Using food to train is pretty universal in working with animals. In addition to being used as a reward, food is also typically used in Lure-Reward Training. We’ll be using a lot of it in the early stages of teaching new things, so we need to have a smooth, effective way to deploy it.
On a whole other level, though are those dogs who think they need to come at the problem like they’re apex predators. These guys have what I call “shark mouth,” where it’s all wide and strong without any accuracy or finesse.
On one hand I LIKE their energy. I don’t want to kill their enthusiasm. If you scold them or reprimand them for shark mouth they’re going to think they’re in trouble for taking the food. You’ll just confuse the hell out of them and then they won’t want to work with you. I see this a lot and consequently those dogs have poor motivation. And, you won’t get a more polite mouth anyways.
So, as with all things in training it’s always better to show them what we want instead of just arguing about what we don’t like. We JUST have to temper that energy a little. That dog needs a “sniper mouth” where they go in and pluck the food out deftly without taking your fingers with it.
Our first line treatment for this is impulse control exercises for the mouth—namely Leave It—which is easy to teach and easy to get really good at quickly. We have a video for that. Tug and Fetch are also fantastic for developing impulse control, especially in regards to their mouth.
There are a couple of important things we want to accomplish during our work when we use food:
- We need to be able to lure the dog. A lure is essentially a tool for mechanically manipulating a dog’s body in space. They don’t know what we’re trying to get them to do, so the lure induces a behavior so we can reinforce it and put it on cue.
- We want to teach a dog how to target. This will make our training progressions move much faster because it’ll be easier to communicate to the dog how we want them to move as we get into more complicated kinds of things like heeling…and come.
Incidentally, good luring, good targeting, and sniper mouth can all be taught with the same technique…how we hold and deliver the food.
HOLDING & DELIVERING FOOD
That might seem like an insignificant detail, but it can have a huge impact on your training efficiency. We recommend you do it like this:
- Put the food between your index and middle finger
- Pin it there with the end of your thumb
- Cup your hand slightly
This way, your dog’s teeth will hit the padded parts of your fingers and palm, but they won’t quite be able to get the food. Not only do we have better control of the food, but we also get control the dog’s head. This is how we use the food as a lure to manipulate a dog in space.
When we’re ready to let the dog have it, we simply move the thumb to the side.
This is better than other methods where we either tend to drop the food accidentally, or the dog gets it when we didn’t want them to, or—most often—we get our fingers chomped.
This also provides a nice big target for your dog.
As you practice, your dog will naturally get better at luring and targeting and things will move faster for each new thing you teach.
On the other side of things, you can kind of hang out with that food. We always make our dogs move to access their rewards, using movement to build drive and motivation. If you make ’em work a little bit to to get that food they will learn that shark mouth doesn’t yield any rewards. And, by introducing a little frustrating speed bump in the early stages you can increase their drive and commitment to working with you. You should see as you practice that they’re much more accurate. They’ll start taking the food with a lot more tactful subtlety. And their energy during practice will still increase.
NOW GO TRY IT!
A quick recap:
- Come at it directly through good food handling
- Then, you’ll address it indirectly with Leave It and toy training
Let me know how it goes for you in the comments. As always, keep learning, keep practicing, and we’ll see you next time! Thanks for watching!