Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Training outlook

For the last week and a half, I’ve been using extremely limited food in Phoenix’s training sessions. By extremely limited, I mean 2-3 pieces, total. And it’s not the super exciting greasy smelly treats I used when he was a baby dog, either. It’s a Charlee Bear or a Zukes or something relatively small and dry.

How does he feel about this? Well, honestly, he doesn’t really seem to care.

I’ve also reduced the amount of ball-throwing and tugging we do as rewards. I’m making an honest effort to use personal play instead, especially touch games and push-and-shove games, which he seems to enjoy most. He DOES seem to miss the use of actual toys . . .

. . . but I’ve substituted tugging with his dumbbell and gloves to good effect. In fact, over the weekend at the Des Moines shows, he was actively trying to grab the dumbbell from me outside the ring. This enthusiasm did not carry over into the ring, which was unfortunate but not unexpected, since we’ve only truly embraced the “ring objects as toys” approach in the last couple of weeks and I’m long past the point of expecting miracle cures.

I am still using a ball or jute tug as a reward but on a very limited basis and even then, am combining them with personal play.

My approach is to make our training look like showing as much as possible and this is focused on A) reduced use of food and toys and B) increased use of personal play as part of the work itself. I’m the only reward I can offer in the ring and I’ve done a pretty good job of de-valuing myself by always offering food or toys first. Why would he value playing with me if I rarely offer it?

As usual, it’s MY habits that need to change. Starting the session with only a few pieces of food in my pocket obviously takes the emphasis off the food because it simply isn’t available in the quantities I used before. Talk about a self-inflicted intervention! While I WILL reward occasionally with food, the primary reward is genuine verbal praise and silly play.

In fact, the food is often delivered as an afterthought. Does Phoenix see it that way? It’s hard to tell what’s going on in his mind but given that he wolfs down treats with nary a second thought (no prolonged relishing or enjoyment, just gulp and gone), I’m hoping he views the stopping of play to get a small dry treat as somewhat anticlimactic and lessens the value of food - as opposed to the trainer who routinely doles out handfuls of juicy garlic roasted chicken breast. (I’m talking about using this approach with a dog who is thoroughly trained, not a puppy in the beginning stages of learning. I would use food much differently there.)

This is the only way I know how to get over our cookie addiction and the resulting lack of enthusiasm about the obedience ring, which Phoenix finds lacking in the reward and/or fun department.

We’re taking a long break from showing. I don’t anticipate being back in the AKC obedience ring until February of next year, which is five months from now. We’ll continue to do agility about one trial weekend a month. I would really like to show at a local UKC trial in November if I feel comfortable with our work at that point. We’ll see.

In the meantime, I plan to cultivate local matches and training with friends to simulate the ring and take the time to emphasize attitude and fun, even if it means we only do a couple of exercises in each run.

Our training motto is “Tomorrow’s bruises brought to you by today’s malinois.”


  1. What absolute stunning dogs you have.

  2. I don't pair play and treats. Either play is the reward or the treat. At this point with my 16 mo girl, I only use treats when teaching a new exercise. Anything she's already learned is rewarded with play (no toys allowed). If I'm tweaking something (esp since she's still learning many of the exercises) I will use a fleece tug as a reward but never throw it - only in play with me and I try to end the play session with personal play - wean off the tug. And personally, I don't like to use ring objects as tug toys as I've seen too many dogs not release during competition because they want to play tug instead of release the DB or glove. But that's just me.
    Good luck in curing your "addiction"!

  3. Oh you are speaking volumes to me! I'm where you were a year ago and let me tell you, it hurts (and sucks)! Thanks for continuing to write about your new direction, I'm using it as my guide and I hope that is ok. Now if only there were more matches to take advantage of (and you would think in my area, Pennsylvania, I'd have the opportunity at least twice a month). Keep up the good work!