Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Ya gonna eat that?

Phoenix is systematically eating my fingers.

It’s because I’m asking him to work for his meals.

We’re on day 4 and this training approach is going well but . . . ummm . . . OUCH!

The problem is his kibble. It’s little. Tiny. Dare I say miniscule? As a food to be eaten out of a bowl, it’s just fine. But as a training “treat” to be grabbed out of my hand, not so much. It’s a one-size-fits-all food, no separate varieties with big pieces for big dogs and little pieces for little dogs. (Frustratingly enough, my two favorite kibble brands are both like this - teeny tiny little pieces that are difficult to use effectively in training.)

The days he eats raw are a little more complicated in terms of delivery but much easier in terms of my fingers. He eats his ground chicken or Nature’s Variety patties off a spoon. The sound of teeth clanking on metal is a little unnerving for me but it beats the feeling of teeth sliding off my skin. Ouch.

If I’m going to keep on this training path, I’m going to have to change dog food brands. That won’t be a big deal since I brand-hop a lot anyway. In addition to reading labels I’ll now be buying his food based on how big the kibbles are.

When Phoenix and I started the work-for-your-meals plan, I got the bright idea to soften his kibble with water so it would be spoonable mush. Easy to whip out a spoon, scoop some up and deliver the reward. Everyone knows mush is more desirable than plain old dry crunchies, and it wouldn’t fall off the spoon.

I don’t know if it was more desirable or not. Putting water on this brand of kibble failed to yield mush. Even after sitting in the fridge all day, it yielded slimy solid wet kibble that defied being scooped neatly onto a spoon. It went on the spoon and off again before it ever got near his mouth. I even tried scooping it with my fingers. That worked marginally better but it made the line of demarcation between food and fingers an even grayer area.  (Also makes me question just how digestible the stuff is, but I guess a dog’s stomach acid would have more effect on it than tap water.)

On some exercises, Phoenix’s food goes onto a target. He’s sent to the target, then called to race back to me (now excited and working in drive) and perform some sort of obedience behavior (heeling, retrieve, etc.). Other times, I rev him with his cue word, ask for tricks then ask for obedience behavior, then feed, allowing him to leap up and grab the food from my hand - always rewarding while the dog is still in a drive state, no feeding while the dog is calm and stationary. (I’ve spent 5 years rewarding for calm and stationary behavior, can’t stay that’s totally responsible for some of our less-than-exciting ring performances but it’s a behavior change I’m willing to experiment with.)

To his credit, Phoenix isn’t biting me deliberately. But it’s impossible for a 55-pound moving object to hit my fingers with his open mouth without some collateral damage.

No, he doesn’t have to work for every single piece of kibble he consumes. Sometimes he’ll get a handful all at once, although that’s hard to deliver while keeping him “up.” It’s easy for kibble to go flying and if we’re outdoors, this means a seek and destroy mission in the grass. We leave no kibble behind.

I have started setting a timer for our sessions. The morning session has a definite 10 minute limit, since I have to get to work. The evening session has a lot more flexibility. The timer helps keep me on task, since I tend to want to train much longer than is realistically beneficial for my dog. If there’s food left over when the timer goes off, Phoenix gets it, either from the bowl or from my hand.

I’m working hard to incorporate meals with effort, drive and enthusiasm about obedience work. The cue word building is progressing. Oddly enough, asking him “Are you ready?” seems to elicit the strongest response. Toys are still involved and so are special treats (cheese, hot dogs, tortellini, leftovers, etc.) so he’s not restricted only to his kibble.

Food is powerful. The biggest problem I’m having with this is not feeding him for every little thing. It has to be AWESOME effort - fast, straight, engaged, brilliant and enthusiastic -  to earn the food.

The second hardest thing is keeping Jamie occupied so he’s not screaming his fool head off while I’m working Phoenix. That’s a post in itself.


  1. Bummer that your kibble wouldn't 'melt down' with liquid added! You could redry it into fun little shapes! Okay, or not!! G

  2. Fool head! OMG! If i had a nickle for every time i use that saying with loki! Did you ever try tossing the reward in the air? Keeps him in motion to catch it. Could be difficult with tiny kbble. Another idea...put it between the flat section if your pointer and middle finger and hold your hand flat, palm down while sqeezing it between flat part of your two fingers near or above knuckles, not the finger tips,. His teeth wont get you like that. I have to do that with Juno, not Loki! Go figure my non alligator dog is the finger nibbler...

  3. I'm using more of a jackpot method, putting the jackpot in a food bowl and setting it down for my dog. But a friend who is making her dog work for food divides it up into portions and puts a portion in the bowl. When her dog earns a portion, down goes the bowl, the portion is eaten & she picks up the bowl to reload. Might be a hassle but would save your fingers?

  4. I've been reading about your journey with Phoenix from the beginning and the one thing I am utterly amazed at is your tolerance for teeth on skin. I have very high-drive border collies and no matter what, teeth do not touch skin - in receiving treats or toys or in play. If it happens, they don't get the reward or play stops. I value my skin too much. I don't understand the tolerance you have for this!

    Phoenix sounds like my Trey in regards to training and carrying it into the ring with attitude. I wish you success in your efforts. Trey wound up hating obedience so much that I retired her and now she is "just" a herding dog (which is her favorite pasttime!). I don't have your dedication to training. To me with Trey, it was just 'beating a dead horse'. Good luck!

  5. What about Natural Balance rolls? You can cut them any size that works for you.

  6. Zodiac always has a fit when I am working Legend. I like the natural balance rolls as well.