Training on an Empty Stomach
If your dog struggles to learn and focus in new places, or isn’t as interested in treats as you’d like, you might have been told to have your dog work for all their food, or to make sure they are very hungry before training sessions or walks.
So, should you? Should you train your dog hungry?
When we are training our dogs, we want them to be engaging in learning because it is fun, enjoyable and interesting to them.
If they have too big feelings about the reinforcer we’re offering, be it a toy, treats or access to something else they enjoy, we can start building in really problematic feelings.
Things like desperation, frustration, stress and fear can all be knitted into the learning process when the dogs feel too strongly about their reinforcers, especially if they don’t know clearly how to access them.
Just like pain, these things can cause what we call “behavioural fallout”, a negative consequence we very much want to avoid. Our dogs can learn that training is too difficult, too stressful, too worrying.
Some dogs can become frantic around food when they are too hungry, and are unable to learn very well. They might struggle to listen, snatch for the food or “throw all their behaviours out”, by trying as many things as possible to access the food.
Being very hungry is uncomfortable, and so in a training scenario where the dog is hungry and working for food, it is possible we aren’t adding a stimulus that they enjoy, but rather relieving them of a stimulus that they find aversive. That is a very different contingency, and teaches the dogs in a very different way.
My goal as a clicker trainer is to as often as possible have the dogs moving towards something they enjoy, rather than away from something they dislike. Again, those aversive contingencies can cause all kinds of fallout, and sometimes we don’t notice it until it’s already happened.
We also have to ask if it is necessary.
And it isn’t. It is not necessary to make our dogs hungry in order to train them effectively. Now we might not feed immediately after a meal when they are digesting, but dogs are scavengers and will take opportunities to eat when they get them.
There are many reasons dogs might choose not to eat other than hunger. Low lying digestive problems, dental problems, fear or anxiety, or even just a preference for taste or texture can all influence how willing our dogs are to take food. Some dogs have learned to associate treats with being lured into a scary situation or tricked, or they are concerned about hands approaching their face. A qualified trainer can help you piece apart why your dog doesn’t want to take treats.
And at the end of the day, it also just isn’t fair. Dogs need to eat to live, and are forced to live in our world. We shouldn’t restrict access to the necessities for life for our own gain.
At the end of the day, skipping meals or making our dogs work for 100% of their calories is risky, unnecessary and unfair.
If you are having trouble teaching your dog using reinforcement, I'd love to help! Don't hesitate to reach out!
Spotting an Over Aroused Dog
Overarousal can be a bit of a nightmare for handlers of high energy and high drive dogs!
Arousal is a state of physiological or psychological activation, and when it becomes too high our dogs can struggle to learn and show a lot of frustrating behaviour. It’s important to note that an over aroused dog is a stressed dog. Excitement does not always equal happiness.
Over arousal is often missed by pet owners and trainers alike, but if we can spot the signs early we can take steps to help our dogs before they practise unwanted behaviours.
Replace the Chuckit!
Chuck it, or repetitive, high arousal fetch, can be problematic for dogs’ mental and physical health. Here are three alternatives to help meet their needs!
A great way to let dogs run hard, get their cardio in and stretch their legs is recall games. With the added bonus of strengthening the recall cue, these games are easy and just take two (or more) people and an off leash space.
Recall the dogs between each person, reinforcing with a single treat or a scatter each time. Vary the distance and difficulty of the terrain to provide new challenges!
Instead of traditional fetch, retriever games are a fun version of traditional bird dog work. By asking the dogs questions before and after each run, and building in problem solving and sniffing, we avoid a lot of the pitfalls of fetch while still playing a fun game. The combination of intense physical exercise and problem solving makes it very efficient at satisfying our dogs’ exercise needs.
You can find the full Retriever Games webinar here!
Interactive Toy Play
Games of tug, wrestling, flirt pole and more can give your dog an outlet for their physical exercise needs, build your connection, and be a valuable reinforcer for behaviours we want to see more of. You can use these games to teach your dog how to modulate their excitement levels, how to offer behaviour before chasing something and how to engage with you around distractions, all while exercising them. And above all else, playing with your dog should be fun!
If you want to learn more about exercising your dog, check out our Understanding Exercise webinar!
How to Calm a Hyper Dog
Is your dog bouncing off the walls?
Running amok off leash?
Can’t stop won’t stop?
