The Value of Food Reward

Bichon Maltese mix would work better for food reward

Doug

The smallest food reward is of value and an incentive to any of my own dogs, but not to the dear little Bichon Maltese mix I went to yesterday. Two-year-old Doug lives with an elderly Bichon, Alfie, and it would be safe to say that food has virtually no value to either of them.

Why? Because it’s freely available 24/7 along with all sorts of treats and extras.

There are reasons why this has come about which have to do with their previous very old dog who was diabetic and needed food left down. In the corner of the room there was a generous bowl of cooked chicken, and a bowl of Bakers Complete.

Before they can do much with Doug’s alarm barking and his reactivity on walks to some other dogs and more recently people as well, they need a currency for not only rewarding him but also desensitising and counter-conditioning him – getting him to associate things which which he’s becoming increasingly reactive with ‘something good’ that Doug really values. That way he will learn to feel good when he sees someone. In Doug’s case the ‘something good’ has to be food.

For this to work they need a dog that’s a bit hungrier. A dog whose meals are not too exciting  will find special stuff a higher currency. At the moment both dogs are like lottery winners being asked to work for a tenner!

Doug is rather a jumpy little dog and his stress levels are conintually topped up with the barking and tension on walks. Just as we know that E-numbers and certain ingredients can encourage hyperactivity and nervousness in our own children, so they can with our dogs. Out goes the Bakers! (If interested in better alternatives for your own dog, here are two websites: http://www.allaboutdogfood.co.uk/  and Best Dog Food Review: http://www.best-dog-food-review.com/67901/67927.html).

Elderly Bichon

Alfie – an old dog now

Cutting the dogs down to regular meals where any unfinished food is immediately lifted is not going to be easy for these people who have come a long way with their little rescue dog who originally came from Ireland. Lavishing their dogs with tasty food and treats is a way they show their love. It will mean putting an end to sharing their own food both during preparation and while eating. Gravy bones and the like should be ditched in favour of tiny bits of real meat or similar – something nutritious – or from their daily food quota. A gravy bone to a Bichon of about 12lbs in weight must be like an adult human eating something well over ten times that size. A large bread roll perhaps?

My inclination is for them to go cold turkey by cutting out all snacks and start by just offering food every couple of hours, lifting it immediately if the dog either shows no interest or walks away, until he realises that he has to eat when the food is about. One secret is to feed very small portions that can easily be cleared. After all, in a ‘pack’ like my own or animals in the wild, if one dog walks away he will never see that food again!

It may be easier and more comfortable for Doug and Alfie’s owners to do this in easy stages, aiming to be down to two ‘proper’ meals and no unearned snacks in a week or two’s time.

Soon food will gain more value. I couldn’t believe it when Doug turned his nose up at the very tasty bit of freeze-dried lamb I offered him.

When food is a workable currency the real work can start.  Doug can be called away from something he’s barking at and he will listen because he knows he will get a food reward. He will be a lot easier to handle on walks if nice walking is rewarded and the sight of a person or other dog is kept at an acceptable distance (to Ralph) and immediately paired with ……..tasty food.

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Doug. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page).

When Every Meal is Dish of Treats

German Shepherd lying by doorIt may be a little late in the day, but they want to prepare the stunning German Shepherd as best they can for a smooth transition into his new life. It is not uncommon for me to go to someone who is ‘caretaking’ a dog for someone until they can take him or her back.

Max has been loved and wonderfully looked after for the past eight months by a lady and gentleman who have never lived with a dog before.

In a month’s time the four-year-old will be going to a new life that will include a young child and a baby on the way.

My caring clients want to hand him over as well-equipped as possible.

I found out immediately that Max was simply not interested in food – even the special tasty little treats I brought. Without food it’s much more difficult to reward a dog meaningfully or to desensitise to things he’s uneasy about.  ‘Good dog’ is seldom sufficient, talking can convey the owner’s underlying anxiety even if the words themselves are positive and a favourite game like tuggy is often inconvenient and just too long-winded.

The reason became apparent when we discussed his eating habits. He has four meals a day – you could almost say ‘banquets’. Breakfast is tuna or tripe, lunch is chopped ham, tea is boiled rice with chicken, liver or heart and dinner is kibble. In addition he may get biscuits when he asks for them. When his regular food contains all the best things and in such quantity, what is there left of sufficient value for earned treats?

When I arrived I had been prepared for a barking dog, so he was on lead. Helping him with his reactivity to people coming to the house is one of their priorities. However, when they let me in following my instructions, Max was chilled! He sniffed me. We sat down – and he delicately and calmly helped himself to the Stagbar that I carry in my bag!

Work will be a lot easier if they are able to use food in order to deal appropriately with his barking at passing people and dogs, and his frenzy when someone comes to the door. They need food to help him to feel comfortable with visitors. They need food so that he pays them attention when necessary. They need to be able to reward him for sitting or lying down when asked so that he is under control when necessary. If in his new life he shows too much interest in the baby or they are at all worried that he may be uneasy around the child, they need to know that he will come to them when asked.

At the moment all the best goodies are showered upon him for free and he has to work for nothing. Now he needs to work for the best food. They will gradually reduce the variety offered in meals till his diet is more basic and he ends up with two ‘normal’ meals a day. If they are worried he’s not eating, he can still be earning and working for tasty stuff but outside his mealtimes.

Max needs to put a bit of effort in order to get what he wants. I’m sure that just like us, dogs value more the stuff they have had to put a bit of effort into acquiring – and perhaps take more note of those people whose attention they have to try a bit harder for?

Some things they simply won’t have time to address in the short time they still have him, like his manic barking in the car at everything that passes. This could make things difficult in the future with children in the car too. Their simplest option is to get a crate for the car and prevent him from seeing out – fortunately he was crate-trained.

One other thing they can help him with in the next four weeks is his very close attachment to the lady. He became visibly anxious when she left the room although the gentleman was still with us. He panted and paced. It will be hard for her as she loves him dearly, but she may need to help him to become a bit more independent of her.

I really hope that I will be called upon to continue to help this dog in his new life, and to put the caring couple’s mind at rest that all their efforts to invest in Max’ future are being built upon.

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Max. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page).