What to do when your dog is more interested in chasing pigeons, than you.

This article has been inspired by Julie N who asked me “Treats don’t work when I’m out with my dog, what should I do?”

Which is a good question, so what happens in situations when food doesn’t work, what do you do? What do you do when waving your tasty piece of crispy chicken skin around just isn’t a better offer than those pigeons your dog is chasing?

Let’s start by looking at why we use food in Positive Reinforcement Training

The terms positive and negative in dog training are taken from behavioural science and they are mathematical in origin. Positive means adding something – such as tasty treats, and Negative means taking something away. It doesn’t mean your dog is feeling happy or sad.

The underlying principle is easy to remember; the positive dog is being trained without the use of aversives, in other words we are training without hurting, forcing, intimidating or scaring the dog. We use food often in conjunction with a clicker which marks the correct behaviour. The clicker bridges the gap between the desired behaviour being performed and the reward being given. Why use a clicker? because we can’t give the treats fast and accurately enough so the dog can get confused about what is being rewarded.

Over the years I have seen a huge shift in dog trainers to positive training. In the wider animal training world, it’s always been positive, but as always it takes a while for a concept to filter out into the public. The awareness of positive reinforcement in dog training has been helped immensely by celebrity trainers like Victoria Stilwell and TV programmes who have caught on to help with education.

Why is it so popular? Because the simple scientific basis it’s based on can be successfully applied by everyone.  Study’s have proved that positive reinforcement trained dogs are less aggressive, more obedient and they learn faster.

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How do you use positive training to stop your dog chasing pigeons?

So, your dog is off like a loony chasing pigeons in the park and your busy calling him. There you are waving your crispy chicken skin, which you know he loves, but he’s totally ignoring you. What do you do?

Why your yummy chicken skin doesn’t work…

If you are trying to use food as a bribe or lure, to draw your dog away from an activity that they are thoroughly enjoying, then you’re using food as a management tool and not as a training aid.

This usually occurs as a result of you panicking about how to deal with the situation you find yourself and the dog in.  You may threaten your dog with punishment “Come here you bad dog” or you attempt to bribe them with foody rewards “Look what I’ve got, yum yum, your favourite”. As you have probably discovered these types of ‘crisis management’ strategies do not usually work in changing the behaviour and often just reinforce the very thing you don’t want.

Food doesn’t work because it is not nearly as enticing for your dog, as the opportunity for them to sniff, run and play. It’s a lack of thorough training that’s at fault, not because food or punishment doesn’t work as a training method.

What can you do? First put him on a long lead or training line so that he is prevented him from running off after the pigeons. At the same time, move to a point in the park as far away as possible from the pigeons, practice and reward his recall ( with food or a game of tug, or toy) whilst still on the long line. Slowly over a number of sessions over a period of days move closer to the pigeons and repeat the training exercise. Eventually he will have learnt that playing with you is more fun and rewarding than chasing pigeons.

No matter what the situation, always set your dog up for success. Remove the opportunities for them to perform the undesirable behaiviours. We can do this by controlling the access to the rewards (food, play or toys) and only increasing the difficulty in training one thing at a time using The 3D’s; distraction, distance, duration.

Positive reinforcement changes behaviour by adding something nice as a consequence to desirable behaviours. This is often food but when that doesn’t work, we use opportunities to engage in fun activities as the reward, like playing tug or having a sniff.

Next time I’ll explain the 3D’s of training so you can work on making sure your training is thorough and give you and your dog the best chance of success. Remember, positive training is an ongoing commitment.

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