Hyperactive dogs can be exhausting to live with, and it’s one of the most common behaviour complaints in puppies and teenagers!
Here are three things we do to help keep our high energy, high drive dogs happy and easy to live with!
Mental exercise > physical exercise
Although all dogs need physical exercise in varying amounts, mental exercise will serve you better when dealing with a hyper dog. Focus on teaching new skills in a way that doesn’t increase frustration, and provide more enrichment! I usually recommend that at least 7 meals a week come out of an enrichment toy. Pick a sport or specific training goal and work towards it every day. You can start with simple tricks, but make sure you keep progressing!
Focus on activities that calm, not excite
Enrichment like searching, sniffing, chewing and shredding, as well as long line or off leash walks in nature and away from triggers can all help dogs calm down. Oftentimes, we want to tire our hyper dogs out by throwing the ball a lot or taking them to the dog park, but this can actually make the problem worse.
Letting them move their bodies freely without an exciting toy or friend to wrestle with can be a game changer, as can giving them opportunities to engage with doggie behaviours like digging and searching for food.
This one seems counterintuitive. If the dog is over excited, shouldn’t they need more exercise, not more rest?
Think about kids on Christmas at about 2pm. They’re fried. Days of excitement and too much activity and sugar is a recipe for a meltdown. The same is true for dogs. Often, dogs who are hyperactive aren’t getting enough quality rest.
Your dog’s sleep needs will vary with their age, but make sure they get regular down time and that they’re actually sleeping, not just waiting for something exciting to happen!
Sometimes, hyperactivity can tip over into the territory of a mental health disorder that needs treatment from a veterinary behaviourist. Talk to your vet about your dog’s hyperactivity and speak with a qualified trainer before embarking upon a training plan.
If you live with a dog who is just a bit much, we can help
Our frantic to focused program is available fully digital or hybrid in person and digital.
Let us get you from frantic to focused!
When we’re working with our dogs, we want to stay in the “happy bucket” and avoid the “yucky bucket” as much as we can (to paraphrase Dr Amy Cook).
And one factor that might tip us into the yucky bucket, but that tends to fly under the radar, is frustration.
Frustration is aversive. It is not fun for us, and it’s not fun for the dog. That means that even if we’re standing there with our clicker and our cheese or hot dogs, we might be giving the dog an unpleasant learning experience.
And that is one of the reasons why positive reinforcement training can be unsuccessful sometimes, because we were creating an uncomfortable learning environment.
We don’t like the feeling of being frustrated, and neither do our dogs.
And frustration can cause all kinds of fallout, or negative side effects, just like any other aversive.
So how do we know when our dogs are frustrated, and how do we fix it?
Frustration can look like a lot of things, and it can look different from different dogs. It might look like:
It’s important to note that these behaviours can be due to many different issues, and a qualified trainer can help you determine where the issue lies.
But if we know we have frustration, what do we do about it?
The biggest issue is clarity.
Frustration arises when we don’t know how to get what we need, or make what we want happen.
Things like driving behind an extra slow driver or assembling ikea furniture are things typically frustrating for humans, because they often don’t have a clear solution, or we don’t yet have the skills to solve the problem with ease.
We have to ensure the cue for the behaviour is clear and consistent, and that the way the dog is offered reinforcement is equally so.
The other question is are we teaching in small enough pieces that the dog can be successful? Is there a way to break a behaviour down further so it’s easier for them, and they’re more likely to get the right answer?
Once you know how your dog expresses frustration, you will want to act fast as soon as you see the signs. Frustration can be just as aversive as pain or fear, and can poison cues or even the whole training game.
But once we know what frustration looks like in our dogs, we can take action to increase clarity and make the game fun again.
3 Tips for Ball Obsessed Dogs
Is your dog ball obsessed?
Ball obsessed dogs might hyperfocus on their toy, give frantic or frenetic behaviour like spinning or barking to try to get it, or go into almost a trance at the sight of their toys. They might struggle to listen, or eat treats when the toy is there, or move mountains to try to get it.
Toy obsession can be problematic for your dog, and it can also be really annoying and stressful.
Here are three tips to help you manage this frustrating behaviour problem
If your dog is toy obsessed, and you’d like to learn how to help them, and to use the toy as a powerful reinforcer for training, sign up for our newsletter and be the first to learn when our upcoming webinar Ball Obsessed is released!