Originally posted March 30, 2013
Everyone wants their dogs to take treats gently and a lot of work in the early stages of dog training goes into making dogs take food gently and carefully, but what does a gentle mouth really tell us about the dog? How a dog takes treats tells us a lot about the arousal state of the dog. If he is calm, taking treats gently is easy for the dog. If he is highly aroused, taking treats carefully is difficult for him. The more highly aroused your dog is, the less able he is to exhibit self control and take treats without taking your fingers with them.
When we have dogs in our Good Dog class the staff use the rate and force with which a dog is taking treats to determine a number of things. Is it safe to come closer? Is the dog ready to do something operantly? Does the dog need to leave now? Should we give the dog more time or space to be successful? All of these questions are answered by how the dogs take their treats.
Good Dog class is the group classical conditioning class that we offer at Dogs in the Park. Yes, we run a class where we manipulate the variables to allow dogs to learn that they are safe in the presence of people and other dogs. We increase the intensity of the stimuli that we offer the dogs as they are able to cope and we decrease the value of the treats as the dogs progress from reactivity or fear to calm and confident. For those in the know, Classical Conditioning is form of learning that is usually about as exciting as watching paint dry. What you do is to present one stimulus as the predictor of another stimulus until an association is formed. Everyone experiences classical conditioning on a day to day basis, but most of us aren’t familiar with either the process or of how to manipulate it. If you smell food cooking and start to salivate, then you are experiencing the outcome of classical conditioning. You have experienced the food, and your body salivates when it smells the food in preparation for eating.
In the Good Dog classroom, we teach dogs that we can approach and good stuff will happen. It is important that the good stuff happens regardless of what the dog is doing. So if a dog is concerned about men with beards approaching, then John might approach and the owner will feed the dog his favourite food, one tiny piece at a time. It doesn’t take long for most dogs to learn that John approaching predicts food and if they were afraid of him before, they learn to be confident about him approaching over time. We can tell when the effect is beginning to take hold because the dogs stop taking treats with a hard frenzied mouth, and begin to take the treats softly and carefully. One of our best measures of how aroused the dog is at any given moment is when the human bringing the dog is prompting “gentle, gentle, gentle!” The more that the human is prompting, the less likely it is that the dog is really ready to move on to the next level.
Often, the dog will begin taking the treats more gently when the human is prompting, but rarely is it because of the cue. More often, when the student is saying “gently” the dog is habituating to the presence of the other dogs and people in the room, and begins taking the treats gently not because of what the human is saying or doing but rather because his arousal is dropping.
So here is the key. When the dog is taking treats gently, he is calm and relaxed. Try this out with whatever firecracker of a dog you might know. If you approach quietly and gently while the dog is resting, sit yourself down and calmly offer a treat under his nose, he will most likely take the treat gently. This is a dog who is relaxed and calm.
When a dog takes a treat with care but is clearly aware of the fact that this is food, and that he wants it, then he is a smidgeon more aroused but still able to cope with his environment and follow directions. This is where we want our dogs to be when we ask him to do work. He is awake, alert and engaged and able to follow directions well, and nothing in the environment is a problem for him.
Dogs who take treats in a rush with a moderately hard mouth are more aroused and less able to focus on work. They may merely be excited, but more often, they are approaching the threshold of their ability to engage in the environment is interfering with the ability to follow directions. These dogs may be willing to do as you ask, but may appear scattered and may be unable to follow known cues and have difficulty learning new behaviours.
The truly grabby frantic hard mouth is indicative of a dog who is at or over threshold and unable to follow directions and integrate new information. This dog is not coping with his environment well and we can use how he is taking treats as information that he should not be pressured. This same dog is the dog you will see at the park with the owner who is trying to force his dog into a sit or a down to get his leash off.
The final dog is the dog who won’t take treats at all. A friend describes the natural state of the normal weight dog as perpetually hungry. If you have a normal weight dog, why might he not take treats? This dog is far over threshold. He is not coping with his environment. Perhaps he has learned somewhere that taking treats is dangerous or that the things in his environment contribute to risks to him. This dog needs some time to learn that he is safe in his environment and that taking treats is a safe thing to do.
There are a few dogs who find treats themselves very exciting. These dogs are the exception, not the rule, but we do see them. When I want to evaluate how aroused those dogs are, I usually use something sticky for them to lick. Licking slows them down and allows us to use their lick rate to evaluate how aroused they are.
The take away lesson here is that prompting a dog to take treats gently may save your fingers, but it can interfere with a valuable piece of information about your dog. Subtle cues are what help us to evaluate what the dog is able to cope with on a moment to moment basis. When you are working with a reactive or fearful dog, this information is essential to success.