String Cheese: I’ll never let go

. . . one can never give too many food treats during temperament training exercises . . .
– Dr. Ian Dunbar

Squirrel?

.

A few weeks ago I received a very nice message from someone who had heard my two podcasts on The Great Dog Adventure with Fern Camacho. (This one and that one) She related to my struggles with Leo, because she has a reactive dog too.

I never leave my home with out a pocket full of treats. Now when we see a dog, he turns to look at me to get a treat. I was wondering with your training of Leo, have you gotten to the point where you can wean Leo off of the string cheese? I am thinking that once a behavior is reinforced for a period of time, you no longer have to reward it.

I told her that I do still carry string cheese on all our walks. I’ve been doing it for two years, and the thought hadn’t crossed my mind to try to phase it out. Ever.

I’m totally okay with buying two large bags of string cheese every time I go to the store, and peeling the plastic off about twelve sticks before each walk. I went from thinking we’d never be able to walk Leo past a bicycle to having him look to me for cheese before I’ve even seen the bicycle. Now, even if he barks, he calms down pretty quickly.

For example, recently I spotted a bike coming our way. I crossed the street and readied the cheese. Then another bicycle came from the other direction, with an off-leash dog running beside it! Leo was amped, but not barking, and I don’t think he would have if I hadn’t made the tactical error of positioning us next to a dude rummaging inside a sketchy van. I got distracted wondering what that guy was going to do, and Leo wound up barking at one of the bikes.

Who cares. There was a time this would have ruined my whole day. Whatever.

Back to the question from my listener, though. She asked whether once a behavior is reinforced, you can stop rewarding it.

This is true with obedience training, especially if you show the dog the treat before you cue the behavior, because then it is a lure. You want to phase out the lure, lest it become a bribe. I learned this from Dr. Ian Dunbar, the father of reward-based training. (The quote at the top of this post, in fact, is from an article about the importance of phasing out treats!)

To quote my own blog paraphrasing him:

The biggest mistake reward-based and positive-reinforcement trainers make is to not phase out food soon enough. A lure takes a willing dog and tells him what we want him to do. A bribe coerces an unwilling dog to act against its will.

The difference is, I’m not using the string cheese as a bribe, lure, or reward. I’m using it to counter-condition him to things that scare him. That’s why I give him cheese even if he barks at the trigger, because I’m not as much rewarding him for not barking as I am conditioning* him that bicycles (or whatever) mean good things. That’s why comforting a frightened dog (or human infant) doesn’t reinforce the fear. Fear is not a behavior.

In addition to their obvious applications in all aspects of teaching manners, food lures and food rewards may be more importantly used for behavior modification and temperament training. In fact, food lures and rewards are so effective, their use should be mandatory.

*So, shouldn’t Leo be conditioned by now? He’s getting there. When he sees something scary, he knows he’ll get cheese. And he has a much higher threshold for his triggers than he used to. Last weekend, we sat in the middle of baseball field while Rob practiced flying a drone, and Leo lay down very calmly. Bikes passed by on a nearby trail, at quite a distance, and he didn’t need to be cheesed.

Drone practice

Leo’s the one chilling on the left.

From the CARE for Reactive Dogs website:

You will need to continue to practice DS/CC (desensitization and counter-conditioning) and positive reinforcement of the alternative behaviors you have taught in new situations and locations in order to help your dog generalize the context. This will get easier and easier as your dog’s emotions change and his new behaviors are reinforced. As your dog becomes fluent in these new behaviors, you will be able to decrease the amount of food rewards you give him and use life rewards instead; these are things your dog finds intrinsically enjoyable, such as jogging a few steps with you, play, praise and sniffing interesting smells in the environment.

I still carry the cheese, because I can’t control the environment. It comes down to generalization. Leo could be completely desensitized to a 25-year-old woman traveling in our same direction on a bike at 37 feet away, but not to a 15-year-old boy traveling toward us at 26 feet away. Factor in speeds, and number of triggers he’s already seen that day… well, the cheese keeps him from barking most of the time.

Positive TrainingThis is part of the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop hosted by Tenacious Little Terrier and Rubicon Days. Please share your responsible pet owner positive pet training tips by linking a blog post or leaving a comment below.  Our theme for this month is my positive training journey but any positive reinforcement training posts or comments are also always welcome. The Positive Pet Training Blog Hop goes all week long. Our next hop will begin October 3rd and continues for a week.

Powered by Linky Tools

Click here to enter your link and view this Linky Tools list…

7 thoughts on “String Cheese: I’ll never let go

  1. That is a LOT of cheese lol! Of course Leo is bigger too. I generally try not to give more than 1/2 stick in a day to Mr. N. He likes a variety so I have to mix it up. Thanks for joining the hop!

  2. I think you have to go with whatever works for your dogs. I can phase out treats for Luke with tricks and such, he’ll happily accept praise, but I always have a bag of treats when we go on walks. I want him to always have a reason to pay attention to me, and I don’t think praise would work when they are fearful of something.

  3. I have a fearful dog who used to shut down in the face of too many triggers. I never go anywhere with her without taking treats. It’s like your string cheese.

    I think that it is worthwhile to continue to reward obedience type behaviors with food or play even after my dog is fluent with them. Otherwise, her enthusiasm wanes…

  4. Great, informative post! Love how you point out the difference between a lure and true counter conditioning to change an emotional response. I’ll probably always have food on me for the rest of my life anytime Buster goes anywhere, and I’m fine with that. I think people definitely get away from food too quickly, which I don’t understand. To me, you’re always risking a step backwards in an event of a reaction to something unexpected, when that probably could be prevented by just carrying a tiny bag of treats.

Comments are closed.