Often I get asked, “How can I get my dog to listen to me more?” Or I’m told, “I can’t get them to engage with me outside,” which is usually followed by, “…no matter what treats I have.” There is an easy way to rectify this, and it’s to ditch trying to bribe your dogs for their attention, and to instead train them with meals.
How many of us have been nudged by our dog at 5:15 p.m. when they’re normally fed at 5:00 p.m. With their forlorn eyes and squeaky demands for food.
This is a time of day when we know our dog is motivated to work things out to get fed. They have, for example, worked out how to guilt you into feeding them with their cute eyes and nudges, so why not use it to our advantage?
When training your dog, food motivation isn’t enough. Just because they like food doesn’t mean they will listen to you. The training needs to happen in such a way that your dog isn’t being bribed by food but instead wants to work for it.
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much difference but an easier way to explain it is to ask, “do you work because you love your job, or are you really working for the pay? Which makes you happier and which makes you want to get up in the morning?”
Training should be about building a bond together so your dog wants to work for you for the joy of it, not because you just happen to have food.
Just because your dog has learned the routine of a “sit-wait” for their meals does not mean they are trained. It’s an easy repetitive behaviour, but we need to use these mealtimes to build in loads of essential behaviours.
We need to have dogs that can do certain things every day, like walk nicely on lead; not chase off after bunnies, or sit when asked for their safety next to a road. These are the things we should be using mealtime training for, while using our dog’s food as their main treat.
It’s easy to get into the lazy habit of scooping the food out and just feeding the dog. They are fed; they are happy. But we are missing this huge opportunity to actually train them.
Giving yourself time in the day to do a little training during your dog’s mealtimes is going to give you a large leap forward in training. I use handfuls of the dog’s food to practice recall around the home, calling them from room to room and rewarding them with a few bits at a time.
Once they are rewarded in front of me, then I throw a bit of biscuit away, and while they’re looking for it, I move away. So when I call them again they are coming towards me. This training means I can repeat the call as many times as possible when the dog is not looking at me.
*Remember, your recall should be your dog’s name plus a word. Not just their name. This ensures they understand what you want from them, as you will say their name for many other things and it can be confusing for them otherwise.*
Walking nicely at the heel can really be reinforced at mealtimes, and you can take the opportunity to practice it without too many distractions. I always start the heeling with the dogs sat at my heel, whether on the left or right side.
First I reward them for just sitting stationary on the side of me for at least 30 seconds without a bum shuffle or trying to get up.
I always start with that to ensure they are focused on me for more than a few seconds at a time. Once the dog understands sitting still is rewarded, then I begin to take a small step forward and reward them when they come forward with me. We are looking to gain a dog who knows that if they stay by my side, they will get the goodies.
From there you can move at normal speed and, a few paces at a time, reward them for being at your side. Only add in the word you want to use once they are doing it consistently. *Remember to never use the word in a harsh manner as the heeling command is not corrective; you will poison the words meaning with shouting tones.*
Using your dog’s meals as an opportunity for training works at any time. Spreading their allotted food amount over a day means you don’t need to use loads of treats, or any even. It can also stop them getting fat as they are working for their normal food. It also means you have hundreds of tiny rewards, so they end up getting a lot more rewards than they would out of a small packet of dog treats.
I take my dog’s food on walks with me so that I can use it to reward their good behaviour any time. It’s easier to carry than bits of chicken, and I know the dogs love it. I will often mix up the flavours so that they get a different type on walks as a special treat. They absolutely love Salmon and Sweet Potato so I use that on walks as its super fishy smelling. It also means I know they aren’t getting rubbish treats that will make them hyper or upset their stomachs. (No one needs runny poos at home!)
I also have a multi dog home of nine dogs and counting. So using their food means there are no squabbles, and they all work for the same thing. It’s much easier if you have a dog with allergies.
One of the best things about using a dog’s meals as training is that my dogs aren’t getting fat. I found a lot of treats, even the natural ones, had a high fat content. It was making my dogs heavier when I would train them, and if I cut their food back they were costing me a fortune in treats, instead of getting their meals.
By using our dogs brains on a daily basis, ideally more than once a day, we are actually teaching our dogs to use their brains to put more focus on us to get rewards. We can make them smarter and easier to train in the long run.
The brain is a muscle and to get the most out of it, it needs to be challenged everyday and rewarded for the right things. We actually can create a dog that wants to be with us more, and work for their food, rather than just stuff their face and be bored everyday.
The perfect training regime is to do 3 to 5 small, 5-minute training sessions a day using the dog’s food. You don’t have to use the whole meal as their reward, just a few handfuls and then you can feed the rest as normal.
Remember, 5 minutes of mental stimulation is the same as 15 minutes of heavy exercise in terms of tiring a dog out. So doing 5 minutes of training 5 times a day is the same as doing an hour and 15 minutes of exercise. Believe me, you will have a tired pooch by the end of the day just on training alone! Give it a go and let me know how you get on.