My dog only listens when I have food!

February 4, 2016

 We have all seen it- the dog who will be pulling on the leash, barking, or jumping all over guests (completely oblivious to the owner's frantic instructions to sit, come, or stop driving us crazy)... right up until the owner opens the bag of treats on the counter. Suddenly when treats are present, Fido is at their side quickly running through a routine of basic obedience and tricks, sometimes before they have even gotten the treat out of the bag.

 

There is a big difference between the dog who chooses to offer good behaviors throughout the day (and will respond to your instructions at any time) and the dog who will ignore you until you pull out the treats and then suddenly put on a frantic display of tricks or behaviors because the food is present. We all want that well-mannered dog, but many people accidentally end up with the second dog who only listens when food is around. A dog who will listen when food is around is better than a dog who doesn't listen at all, so many people accept it as it is and consider their dog as trained as he can be.  Here is the issue though:

 

A dog (or cat!) who is just following his nose, is not following your instructions.

 

 

This is a problem, because if your dog only listens to you when you have food in your hand, he probably won't come back when called if he gets loose, he may jump on the small child before you had a chance to bribe him with food, and he will still try to lunge toward every person walking by.

 

The situation I have described is an easy situation for pet owners to accidentally end up in.  This is often because so many basic obedience behaviors and tricks can be "trained" by having your dog follow a piece of food. We teach our dogs to sit by holding a treat above their head; we teach down by moving that food from above their head to the floor; we teach them to rollover by rolling it over their head, and that cute spin happens as soon as we move the piece of food (in front of their nose) in the shape of a circle. Notice a pattern? Your dog has learned to just move however is necessary to follow the treat. It is easy for a dog to look like he has been trained because you say the word down and then move the treat to the floor and sure enough- he lies down! But if you were to ask for any one of those behaviors one at a time, in a different order, or without a piece of food in your hand- will your dog still do them? It is important to test our dogs every once in awhile so that we have a realistic picture of what our dog does and does not know, that way we don't become unrightfully frustrated when he seems to be unresponsive to our instructions. 

 

So how do we teach a dog to follow our instructions and not just his nose?

1) Avoid using "luring" when training your dog to do a behavior. (Luring is the training term for having the dog follow a piece of food). If luring must be used then set yourself a strict rule of only luring a behavior into happening 3 times. After that you can temporarily pretend to have something in your hand to bridge the transition between following food and following a hand signal or verbal instruction.

 

2) Never show your dog a piece of food prior to asking for a behavior. Keep it in a treat pouch, a dish on the table, or in your pocket. You know it's there, Fido knows/is hoping it is there, but do not actually show it to him.

 

3) Keep the hand that you give your dog treats with, completely still until after your dog has finished the behavior. As soon as your dog sees that hand move, he will think he is getting a treat and his brain will turn off (and the behavior you were looking for will often stop). Your dog should only get a treat after he has completed a behavior you asked for, or liked.  It helps to be very clear with yourself, about what specific behavior you are looking for, so that you know the exact second your dog has done it. (For example: Do you want Fido to 'stay' for 3 seconds or 10? Ask him to stay then count to that number in your head, so that you know if he did it. Keep that treat hand still the whole time.)

 

4) As soon as possible, transition to using non-food reinforcers. These can include praise, playtime, or access to a favorite toy or place. See our TREATS AND TOYS post for more ideas. Keep in mind that when training a new behavior, using the clicker and food as treats will probably work best, however once the behavior is learned, both of those tools can and should be faded.

 

5) Strategically place treats in quickly accessible locations. For instance, keep a bowl of treats near the door, or in your bedroom so that at random times and locations you can ask for a behavior without having your dog watch you pull out treats/clicker/treat pouch first. He will learn to always expect that you will have treats at the ready, so it is always worth it for him to do the behavior (even if he can't see the treat). At first, always reinforce the behavior with food, then begin alternating between reinforcing with normal food, praise/toys, and sometimes with something incredible like left-over steak from dinner last night. Your dog will have no way to know what he is going to get, but will be highly motivated to do the behavior every time because just maybe that will be the time you have steak waiting for him!

 

 

 

 

 

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