or wait. I am not asking for a certain position such as laying down or sitting, I am just asking them to stop.
So for example; lets say I am working on a pinwheel, and my dog just performed it beautifully, and I want to reward them for it, i will tell the dog “wait” and I will run out to them to treat them, after i have given them the treat i will then return to my original position and ask them to continue on if there is more to the sequence or just finish over the last jump etc.
This accomplishes many things at the same time, I can give the reward to the dog while they are out away from me, not having to always bring them to me for a treat which can lead them to focusing on me. This is also the first step in building confidence for distance work, most all handlers ask their dogs to come into them for a reward, tugs and treats both. So everything that is fun always happens right next to you, I want my dog to know that if they do something great I will run out to them to give them a treat, they don’t always have to come to me. This is an amazing confidence booster and the very first step to having a great distance dog.
The moving wait also helps me with the delivery of my food, because the dog never views the moving wait as a negative (the dog sees it as “here she comes! I must be awesome!) i can ask the dog to wait after they have done something I want to reward them for, contacts, weaves, a great sequence etc, etc.
I also use a lot of targets in my training sessions, using the clicker i teach my dogs to touch the target with either their nose or with their feet. I will then do some basic target work asking them to move farther away from me to touch the target. I will then start bringing the moving wait into my targeting sessions. For example the target is 15 feet away from me, I send the dog to the target once they touch it i ask them to wait, I will then run out to them with their reward and treat them, I will then go back to my original position and call them to me or re-send them to the next target.
I want to create a thinking dog right from the very beginning of my training, by using the clicker and targets i am letting the dog work problems out for themselves. What this will translate into is a dog who can make decisions on the course without needing me to help them, which in turn can create a very successful distance dog.
Where and when to feed your dog
Another important key to training with food is to not always feed the dog in front of you, you want to vary feeding the dog on your side (both left and right) and feeding in front of you, this way you won’t create a dog who is always trying to get in front of your legs to get their treat.
If I am treating my dog to the side (they are either on my left or right side) i will use the hand closest to them, this way I am not reaching across my body to give them the treat.
When I am first starting out with a young dog they will get treats very often, as they start learning the behavior I will start to vary when they get the treats.
So for instance, my dog does a set of weave poles, she does them all but not at a real fast speed. Instead of giving her the treat I will pet her and tell her how good she is but no treat. The next time when she goes through she will probably weave faster because she wants the treat she knows I have, this time I will give her the treat.
By not giving them the treat for every performance, even though it was correct, you create more drive; because the dog will want to put in 110% instead of the 85% they put in before.
So in summary i love using treats with my dog, they are versatile and most dogs are food motivated. I am also not “anti toy” i do use toys, when I feel that my dog needs it, and if it works for us as a team.
This article was previously published in Clean Run Magazine – October 2011
Amanda Nelson has been competing in agility for the past 18 years, she currently travels around the country teaching seminars and competing with her two Border Collies; Try and Nargles. She also runs Fluid Motion Agility which offers two different forums, the Training Forum and the Canine Natural Health Forum, you can visit her website at www.fluidmotionagility.com