When Can I Stop Feeding So Much?!
Updated: Nov 23, 2019
Training a Remote Reward Cue
One of the questions I see a lot in dog training are people wondering when they can stop rewarding so much! They know that to compete with a dog they need to have all rewards outside of the ring and even have their dog work for several minutes if they are in the obedience ring. No cookies! This can certainly be a hard task, as much for the people to get rid of their safety crutch as well as the dogs!
I can't answer the question of when to reduce reinforcement before I first address what I find the more important component is- getting the rewards out of your hand, out of your pocket, and putting them at a distance.
If you can have your dog watch you put down ALL their rewards and happily move with you to do a tiny bit of work as they fully trust they will get that cookie, then you are on the right path. It doesn't matter if you reward every single repetition with running back to where those cookies are kept!
As soon as my puppies come home I work on baby steps of this idea. The puppy just needs to be focused and motivated by what I have to start learning this concept.
I am not going to focus at all on reducing the rewards themselves as building up the behaviors the way I want them to look will take a long time!
Teaching the Reward Cue
The first thing I teach the dog in working towards the goal of rewards off my body is a marker cue for their dish. I want them to understand a red light-green light game of when they are allowed to get the cookies. My cue "cookies" means go get it!
1. Dish in hand- Start with the dish in your hand, put a cookie or a tiny handful inside it, wait for eye contact, then use your new dish cue and lower it for them to eat!
2. Lowered dish- Gradually go from the dish in your hand to the dish on a low table or stool. Wait for eye contact, then cue your dish cue and lower it for them to eat!
3. Dish on floor- Set the dish on the floor, wait for eye contact, then cue the dish! This time the dog can get it themselves, self served! Sensing the theme of eye contact yet?
4. Movement by Dish- At this point you can start introducing the dog to the concept he can move and still not eat those cookies until cued. I often cue "get it" where I put put a cookie on the floor my dog can eat and have them chase a few of those back and forth until they hear the dish cue.
Here with Grace she doesn't have a lot of impulse control yet so I use the next cookie almost as a lure to get her to move away from the dish until I cue it. No big deal if she takes it early!
5. Movement with Eye Contact- Now we can get our eye contact criteria back!
Here Pistol is working on this skill with those tossed "Get it" cookies! Her reward is up high so she isn't tempted to steal it yet. You can see that Pistol knows her "Cookies" cue pretty well!
Adding in Work
Once the dog can offer the behavior or has a cue for it, I start to look at getting those cookies (or toy!) out of my hands and into their dish. I don't need to do this every session, just enough that my dog is comfortable with the idea that rewards might be held elsewhere!
Grace is now working on going out around a "cone" with her dish in my hands and then on the floor. She doesn't even have a cue yet for the behavior but she does know that leaving the reward is what gets the reward!
This work can be increased in difficulty with arousal levels, distance, and even where the reward is located.
Here Grace is introduced to moving TOWARDS where the reward is located but is still focusing on her task. I make it easier by having myself stand near her target (and the reward!) instead of doing a full send:
Leaving the Reward
Now you can work on leaving the reward and getting your dog to happily move with you!!! This is a very important piece to trialing. I never want to trick the dog into thinking I have more rewards in my pocket when in a trial, I always show my dog where their reward is going to be.
Here Pistol is working on this concept, first with the reward up high and then on the ground, and then back up high! Look at that eager eye contact!
You can see how having a solid foundation of working for the reward in the dish makes it so it doesn't matter that I have food in my pockets or not.
Eventually we will work on other ring prep such as duration of the work itself and leaving it outside of a ring environment. But for now my priority is a dog who is comfortable with leaving rewards to do work, no matter where that work is!
There are several classes at FDSA who go over this topic more in depth. If you're reading this early, my Bye Bye Cookie class is open for registration until February 15th! And take a look at Julie Daniel's Cookie Jar games which will be running in August.