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TRAINING TIP TUESDAY: Remember when we were taught to get our dog's attention by holding a piece of food next to our eye, while chanting "Watch me, watch me, watch me?"
While this is a non-aversive way to teach the behavior, it bugs me. First, it has a very high risk of the dog becoming dependent on seeing the food before he'll give you the behavior. That's a bribe, folks. The second is that the dog is learning he doesn't have to offer you his attention unless he's cued.
I like dogs to check in with me voluntarily, without me having to present a cue or a treat to get them to do it.
Why? Because then the dog is thinking, not just waiting for me to tell them what to do.
For fearful and reactive dogs, this is especially important, as they need to have some control in the environments that we put them in. Capturing attention and rewarding it becomes something they can do instead of bark and lunge, and it gets rewarded, which feels good. It is a great tool to help them cope with the world around them.
Another thing bugs me about that old approach when used with reactive dogs. Dogs are very attuned to changes in their environment. Sure, they'll look at the treat when you first pull it out, but the longer the treat sits there by your face, it becomes less interesting, especially if you're not actually rewarding the dog. Now, the thing that is more interesting is the dog on the other side of the street, who is in constant motion, unlike the treat by your face.
Here's a video I put together of several exercises to build attention without getting hot dog juice on your face. The treat is used first as a distraction, not to bait the dog to look at you, and then as a reward. The dog must look away from the treat in order to earn the treat.
For happy-go-lucky friendly dogs, these exercises also teach impulse control. Using the Premack Principle (see prev post), we can use access to friends, family, and familiar dogs as a reward for nice calm, attentive behavior. By waiting for our dogs to offer the behavior, they must regulate their own arousal levels, calming themselves instead of us trying to do it with a treat, a leash, or other physical means of control.
Is it helpful to have a cue to get attention? Absolutely. That's why I reinforce attention when I say the dog's name, capturing the moment he turns and looks at me. After all, what's the first thing we say when our dogs start to get into trouble? Their name. So why not train that to mean something?
Are there times when you may need to "distract" your dog with a treat? Sure, but distracting isn't teaching, it's management. Getting behavior in the moment does not necessarily equal learning...or at least, not what you want your dog to learn.
As with any new skill, teach attentive behavior at home, then take it on the road, practicing around the "Three D's" of proofing: Distance. Duration. Distraction.
If you find yourself grabbing the food to get control of your dog, you're too close, waiting too long, or the level of distraction is too much. Take a step back and practice at a level that your dog can offer you attentive behavior *without* you having to grab the treat first. Then gradually work your way closer.
Modern dog training is about the smart use of food rewards, not relying on treats - or any other tool - to get the behaviors we want. Dogs are smart enough to learn, we just have to be smart enough to teach them!