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!

My Dog Won’t Take Cookies, Part 1

As promised on Monday, this week we’re looking at some more nuts-and-bolts stuff. This is probably revisiting familiar ground for most of you. Still, I like to write about the “I wish I’d known that” stuff sometimes.

So, let’s start with the thing that frustrated me the most training Silas, namely “Why won’t my dog just take the damned cookie?”

It turns out that this, too, depends on patience and seeing things from your dog’s perspective.

The number one reason a dog will refuse a training treat is stress. Think carefully about what you’re asking of your dog. If your dog is too overwhelmed to eat, do everything in your power to change that situation. If you’re too close to a scary object, back up. If the environment is too chaotic, find a quieter place. If your dog needs a minute to settle down, give him that minute. Once your dog is comfortable, you can try again. Not eating is an extremely important signal, especially if you have a dog who normally loves treats.

Also, consider the value you’re offering. How good would the salary need to be for you to work on someone else’s clogged toilet? Would you happily do that for minimum wage? Yeah, I didn’t think so. If you’re asking your dog to do something really hard, your pay had better be commensurate with the job. Some dogs love food so much that they’ll do anything for a piece of kibble. Some dogs, not so much. Most dogs will vary their preference based on environment, since environment alone can make an easy behavior into a hard one. (On the other side, some working dogs love their work so much that offering payment is kind of an insult, and their trainers have challenges coming up with ways to train new working behaviors.)

Think about these two things in conjunction with each other whenever you run into the dreaded cookie rejection: is the job absolutely too hard, or are the wages just too low?. You might clean that toilet for the right price, but you couldn’t walk outside and pick up your car, no matter what I offered to pay.

For some dogs and for some situations, a food “wage” will never be the thing, so tomorrow I’ll be posting a list of alternative rewards. In the meantime, what’s your dog’s going rate? Is your dog happy to work for a kibble, or are you over here on the “smells like liver” bench?

Nothing Easy

We want things–I want things, humans want things–to be predictable. To follow the same path every time. We have labels, some funny, some serious, for the weird outliers who don’t. Thrill-seakers. Adrenaline junkies. Rule-breakers. Problem children. Freaks.

More and more lately I realize that there is, in fact, nothing easy and predictable. From public-policy issues to dog training, everything is more complex than we would like. We look, desperately, for the one answer. We (I) want one thing to work all the time. We (I) want progress to be linear. We (I) want tomorrow to be exactly like to day, except maybe even a little better. I’m a control freak at heart, and it pains me that this isn’t really possible. It isn’t even close to possible, especially not when we’re dealing with living creatures, ourselves or our dogs.

Fortunately, in our personal lives we don’t have to make laws. We don’t have to set things in stone forever. We have a wonderful, but oh-so-hard, freedom to adapt to what every situation needs. We can look at individual need in any moment, and work to fill that need with the tools at hand. (I’ll be talking more concretely about this this week.)

This is the refrain I will always circle back to here, always trying to say it better. Especially lately, because it weighs on me: rules are easy, but compassion is not rules. Compassion is the opposite of rules, and it is a difficult practice. It’s walking on soft ground, having to evaluate every step, and getting a little muddy no matter what. Seeing the need means also seeing a hundred impatient failures a day, but that doesn’t make it a worthless goal.