Monday, May 7, 2012

Food Delay

I think I first heard the term 'Food Delay' in one of Dawn Jecs' books. I read her books a long time ago, so I'm not sure if what I am about to describe was based on something she described or not.

One of the biggest hurdles for many trainers who use food to train their dog is weaning off the food sufficiently to get reliable obedience ring performances from their dogs. I want to describe at least some of the ways in which I work on this process with my dogs.

When I first introduce an exercise, I often have food in one or both of my hands, and it is often in sight, used as a lure or magnet. My first step in the weaning process is to increase the number of repetitions my dog must do or the duration of the exercise (such as attention, heeling, or stays) with the food readily visible. I start out with a one-to-one ratio of action to CR (conditioned reinforcer) and treat. As my dog's understanding grows, I raise the ratio to 2-6 correct responses per CR/treat, still occasionally treating 2 in a row. When I can get several responses in a row with the food in my hand, I give the treat on the last one of the series, and without reloading my hand (I usually just hold one treat in my treat dispensing hand at this stage), I ask for one more repetition without the food in my hand. I use all of the other cues I was using when the food was there, such as hand position and leash pressure. After a single response, I CR & treat. My dog needs to do many repetitions when the food is obvious and a single one when it is not.

I gradually reduce not just the visible food cues, but also any other extra cues I'm using, such as leash pressure and extraneous hand cues. I am striving to have my dogs respond to a simple verbal cue or a single signal. Most dogs learn via successful repetition, and lots of it. If you have a dog for whom repetition either bores him or confuses him, you will need to spread your reps out over more training sessions.

Food Delay is the process of working you dog with no physical reinforcers - food or a toy - in your hands, in your pocket, in your mouth, or tucked under your shirt. In short, get it ALL off your person. If your dog has been very used to food and/or a toy always being readily present, you might discover these are part of your dog's cueing system that you were unaware of.

Before I start the Food Delay exercise, my dog should have a good understanding of my Find Heel exercise, including distraction resistance. If you aren't familiar with this, take a look at these videos:

I have also typically done several months of heeling work with my dog, but I return to Find Heel as the starting point when I start Food Delay. I'm going to describe a formula of food on you and food off you, but it is critical that you do NOT do this exactly this way more than a couple of times in a row. Let me repeat: do NOT do this exact formula more than a time or two. Dogs are very good at counting, so you need to be more random than that.

After you have removed all reinforcers from your pockets, etc. - take that bait bag off! - take 9 treats with you to some place high enough that you can leave the treats without your dog being able to reach them. A counter or windowsill can work well. Leave 6 of your 9 treats on the counter, and begin your Find Heel work. The first three times your dog gets to heel position, CR and treat him from one of your 3 treats. You may start with one in your left hand, but be aware you want to become more subtle about it before you are done. After giving the third treat, continue walking without making any fanfare that you have no food on you. When your dog catches up again, CR, and with a phrase such as "Let's go get a cookie!" run or walk briskly to your treat stash. Give him one, and leave empty handed. Some dogs hang out near the treat supply, which is why it is critical you put them somewhere your dog can't steal them. It's almost as though the dog is saying, "Hey, dummy, the treats are HERE!" Repeat this 'dog catches up, CR, "let's go get a cookie!"' routine two more times, which should have you getting to your stash of four treats. Give him one, take the remaining 3 with you, and finish up by rewarding him for catching up directly 3 more times.

So now you've done this formula of 3 on–3 off–3 on once. The next time you work Food Delay, you need to change the formula some, such as 2 on–1 off–1 on–2 off–3 on. Plan to work on a ratio of two treats on you to one treat off for a while, but be as random about it as you can be. It can also be important with certain too-clever critters that you are subtle about when you take extra treats with you vs. when you leave empty handed. You can do this by tossing a treat for the dog to chase while you reload (or don't) vs. simply delivering a treat directly and then reloading (or not).

As you practice this, start requiring your dog to heel with you for longer periods of time before you deliver a treat or run to your stash of treats. Over time, you will work your way up to an entire ring performance for a jackpot at the end.

You can do a similar exercise using a special toy instead of food. I will practice with a toy on the floor to which I release my dog when he is concentrating and performing a given exercise well enough.

Food Delay is critically important to start to work on early enough that the lack of food doesn't turn a switch off in your dog's mind. Start early, practice it often!

Let me know how it is working for you.

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