My Dog Won’t Take Cookies, Part Two

On Tuesday I touched briefly on what’s really at issue when your dog refuses cookies. If you didn’t read that piece, take a minute and go back to it.

Now, sometimes you just need an alternative to the cookie. Some dogs just don’t like cookies that much, and will never find them to be a really high-value reward. Some dogs will quit eating when they’re full, whether you’re finished training or not. (If you own a lab or a beagle, feel free to laugh now.)

I have found, incidentally, that this is an excellent test for positive dog trainers. An inexperienced positive dog trainer will not know what to do with a dog who isn’t food-motivated. A great positive dog trainer will have a lot of ideas. Some of the things in this list I’ve learned from experience, and some of them I’ve learned from really great positive dog trainers.

Cookie Alternatives, in no particular order:

Tug is a classic. It’s easy and portable–just stick a rope toy in your pocket. If you have a dog who loves to tug, you can get by without treats for a lot of your training. Because a tug toy is only so long, it’s great to play on-leash. On the other hand, not every dog loves tug, and some pet owners have concerns about teaching it.

Fetch doesn’t work quite as well, but it can still be effective. The main issue with fetch is that it’s slow, and it trains your dog that the reward for his good behavior is to run away from you at top speed. If your dog doesn’t bring the ball back, you may not have a lot of recourse. It’s also hard to get a satisfying fetch on leash.

Praise is always good, but you need to make sure it actually means something to your dog. You may have to be more than a little goofy. A curt “good dog” doesn’t carry a lot of value, especially since your dog cares more about your tone of voice than your words. Watch out for getting too loud and silly if you have a shy dog, though–to a sound sensitive dog it can quickly switch over to punishment.

Run/chase can work, but know your dog. Silas adores running, so when we do heeling work outside his reward for a session is usually to get his release cue and his cue to run. There are a couple of risks with running, though. If you have a fast dog, or even just a big dog, use your judgment about whether or not you can really keep them under control if you’re working on leash. Also, I have to watch with Silas–sometimes running as a reward can lapse over into panic. Like, “Okay, I sat, now let’s get out of here!!!!!”

Petting is dicey. If your dog likes it, by all means use it. Cheap and easy! Not every dog is interested, though, especially if they’re already in a stressful situation. Make sure you pick a kind of contact your dog actually enjoys. Silas loves when I kneel down for him to lean against me. This is, in fact, my last-ditch reward. If he’s too stressed for everything else, this is what he wants more than anything.

Silly games are another staple. I’m sure everybody has a silly game that their dog will play without toys. Silas loves a game that mostly centers on me pinching his toes. There’s a good list of “naked games” as she calls them in Jane Killion’s When Pigs Fly if you need some inspiration.

Don’t be ashamed to be an opportunist. Our park rewards have ranged from “go get a stick!” to “go sniff that dead squirrel.” Even something as fundamental as getting the dog out of a situation he doesn’t like can be a huge reward if you use it carefully (see Grisha Stewart’s BAT training).

Most importantly, what does your dog like? What brings him joy? Is there a way to use that in your training? Go wild!

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7 thoughts on “My Dog Won’t Take Cookies, Part Two

  1. We tried toys and squeakers once to see if that would work – totally did not. Moses and Alma can be ambivalent about food occassionally, but the toy suggestion (was a class requirement that lead us to testing it out) just flopped. Wholly and horribly. Other dogs were playing excitedly with their owners and their toys, and Alma specifically was interested in nothing other than other excited dogs.
    But in a more calm, average, less-intense environment, play/chase/wrestling with us has a pretty high value for both dogs. Just not with toys involved and, as with any of it, the timing has to be right.

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  2. Sometimes, when Blueberry has been especially responsive and well-behaved on a hike and we come across a big pile of delectable (B’s opinion, not mine) horse droppings – I’ll let her scoop a few up to munch on. I draw the line at carrying them in my pocket as rewards though… ;)

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  3. Fetch has been Kaya’s biggest reward success. You’re right, it’s hard to make it a reward in many situations like leash manners, etc. but for us it made the big picture improvement. After teaching her to fetch and always bring the ball back using a long line and an exciting squeaky ball, I turned from being the horrible boss lady who ruins all the fun to the almighty ball thrower and controller of the best game ever. Her love for fetch trumped all the things that used to get us in huge trouble like jumping on people, scaring little kids with her over-enthusiasm, bugging the crap out of other dogs, stealing toys, etc. And the best part was that her new found adoration and respect for me carried over in all other situations where there is no ball in sight. I’d really recommend it for anyone who has a hyper/driven dog.

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  4. We had a dog in agility class that loved the squeaky ball, and at first his owners used food, but it wasn’t really working until the trainer suggested the toy, boy howdy did that work! It’s just finding what works for your dog (like you said.)

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