“People should learn how to be a skilled, generous, creative ‘feeder.’ That is, they should understand and embrace the fact that their main role, if they want to be a great trainer, is to reinforce repeatedly any dog behaviors they want to see more of.” – Kathy Sdao

Steve Holt Photography (steveholt.org)
Steve Holt Photography (steveholt.org)

Renowned dog trainer and animal behaviorist Kathy Sdao first introduced me to the concept of feeding skillfully and effectively. In reward-based training, skillful use and delivery of food is critical. It’s how we teach dogs to perform behaviors and how we desensitize them to fears and phobias.

Many critics of force-free trainers label us as cookie tossers, when in reality, the key to success in training without pain or coercion is not cookie tossing, but cookie tossing with a purpose.

The following are techniques that will help you feed – and therefore train – more effectively and skillfully.

1) Feed with a purpose

When you give your dog a food reward, you are rewarding something. Because dogs live very much “in the moment,” you’re rewarding the behavior that came immediately before the reward. Or, if you use a verbal reward marker or a clicker, you’re rewarding the behavior that immediately preceded the click.

The first key to being a skillful, effective feeder is to reward behaviors you want to increase, and not rewarding behaviors you want to decrease.  You must also reward desired behaviors immediately after they occur. If you’re late, you run the risk of rewarding the wrong behavior.

2) Choose an efficient treat delivery system

Effective feeding means effective timing, storage and delivery of food. You don’t want to deliver food at the wrong time (i.e. when your dog is demand barking and jumping), nor do you want to reward a behavior too late (your dog won’t understand which behavior is resulting in the reward).

I recommend a bait bag that attaches to your belt loop or wraps around your waist. When you need a treat, it’s there. When you don’t want to deliver food, it’s stored neatly by your side. You can pre-load your bait bag so it’s ready to go when you need it.

Whatever treat storage and delivery system you choose, it’s important that it does not inhibit the other elements of training success: timing and mechanics. Random treats flying toward your dog, hovering above your dog in a distracting container, or spilling out of your pockets onto the floor distract from your overall goal: effective and skillful feeding.

Another bonus to bait bags? You can reduce their salience if you wear them around your dog during “non-training” times. Over time, the bait bag will cease being an immediate tip-off to your dog that it’s time to behave. Instead, it will be you, your voice, or your hand gestures. Your dog won’t be behaving because treats are present. Your dog will be behaving because he has learned, through training, what gets him rewards.

3) Practice proper treat hygiene

Make sure you prepare your treats by dicing them into small, pea-sized pieces. You don’t want to break up treats on the fly, because you’ll lose valuable training time and will make your training sessions more complicated.

Designate one hand as your treat-dispensing hand, and one hand as your leash-holding/hand gesture hand. When you’re training obedience behaviors, pre-load your dispensing hand with food. Keep that hand at your side or behind your back until it’s time to feed. Remember: the tip-off to the reward isn’t the presence of the food, it’s the behavior you’re training your dog to do.

4) Be prepared for rapid-fire deliveries

Some situations require rapid treat delivery for a sustained period of time. Think of recall practice, where you have to deliver a massive reward when your dog comes when called for the first time. If you only have one treat in your hand, and then have to fumble for more treats in your bait bag, you’re losing valuable training time. Practice pre-loading your treat hand and delivering one treat after another in rapid-fire fashion. Don’t pause, don’t fumble with your bait bag, just feed.

5) Feed creatively

Dogs need motivation to do behaviors like “sit,” “down,” and come when called. In reward-based training, food is the major motivator. It’s important to audition various types of food to find your dog’s favorites. Don’t settle for a treat that your dog “kind of” likes. Choose the treats that make your dog willing to come when called at the dog park, do a 30-second sit-stay, and go “down” on a verbal cue (not inherently fun things for a dog to do).

The other key to maintaining motivation is variety. Dogs, just like humans, need some variety in their lives. If you ate the same turkey sandwich for every meal, chances are, your excitement for mealtime will wane. If you’re taking your dog to a 60-minute dog training class, don’t expect your dog to maintain the same level of motivation for one type of treat. Bring three or four types of treats, and mix them up during the training session. This keeps your training  creative, fun and effective – for you and your dog!

– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC

Maureen Backman, MS is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project. To get in touch, email her at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.