I want to train my pups without treating them. Let me tell you why.
November 11, 2012 10:13 PM   Subscribe

Is there a way to train dogs using positive reinforcement but without treats?

So, we rescued a new dog, bringing our little family to three pets. Cocoa is a two year old Chihuahua/Corgi mix (we're pretty sure), but he is not motivated by treats -- at all. He's turned his nose up at everything we've offered him and so far we haven't been able to teach him anything other than "come".

On the opposite side of the spectrum, our dog Brandy gets uber-excited by treats and most of our training sessions end up with me having to calm her down and focus on the actual training rather than the treats in my hand/pouch. She doesn't like the clicker *at all* so I've never used it (we use "good girl" instead).

Therefore, I'd really like to find a method of training that still incorporates some type of positive reinforcement but doesn't revolve around treats. So, do y'all know of any books or training programs that can help me keep my pups up with their training? Brandy's pretty smart and learns most things quickly. I haven't been able to gauge Cocoa's intelligence when it comes to training yet, but he doesn't seem to be able to figure things out as quickly (then again, we've only had him for a week).
posted by patheral to Pets & Animals (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Congratulations! Just a thought, but part of it might be that Cocoa's so new to you. Maybe he needs time to get to know everyone and then his appetite for treats will improve.

What does Cocoa like? Maybe...
-- toys
-- human food (cheese, bacon)
-- going on walks
-- seeing you express joy/approval (wiggling and dancing works for my dog)
-- stuff that smells like you (clothing etc.)
-- Brandy
-- going outside into the yard
-- being let off-leash

I'm no dog trainer, but I'd try figuring out what Cocoa does like and using that as a reward. If Cocoa likes to go for walks, make the "treat" (reward) going on a short walk around the block.

I like Kathy Sdao's articles on dog training. Books by Terry Ryan are great.
posted by grayber at 10:31 PM on November 11, 2012

In one of the Russian Cat Circus videos I noticed the trainer using quick caresses as positive reinforcement. (Training with threats, a cat will stop doing tricks when it is full.)
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:23 PM on November 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

The degree to which a dog is interested in treats will often depend on how hungry it is. If you did want to go down a route of using treats then one technique would be to feed Cocoa a little less in advance - and Brandy a little more.

Intermittent re-enforcement with a reward (treat or otherwise) works better than constant reward (hence... Vegas).
posted by rongorongo at 2:01 AM on November 12, 2012

Not a trainer myself, but in many years of search and rescue the only reward I ever saw search dog handlers use in training was a brief episode of play (usually ball throwing).
posted by wjm at 3:34 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Does Cocoa like to tug on one of those rope toys? You could use that as a reward.

Other things I do with my dog:

- cheese! There has to be some food that Cocoa loves.
- Always train them when hungry, and only in short, 5-10 minute segments.
- divide the food you give Covoa for dinner and use half for training before dinner. Assuming this is kibble.
posted by Sal and Richard at 4:58 AM on November 12, 2012

Have you tried baked chicken or dried liver with Cocoa? When we were doing formal training, I had to stick with chicken with girl pup to keep her attention. Normal treats didn't have a high enough value for her.
posted by bluesapphires at 7:04 AM on November 12, 2012

Maybe I'm missing something, but the entire concept I've been led to understand is that the treat lures the dog into the desired behavior then is given as a reward when the dog performs that behavior.

So, for sit, put the treat slightly above the dog's eyes, the dog will drop its haunches into a sit position... reward with treat and praise (or click if you're using clicker). Repeat using the "sit" command... reward with treat and praise. Repeat until the dog understands that "sit" means to drop its haunches onto the ground.

I'm not sure how one would train a dog to sit, lie down, stay, etc... using tug toys, play, or walks around the block. Wouldn't lead to pretty extensive training sessions? and how would you lure the dog into the desired position? What am I missing?

We've tried training Cocoa at all different times of the day & evening, and with tons of different food. Of course, we haven't tried everything, but he just doesn't seem motivated by food, even when he hasn't eaten yet (and he eats more than I expected for such a small dog). We've even tried the kitty kibble, which he's gone to great lengths to get at.
posted by patheral at 8:17 AM on November 12, 2012

I did most of my training using only praise and belly scratches.

