We recently had a man with a Weimaraner come to see us about working trials. He had been before when the dog was about 12 weeks old and had gone off full of enthusiasm with lots to work on and the promise of back up, albeit from a distance. Unfortunately, since then the dog Oscar had been unwell and then the owner Pete had had a heart attack so all thoughts of training went on to the back boiler, and we heard no more from him until a couple of weeks ago. In the meantime in an effort to do something when they were both well again Pete had taken Oscar to various local training classes and, as is always the case when you listen to lots of people, you get lots of different ideas, some of which while accepted as good training methods for pet dogs were totally unsuitable for a potential trials dog.
Pete contacted us as he didn’t think he was getting anywhere with Oscar, and although he had learned the basics of obedience he was not finding anyone local to help with trials work. We were a little suspicious and thought the likelihood was that by 17 months Oscar had probably developed problems and we were going to be faced with trouble shooting rather than training, but we made an appointment to see him and we were pleasantly surprised. Oscar is enormous, and by far the biggest Weimaraner I have ever seen but for all his size and an occasional bout of silly puppy behaviour he was a very well behaved and very willing dog, with absolutely no vices and the potential to be a really promising trials dog.
All credit must go to Pete who had managed to teach Oscar to retrieve anything and also to search, so he made a really good job of a basic search square. He also impressed us very much with a sendaway, which although he had not done before he picked up very quickly, and was running a distance of around 30 yards with enthusiasm at the end of the first lesson. Both Oscar and Pete quickly adapted to my method of heelwork training with the help of a rope lead which can also double up as a toy, and after adjusting their speed from a creep to a stride for just a few paces at a time we saw some bursts of lovely heelwork which can only get better.
We were not only impressed with this dog but relieved that he had no edge to him and at no time did we feel threatened or worried about him even when at times I demonstrated on him what I wanted Pete to do. However, what was interesting was that we did not use any sort of food reward, despite the fact that Pete had never trained him without food in the past.
What Oscar did get though was sincere and enthusiastic praise, which Pete admitted was not something he had done before, and yet it was apparent that this was something that Oscar greatly enjoyed. Pete was also encouraged to play with Oscar, and although it did tend to make him slightly over exuberant, it certainly livened him up, and he went from a nice dog that was obliging his owner to a driven dog that was enjoying himself.
This got me thinking about the whole concept of food reward in training and although I rarely use it myself, there is no doubt that it has a place and certainly some breeds seem to benefit from it more than others. I remember going to a training talk once and was amazed when Sheila Tannert, a prolific winning handler who I greatly admire, explained that she taught her search square with the aid of small pieces of chicken, and when the dog was busily searching for chicken it covered the whole square and found all the articles. Now there is no doubt that this method works and one only had to look at Sheila’s string of working trial champions to know that it does, but I cannot get my head round why it would, as to me if the dog is looking for food why would it be interested in articles?
I think there is a definite skill to using food as a reward if one is not to turn into a mobile food dispenser, and it is a skill which I do not seem to possess. I am sure the clicker trainers will tell me it is all down to timing and I am sure that this is the case, but unfortunately my timing is very good but my memory lacking, and at the moment I want to praise my dog the words are coming out of my mouth rather than the food out of my pocket. Nevertheless I can see the benefit of food, and I often use it to start a puppy tracking but for the rest of the work I rely on my enthusiastic praise, body language and touch – all of which I can take anywhere, even onto the trials field.
If we look at the concept of food training I think it is about the dog naturally having to work to eat, and so therefore if the dog wants the food it will be prepared to work for it. All that is fine if the dog is hungry, and in the purest forms of food training that is how the dog is fed, all food is given to the dog during training, and presumably the dog is very hungry and very attentive. The downside of this is that it is impractical for most of us, and also I am not sure how well the dog digests its dinner if it is always fed on the move.
For these reasons most modern day trainers feed the dog normally if a little short, and then tempt it with extra tasty morsels during training, which seems to work well for them but I always feel this is a bit like a box of chocolates, in that when you are offered the first chocolate, the second or even the third it can be a nice treat but when you have had several you really don’t want any more, and I think there is a danger that all but the greediest of dogs feel the same. So what is left when the dog says ‘No, thank you’?
This is not to say I would not use food, for a particular dog or a particular problem, but I think it is a little sad when it is adopted as the only method of training a dog, and it also tends to make the handler emotionless and flat as well as a little lazy. It also takes away the chance of varying the degree of praise for the action and my dogs certainly know the difference between ‘Well done’, ‘Good dog’ and ‘Yes’ to ‘What a clever dog you are’, ‘Aren’t you super’, ‘Clever, clever girl’, and none of this involves food.
At the end of the day we all train our dogs differently and no one way is right, so if food reward works then by all means use it, but it would be nice if it wasn’t seen as the only way to train.