When we train we use food in two ways. Firstly as a currency to communicate what we want the dog to learn. If we want the dog to learn to sit on cue then we “pay” the dog in treats every time he sits and then we increase our criterion so that we only pay when we ask the dog to do something. This is a very simplistic situation and I think if we stop at that point in our use of food we short change ourselves and our dogs. The second way we use food in training is as a joint goal that the dog and handler get to together. I think of training beyond the basics as a maze that I am negotiating with my dog to get to an end goal.
Given that we use food in these two ways, we have to start out by teaching the dog that food has value and he can get it if he does something. I use a tool that most modern trainers are familiar with as “doggy zen”. I put the dog on a leash so he cannot leave, and then I hold out my hand with a treat on it, just under my dog’s nose, so that he could if he wanted, take it. Most dogs will immediately try for the treat. As soon as I see the dog try for the treat, then I close my hand around it. The dog controls what happens; if he hesitates, I leave my hand open and if he tries to get the treat, I close my hand. When I can leave my hand open for a count of three I say take it and put the treat in the dog’s mouth. Some dogs actually try not to take the treat at all at this point, but I make sure they get it. We usually start with REALLY high value treats. Once the dog understands not to snatch things out of hands, we do this with items on floors, on tables, on chairs, and so on, until the dog understand that he must stay back in order to get what he wants. And if you are paying attention at this point, you should notice something very significant about what I have not done. I have NOT said “leave it”. I feel that leave it is actually a big problem for many pets and their people.
I am going to switch tracks here and use a little story to explain why “Leave it” is a problem. Imagine for a moment you have been given tickets to a very fancy event; say a play. It is ultra swank. It is an all inclusive, get dressed up, have your hair done, fancy live theater event, and part of the event is hors d’ouvres at intermission. At intermission, you and your absolutely stunning date, who is equally spiffed up as you are, get out of your seats and go to the lobby. In the lobby you will find penguins. The guys dressed in the fancy black and white serving outfits, holding lovely trays of canapés, and little bits of cheese on crackers, and some delicious fish and strawberry thing. And your date breaks into a run, bashes into the first penguin he encounters, grabs the tray with one hand, and with his free hand starts grabbing hands full of the food on the platter and shoving it into his mouth. Implausible?
This is how I think most dogs approach food; it is so rare and valuable and so hard to get to that when they see an opportunity, they go for it. And what does the handler do? “Leave it. Fluffy, leave it. Leave it, Fluffy. LEAVE IT! I said LEAVE IT!” And then Fluffy takes the item anyhow. Why did Fluffy disregard the human’s request? Simply because Fluffy knows that leave it is a signal that she won’t have a chance to get what she wants. It is in effect, a no reward marker. It says “no matter what you do, you cannot have that”. Leave it is the cue used in the moment to moment bits of life that you encounter with your dog to tell him that he cannot have what he wants, even though he has been minding his manners all the way along.
Going back to your date, imagine for a moment that you knew what he or she did to penguins at parties. So as you get up you remind your date to be polite. Your date, being the cooperative person they are agrees that this time they are going to be polite to the penguins. You remind them not to rush the penguin. You remind your date that everyone will get a turn. Does this sound like a date you want to spend time with? This is the contract that I see being made more often than not with the dogs and handlers that I encounter.
Coming back to "take it," let’s think for a moment about a service dog. I use a service dog to navigate the world. When I go grocery shopping he is often faced with delicious food, right at nose level, or food on the floor. Before we ever went out into the public, I taught him that he could have anything he wanted if he asked for it nicely, although sometimes he would have to wait. I could not go through the grocery store and identify items one by one that he could not have. He cannot have the soup that slopped on the floor outside the deli, or the cheese that is on the shelf at nose height or the bread and baked good that are shelved in his reach. He cannot have the cookie that the little boy is waving as he walks by us either. He can ask, and I might say yes, or I might say later or I might say no. When he was a young dog, I usually said “I have something better” and gave him a tidbit that was appropriate for him. He asked, and I wanted to make him certain that I would listen any time he asked for something. In that moment, I was using food at the currency to teach him to ask me for things he wanted.
Over time, I would sometimes say “later” and give him a tidbit every few times. I would also begin cuing behaviours he really liked when he asked for things. So if my dog asked for the crouton that fell on the floor in the bulk food aisle, I might say “not now, but if you want you can carry your leash for a moment”, a behaviour he really liked doing. And over time, he generalized that if he REALLY wanted to have something, ask and I would listen and if I could, I might give it to him.
The next thing I teach dogs when I am training is that the click predicts the treat. I increase the time between my click and my treat to about thirty seconds, but between the click and the treat, my dog and I are working TOGETHER as a team to get to the food treat. I start by standing right beside a table of treats. I click, reach and treat, and then repeat. Then I take a step away from the table, and I click and we walk back together to get the treat. Then I do two steps and so on. With my own dogs I will often take them out on the farm and I will click, run with them to the other end of the farm, and get a treat, and then click and run back and get another treat. I want to increase the time between the click and the treat so that when I am working in a condition where I cannot immediately treat, everything following the click is part of the reinforcement cycle. I once as an experiment at a conference clicked my dog for a behaviour and then left the ballroom we were in, walked down a hall, across a lobby, to the elevators, waited for an elevator, went up to the 8th floor, walked down a long hall way, opened my hotel room door, took my dog off leash, went to the bathroom and when I was finished, he was sitting by the treat bin on the dresser. He understands that clicks predict treats and treats may come much later. This is essential (although most dogs don’t need to be able to wait that long) to teaching a dog that they can rely on me to follow through with the treat, which is the step when food stops being a currency and starts being something we are both working towards. We are a team. Yes, I use treats as currency but once I have established a number of behaviours I don’t use it as a currency as much as a goal my dog and I work towards together.
I will often when I am travelling and I order food, order something for my service dog. I order things like doughnut holes at coffee shops, and sugar cookies in delis. Over time, my dog has learned that if I pay and put the item in my pocket it is his later. By using doggy zen and take it instead of leave it, my dog has learned to ask. By using clickers and delaying the treat, my dog has learned to wait. This way I can eat my meal in a restaurant and my dog can look at the fry on the floor under the table and ask me, “can I have that?” and I can say yes or no.
What I have described above is a significant part of how we work with our students and their dogs in our classroom. In our Levels classroom, all the students put their treats out within reach of any off leash dog. We don’t start everyone off leash, but it comes very quickly; in under a month, dogs can work around treat bowls and because of the philosophy, the feedback we get about this is that this carries over outside of the classroom.
When you start looking at more complex situations as situations where you and your dog are working together to get to a goal, then you build relationship with your dog. Perhaps the biggest criticism I have seen of operant conditioning is that it is about manipulating your learner into doing things for you. Certainly it is a model that will allow you to increase or decrease behaviours, but that is just the start. We would hardly say that a child should not learn the foundations to reading and arithmetic because in the end we don’t want him to just recognize letters and numbers. In the end we want children to be able to grow up and use what they learn in very broad contexts. Once I have a foundation of behaviours built on a currency, then I can use those behaviours to do meaningful activities with my dog. Regardless of what that is, if you look at the behaviours you ask your dog to do as a joint project together that has meaning for both of you, then you don’t need the food itself to get things done, and you don’t need to wave the steak under the dog’s nose get him to do something. When you have worked carefully at teaching your dog both that he can have what he wants and that you are working with him to get it, then you have a cooperative partner instead of a dog who is scouting the world for things that he can get if he is only fast enough to get it before you utter the magic leave it words. And THAT is the goal of teaching take it instead of leave it!