I say "sit", I push his butt down. I give lots of pets and excited sounded happy noises.
I say "down", I moved him into a laying down position. I give lots of pets and excited sounded happy noises.
I say "stay"...
I say "come" ...
I say "up" ....

Usually just moving my hand was enough even if it wasn't holding a treat. YMMV, my dog loves him some belly scratches.
posted by magnetsphere at 9:00 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Finding what a dog likes and only letting them have it when they do whatever. Like sitting before they get fed a meal. You can try and work it into your routine. There is a training philosophy that is basically called "nothing in life is free" . Where the dog gets nothing without working for it. I am too much of a softie for this myself but I do know people who went this route. Luckily for me my dogs have all been chow hounds.
posted by cairnoflore at 9:21 AM on November 12, 2012

When I was taught clicker training, the method for "priming" the clicker for food-uninterested dog was BIG GIANT CHEESY AFFECTION WHOSAGOODDOGYOUARE! It was fairly quick - a belly or ear rub - but it was big big happy. (Kind of like potty training.)

Someone did ask "what if neither one is a big deal?" The trainer talked a little bit about finding anything the dog liked, even if it's not "treat-like" (maybe that's to be left alone in their crate, for dogs who've had a harder time in life or a lot of anxiety, or getting in the car, or wrestling on the floor or being brushed or whatever) and spend maybe even a couple of weeks priming the clicker to that thing. The dog transfers that sense of goodness to the clicker. It may take a little longer, but most dogs will transfer to the clicker eventually. Hey! Click means good! Do more good, get more click!

Since that first puppy class where I learned that, I've actually noticed lots of experienced trainers doing this. It's just a head rub or a chin chuck, maybe just a touch to the chest. It's slightly easier to treat with treats, but it's by no means unusual to treat with contact either.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:43 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

With toys, you don't do a full play session. Just a lot of praise and a quick tug.
posted by zug at 10:10 AM on November 12, 2012

You don't need to use the treat to 'lure' them to do the behavior - you just need to get them to do the behavior, whether by putting them into the position you want or just working with them until they do it accidentally, but then praise praise praise when they do it.

Let's say he loved the tug toy, you would push his butt down into the sitting position while saying "Cocoa, SIT", and then as soon as he was sitting, tell him what a good dog he is and whip out the tug toy and start playing.

You just have to make sure the reward follows the behavior as immediately as possible - it doesn't matter what the reward is as long as it's associated with the behavior.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:14 AM on November 12, 2012

As far as Cocoa goes, I think he's still learning to speak your language. A week is not very long at all, especially for a rescue dog. He's still learning how you communicate compared to every human he's known, including any who didn't treat him very well. You know you're not crazy, but he's not so sure yet. As he comes to trust you more, he'll probably become more interested in pleasing you, and finding that magic reward that makes him happy will become easier (though it may not be food, but it may be more obvious that belly rubs or a quick rope tug are what he reallyreallyreally wants).

To get Brandy to be less reactive to the treats, go into a smallish room with her and the treats and start a training session. When she gets excited and unfocused, leave. Silently walk out, shut the door and wait a few seconds. Go in, ask for another behavior without making a big deal of your absence. If (when) she gets wound up again, leave again. Eventually she'll learn that not only does getting excited not get her a treat, she loses you, too. No fun for pup. My pup is like this too, and it's an ongoing struggle, but we're to the point that I don't have to leave the room now, I just turn my back to her, arms crossed, and she'll settle pretty fast.

That doesn't precisely answer your question, but I hope it helps.
posted by syanna at 10:26 AM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

My Dexter knows about 35 commands. He's never been trained on treats; he works for praise.

Lavish praise when first learning a new trick. Minimal praise when it's learned. Eventually, none at all; he's expected to do it. (Unless it's a show-off trick, in which case he always gets positive attention.)
posted by IAmBroom at 8:12 PM on November 12, 2012

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