Reinforcer Microskills: Foodstuff

by | Nov 14, 2018 | 0 comments

More Microskills today! If you didn’t read my first post in this series, you can check it out here.

The next set of Microskills that I find really vital is that of reinforcer skills. We don’t often think about investing a lot of time into training the reinforcement strategies we will later utilize and we should. If our dogs have gaps in understanding regarding their reinforcers, then teaching them will be harder than it needs to be. How and when to take reinforcement, and what kind of reinforcement is available are important pieces to any training situation and they are often details we fail to inform our learners of. Generally speaking food and toys are the most-used reinforcers in my training, so this week I will cover the details regarding food microskills, and I will address toys at a later date. Here are some ways we can cut back on confusion and expedite learning in our dogs:

Mechanics Matter

First thing’s first; we need to be clean in our reinforcement delivery. I am about to get really complex here and talk about using multiple systems and even multiple marker cues but none of that matters if we can’t mark THEN reinforce. So that means mark your dog and THEN reach for the reinforcer; keep those hands in your “home” position (the place your hands return to between reps) until the cue comes out of your mouth. Still confused? Here is a video to help:

Food from a Hand—no Lure

The first and most simple food reinforcement strategy for us to think about is the cue to “eat from my hand.” Think of it that way—a cue to eat from your hand—rather than a magic word (followed by the production of food) that reinforces behavior and you might find more and more uses for it. Simply say your word, THEN produce food, and feed it to the dog. I will add an important caveat here that the dog should move toward your hand to eat. Then put it to work for you in two ways: both reinforcing behaviors you’d like to see more of (like when you see your dog make a smart choice out on a walk and you’d like to pay him, you can call out “yep!” and watch as he runs over to eat) and testing your dog’s readiness or mental state. If he can’t follow the easiest cue of all—that of eating food—he isn’t ready to work or even move further into the environment you have found yourself in.

Food from a Hand—after Lure

In the previous Microskills post I talked about teaching our dogs to follow a lure. I will add here that I like them to simply follow the food, rather than chew on my hand, and I accomplish this by saying a “permission now to eat the lure” word and then sticking the lure into my dog’s mouth. So I encourage him to follow my hand and at a point that he is simply following and now chomping I call out “nice!” and then feed him the treat. This cuts back on any hand-chomping or mugging behaviors I might get, and it produces efficient luring behaviors.

Food on the Floor

A lot of people are inherently averse to feeding their dogs off the ground. Common criticisms include that this will produce sniffing, reduce attention, encourage foraging, and all other manner of worry. In reality feeding our dogs from the training floor has several built-in benefits like allowing the dog to opt back into training (consent!), resetting for future repetitions, and when done as a handful or “scatter” it can even have a soothing effect. But we should be clear about these reinforcers just like any other. I use two different “food on the floor” cues: one that indicates I will be tossing one treat to the ground, and another that tells my dog to expect several treats. I differentiate these so that my dog does not search forever when I only toss one—he knows I only tossed one so he is able to quickly return to work after eating. So, when I toss one cookie, I consistently say “find it” then throw one treat to the ground, and when I am giving a handful I say “scatter” first.

Now, if you aren’t keen on multiple markers, that’s ok. You can use one thrown treat in conjunction with your standalone go-to like your clicker. What matters is that you don’t fling your treats Mardi-Gras style leaving your poor dog lost as to where on earth his food is. So whether or not you plan on teaching multiple markers, practice the mechanics of SHOW AND THROW for your food on the floor microskill. Here’s a video explaining what I mean:

Food Robots

Manners Minder, Pet Tutor, Treat N Train, and so many more! Food robots are getting very popular in dog training circles and for good reason. They are such excellent tools for remote reinforcement and they can be as simple as just a glorified bowl with a single treat to a smart system that can reduce barking by selecting for silence—all on its own. There’s just one little hiccup; dogs don’t come understanding robots, and some dogs might be averse to the grinding gears and beeps these robots might make. Nothing that a little pre-training can’t fix! I like to first show my dog food comes out of the robot, then quickly reinforce some known behaviors with the robot to show my dog the system. Then we are typically off and running. As with all things, if something requires “extra” work to a great extent, I will usually ditch the tool for a simpler option. So if my dog hates the robot, you’ll find it collecting dust.

Food in a Bowl

Otherwise known as the poor man’s robot, a simple bowl pre-loaded (or not!) with treats can be an easy way to indicate to your dog that the food is not on you, but in a separate location that he can be sent to to collect his reinforcement. I use this for a lot of my husbandry behaviors where I’d like my dog focused ahead but don’t want to fumble with a remote control because my hands are full. I have also used it successfully with dogs who are otherwise averse to food robots. The important thing to me is to use a positive reinforcement procedure, rather than a negative punishment/“it’s your choice” procedure to teach this skill. More on that HERE. And And here’s the “dish” cue at work for toenails:

Stay tuned for toy microskills!


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