Luka’s training method uses positive reinforcement to reward behavior. In my Chicken Camp blog post I described how a clicker is used to mark a desired behavior and let the chicken know that a reward in the form of food is forthcoming. This is the same basic technique used with Luka but with several enhancements. First of all, a reward can take many forms including praise, play, and touch yet it is mostly delivered in the form of food because it is a primary motivator. Secondly I vary the quality and quantity of food depending upon level of difficulty. Lastly a reward is not always preceded by a click. I still use the clicker during training sessions such as when we are on a walk and I ask him to sit or put him in a down. However when in some “real life” situations like at work, or in a grocery store or restaurant I can silently reward him with food when he correctly executes a command since the clicker is often inconvenient and noisily intrusive.
Luka gets four different levels of reward food, level 4 being the lowest reward level, level 1 being the highest level; each level is a little tastier and more enticing than the prior. Which reward he gets depends on how strongly I want to reinforce a given behavior and how hard he had to work. For example, putting him in a down while I shop for jeans won’t earn him much since there isn’t much distraction and he probably wanted to lie down anyways out of sheer boredom. However putting him in a down because a rabbit has foolishly decided to run across the field behind our favorite ice cream place will earn him a much higher reward because of the sheer willpower he had to muster in order to comply.
His level 4 reward (low end) is a high quality, grain free kibble. He gets this for simple commands like down, sit, place, and heel unless there is significant distraction or I’m trying to shape the behavior in a new way. I’ve tried a few brands but lately have settled on Acana Pacifica. Luka really likes anything that tastes fishy – the stinkier the better. The other reason I really like this stuff is that the kibble size is not too small. I tried some other brands with smaller kibble and to give him a fair reward I would have to give him a small handful which is rarely convenient and usually ends up with a slobbered hand. I like being able to toss him one piece through the air and I think he enjoys tracking the trajectory and snatching it in mid-air. Plus we look really cool when we do it – I feel like one of those SeaWorld trainers who can toss a fish and get it to land right where the animal is jumping.
I use a wide variety of products for Luka’s level 3 rewards. They are usually about the same size as one or two pieces of kibble but are softer and tastier. I like the Zuke’s products although I’m not convinced they are super healthy. My favorite is Pet Botanics Grain Free Salmon Omega Treats. They stay pretty soft over time and I can easily cut them into smaller bites. These seem to be Luka’s favorite too. I can’t tell you how I decide when to give a level 3 instead of a level 4 reward – there’s some crazy formula I have in my head that directs my hand to one pouch or the other. It mostly involves how much distraction he had to ignore and how well he executed the task. Lazily laying down after looking around to make sure there isn’t anything more interesting to do will earn a level 4 (or sometimes not even that) whereas a snappy down right where and when I want it will earn a level 3 and a kind word of praise or scruff behind the ears.
Level 2 rewards are the first step into the big leagues. He only gets these for difficult behaviors or behaviors I really want to reinforce. Luka and I have been working hard at dog encounters which are challenging for him. He really wants to bark and interact and I want him to just pretend the other dog doesn’t exist. We are pretty close to my goal although it has been a lot of work. As soon as we see another dog approaching I get his attention with a “watch” command and reward him with a level 2 reward which is supremely tasty. I’ll let him look at the other dog but as soon as I think he is getting overexcited or about to bark I capture his attention again and reward him again with level 2. This process repeats until Luka is visibly calm or the other dog is out of range. It has worked remarkably well. Luka’s default behavior now when he sees another dog is to look at me pleadingly which I immediately reward with level 2. I have successfully taught him that the tasty reward I have in my pouch is far more interesting than an approaching dog. I also use this reward for recalls and other really important behaviors. I currently alternate between two level 2 treats: Charki Puffs which is dried beef lung coated with dried beef liver paste, and Cadet Gourmet Salmon Snacks. These are dry and hard and can be easily broken into smaller pieces depending on how big a reward I want to give. Luka goes bonkers over these treats, in large part, because they have a very strong taste and an even stronger smell. The strong odor has actually been a bit of a problem – my treat pouch which is permanently attached to my belt has taken on quite the odiferous personality. I’ve taken to keeping my daily supply sealed tight in a ziplock bag. Of course this slows down delivery at reward time which is usually time-critical so I’m still working out how to handle this.
Level 1 is the holy grail of rewards and is reserved for only two behaviors: blood sugar alerts and the Really Reliable Recall. I rotate between a few different ingredients but they all involve meat. Usually it is grilled chicken breast cut into pieces and divided into hearty servings. Sometimes I’ll add pieces of cooked hamburg or slices of beef or turkey hot dogs. Lately I’ve also been supplementing with a single-serving of string cheese which I peel into long stringy pieces that he stretches from my hand whilst standing on two feet. Being ahead of the game and having level 1 treats available as needed takes preparation. Once a week I’ll grill up a whole package of chicken, cut the pieces into small pieces and divide them into Ziplock bags which I keep in the freezer then thaw as I need them. I do the same thing when we grill hamburgers, making extras to cut up and freeze for a later date.
You may have noticed from my description that I didn’t list what I feed him at meal time. That’s because he has no meal time. All of Luka’s food – every bite he eats – he earns as a reward. He never gets a bowl of food. We don’t even own one. When I tell people this they often look at me incredulously then start in with a predictable series of questions that reflect the questions and issues I had to resolve during training.
The issue most people raise is the hardest for some to accept although it wasn’t really a problem for me. It usually takes the form of “aren’t you just bribing him?” or “that sounds like slavery”. In general they question the morality of the work-for-food scheme. Here’s the thing: dogs need to work. They need to have a job and a purpose, especially big dogs of the working breeds. It is only in the last hundred+ years that humans started keeping dogs *purely* as pets which is why all the small “designer” breeds are fairly recent inventions. The idea that Luka is somehow being duped or bribed doesn’t make much sense. Am I being duped or bribed when I go to work every day in exchange for a paycheck? In the end, we all work for food in some capacity, each according to their own abilities. Even my youngest son, Timmy, has chores he is expected to do or he’ll starve (just kidding).
The bigger issue I had to wrap my head around has to do with the day to day implications: how am I going to carry all this food around? My answer to this question is still evolving but the current solution looks like this:
The blue treat pouch is a high quality self-closing pouch with two internal sections where I keep level 3 and 4 treats. The clip on the outside is my own invention for hanging used poop bags during walks. The black fanny pack has several zippered sections where I keep the following:
- A glucometer kit
- Smarties, peanut butter crackers, and granola bars (for me)
- ADA information cards
- Level 2 treats in a ziplock
- Two or three level 1 treats in ziplock bags plus string cheese
- A small plastic bowl to feed him level 1 treats without making a mess
- Extra poop bags
- Just-Add-Water paper towels in case of emergency
Each morning I load up with the supplies I’ll need for the day, strap it on and I’m ready to go!
The system of carrying all his food around and constantly rewarding him was hard to get used to. However the benefit is hard to dispute: training happens continuously. We don’t put aside a half hour a day or an hour on a weekend to train in the back yard. All day long, as long as we are awake, we are training. Every time he sits on command, he gets reinforced. Every. Time. There are some behaviors that we don’t exercise regularly so I *do* put aside periods when we can practice these but they are easily integrated into our daily walks or play time in the yard.
Some days there just aren’t enough opportunities to reward Luka, especially when we are just hanging out at home. On these occasions I let him exercise his mind with a treat ball full of kibble or this really fun dog puzzle. I shot this video the second time we used it but now he’s a pro – he quickly opens every compartment and finds the treats. Time for a new challenge!