When working with our dogs, food rewards are a great way to keep them motivated and wanting to learn. Offering treats to your dog in high pressure, distracted or new situations can not only help change your dog’s association about things he may not be comfortable with, but can also give you an indication of how your pup is feeling!
Have you ever noticed that many veterinarians often toss treats to dogs or drop them on the ground rather than hand them to many dogs? Very often in group class settings or new training scenarios, I see clients who are frustrated by either:
A dog who doesn’t want to take treats
A dog lunges and often nips the fingers of his guardian.
The more one works, the harder and faster the dog chomps down...once in a while catching a fingertip - OUCH!
The way your dog takes treats (or not) and how quickly he grabs and how hard he uses his teeth can be considered a type of pressure gauge for nervousness/anxiety...I call this phenomenon the Chomp-o-meter. Understanding that if a dog is afraid or nervous, they often can’t focus on food while trying to sort out their emotions.
Let’s think about that...if you were terrified of heights and standing on the top of a skyscraper looking down when a friend offered you a cookie, would you stop being afraid for a tasty little morsel? I love a good cookie, but that is not a situation where I would be able to savor a melted chocolate chip sensation! I would have to step away from the ledge, take a few deep breaths and hopefully settle my stomach enough to enjoy it without fear of it coming right back up! Another situation to consider might be the last time you watched an action/suspense film with a big bowl of fresh popcorn. My guess would be that during the best parts of the film, you chomped away but hardly tasted the warm, salted-buttery treat much less realized how often your hand went to your mouth.
If a dog isn’t taking treats in a new situation, or is taking them with more pressure or faster than normal, consider that you may be pushing too hard or expecting too much and remove some of the pressure of the current situation.
In a classroom setting, stepping outside of the class for a quick break...a minute or two in the hallway, a short walk outside, offering treats to see if the pressure changes can make all the difference in how quickly your dog learns new skills.
In a behavior modification scenario, moving away from the “scary thing”, giving some distance and helping your dog feel safe before continuing to work will teach your dog to trust you, increasing the likelihood of successful training.
When trying to work in high pressure/new/high distraction settings, a dog might not exhibit typical body language, so it’s important to pay attention. By understanding why your dog may/may not take treats, and what the Chomp-o-meter is telling you, your training sessions will be more successful and your dog will be much happier to learn new things.