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2 Must-Haves to (successfully) use the NFC Food box in Agility!

If you're lucky enough to have UKI agility around in your area, you'll (hopefully) see a "food box." Picture a small xpen, often with a table or chair inside, that juts out on the edge of the ring, with an accordion gate or another way of blocking off the small area from the ring when not being actively used.

accordian ring gates making a small box just outside of the ring, with the inner gate half way open to allow someone to enter. Inside the box is a small foldup table with a bag of treats resting on top.

Outdoors it looks a bit silly for rings that have just posts and tape blocking off the ring. But it's still a clearly defined area that is outside of the ring!

reward box at an outside trial with posts and tape blocking off the ring.  A small accordian gate blocks off a small box that can be used to put food in

The idea is to give people the option of running "not for competition" (i.e. you can't qualify), be able to reward their dog with a treat for their brilliance at any point, and then continue on to run some more.

Dogs who love toys have the advantage that NFC runs have always allowed the handler to bring a toy into the ring. This food box option makes it so even the foodie dogs can get directly reinforced in a trial environment. It helps to bridge the gap between practice and trials and can be a great way to help overcome ring stress (with a ton of prep beforehand of course!).

But despite having seen this for 5 years now, I don't see it used as often as I'd expect!

Unlike a toy you can hold in your hand while you run, the food needs to be left in the box. And that's what seems to be the sticking point. It's so far away!

I hear a lot of people say that they can't use it as they're afraid their dog will just constantly run over to it once they know it's there. Or that it will affect their dog's ability to focus in future trials when they aren't using it.

Those are valid concerns. And I've actually seen it play out that way too!

But it doesn't have to be an issue. For one, this is a skill that can be prepped for at home, away from trials, and even away from agility class!

And really, that should be the goal of anything you are going to do in a trial environment. Train it. Don't just throw it at your dog only in trials!

Rule #1: Have a special word

The first thing you need to think about is a special cue. It can be any word such as "cookies!" "candy!" "dish!" And it needs to be a word that ONLY means run to the reward at a distance. It's not a general release cue unless you want your dog thinking about going to it every time you release them from a stay!

The times when I see handlers digging themselves into a small hole is when they use generic praise and just start running over to the reward.

This can lead to the dog thinking that every praise or release cue is an invitation to run off. Or they see your motion going in the direction of the reward as the cue to get it. This will result in the dog running to the reward anytime the course approaches the gate!

Which leads me to the next rule.

Rule #2: Cue it when you're moving AWAY from the reward

The ultimate goal is that your dog can confidently keep focus on their job regardless of whether the course is moving towards the location or even running right past it.

To do this, we need to emphasize that they need to leave the reward in order to get it!

Give their special reward cue only when they are directly running away from it, THEN turn towards it and start your praise!

This rule can be broken as your dog gets more advanced. But it's crucial in the early stages to help prevent anticipation and your dog accidentally learning that motion towards it is the cue to get it.

And that's basically it. Those are my 2 rules. And then a ton of training.

I prefer to do all this training with the reward in what is called a "zen bowl."

A zen bowl is a single reward in a small open container that the dog can be sent to.

That's right, no lid. No way to stop the dog from going to self-serve. Instead, we train them to eagerly leave the reward in order to get it.

And that running back to it and diving in without needing your thumbs is super powerful! This quickly becomes many dogs' favorite way of getting their reward!

I choose not to use a lid both because of its high value, but also because it forces me to train all those baby steps I need in order to be successful. I can't physically stop the dog from running to it off cue, so my training better be thorough! The dog tells me in an instant if I pushed things too hard.

Brag time. I'm working on this with my cat! Slightly different style as I'm choosing to pick it up from the container and give it to her instead of letting her self-serve. But that's because CAT.

Food Box Not an Option?

If you aren't lucky enough to have UKI around, this stuff is still worth training! You won't be able to run in and out of the reward box in your 60 seconds, but can do a short bit and then run to the food outside of the ring!

Or if your dog loves toys and you do any organization that allows the toy on the ground, (basically any one other than AKC!) you can set up a similar plan. Leave your toy at the start area and practice sending back to it. On cue. With the cue given while you're running away from it. Same rules!

This is a video of Ginny in a trial this summer where I started running this plan for her!

This can be a great way to babystep towards your dog running nicely in a trial with the reward out of the ring! Toy in hand, check. That's "normal" for many of us. But the toy in the ring on the ground is that intermediate step you could be missing!

Bye Bye Cookie: Hello Remote Reinforcement!

I love training this! If you want some help in teaching your dog to confidently leave the reward in order to get it, check out my Bye Bye Cookie class. Class starts October 1st and registration starts next week!

I would also LOVE it if you signed up for my newsletters. I'll let you know when I blog, send out monthly video round up posts, and give you a reminder when new classes start. Don't worry about being spammed! I'm not great at this stuff yet and 2 posts a month is a pretty big month for me!

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