Training a Gundog Using Food Rewards

January 14, 2016

Some Observations

Ruby and Fern (Sue Brundrett)

Ruby and Fern (Sue Brundrett)

Many gundog trainers resist using food rewards when training their gundogs. Until your retriever has realised the value of expressing her innate desire to retrieve and you, as a trainer, have taught her self control around the things that she wants, food is the most desirable and the most convenient reinforcer available in the early days. But simply using food to reward desired responses is only a small part of the picture…

Using food, toys and praise is all about building a bond association with a puppy. As the training progresses the dog works with you, not against you. You become a team working together, using motivation not force. This relationship makes training easy in terms of the dog understanding what you want and trying hard to offer you behaviour you like. Positive training is about the big picture, relationship, motivation and association – not treats. So we manage the emotional experience while training, making sure the dog enjoys the behaviour with no frustration or confusion so that the dog chooses that behaviour rather than something else. If the learning is negative, then the conditioned emotional response associated with it will impact the choice, especially if there is opportunity to avoid it.

This is why, so often, dogs resist returning to the handler, go out to the retrieve slowly, lag when heeling, delay picking up the retrieve, to name a few. If this is happening to your dog try and see what he or she is avoiding. Check what it was in your training that created this particular conditioned emotional response.

Another important point with the use of food is that it should never be used to manage behaviour such as a dog running in on a retrieve, or producing food to tempt the dog to come to you. Positive trainers use food to create a “trained response” to a cue. Just like traditional training, the dog needs to learn to respond to cues in increasingly distracting situations and this is often where trainers fail to take their training to the next level where the reliability of the “trained” or “conditioned” response to the cue is proofed. Once the response is on cue (or under stimulus control) producing food should no longer be necessary.

The “take home” message I’d like to convey here is that ultimately the value of the reinforcer whether it is sausage, liver bread, tug toys, balls or the opportunity to display a hard-wired motor pattern, is decided by the dog!


What is Clicker Training?

January 19, 2011

The clicker is a small hand-held tool which makes a clicking noise.  The clicker is simply an effective hands-free way of communicating with animals.  It is a very distinct, unamibiguous sound (CLICK!) that tells the dog that what he has done (or is busy doing) is right and there is a reward to follow.  The clicker bridges the gap between the behaviour and the reward. It is not a magic “quick fix”, although in the hands of an experienced clicker trainer it looks magical.

Using a clicker has quite a few advantages over just using food without the event marker.  The clicker is…

  • More precise at identifying behaviour or parts (splits) of behaviour.  For example, if you want to reward your dog for making eye contact with you, you can catch the precise moment that his or her eyes meet yours.  The dog then understands that it is that brief contact that is being rewarded.  If you train only with food and lures the timing is difficult, as the second you move your food hand to reward that momentary eye contact, the dog will look at the hand holding the food hand and looking away is what you are actually rewarding.
  • Allows for a time lag before delivery of the primary reinforcer.  Because you have associated the clicker with the presentation of food (the primary reinforcer), the dog understands that the click predicts that the reward is on its way.
  • Allows for treat delivery to be more flexible.  Depending what you are trying to achieve in your training the treat delivery can be while the dog is in position (if you are working on sustained positions) or if you are training for some activity such as going out to touch a target and returning to you, the contact is clicked, but the dog has to return to you to get the treat.
  • Allows for easy resetting of the behaviour.  When you are working for repetitions to build fluency, the treat can be tossed away from the dog so that the behaviour is reset,  The training session becomes more efficient.
  • Affects Demeanour.  Tossing the treat after the click can activate a passive dog whereas feeding in position can calm a busy dog.
  • Enables movement to be marked and reinforced.  For example, you can click the dog while it is moving towards you, and even though you are delivering the food when the dog gets to you, it knows that it is the movement towards you that is actually being rewarded.
  • Allows for distance building.  The clicker is useful when teaching the dog to sit or lie down at a distance or to touch a target at a distance.

Some of the difficulties a lot of people have with using the clicker is the timing.  If the click is even slightly late, you might be reinforcing some other behaviour than you thought you were.  You get what you click for.  However, this timing can be practised without your dog and we all know that practice makes perfect!  I will describe some of these games in a subsequent post.

Dogs, even dogs that have never heard the click of the clicker before, take to it incredibly quickly.  It makes teaching your dog a breeze and fun for both of you.  It teaches your dog to think – and think they do.  There’s nothing more exciting than to see your dog have that “Eureka” moment when it knows exactly what you are clicking for.

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