18 May 2008

Contemplations of Kibble, Training Treats, and Eating When Fed

Molly is a difficult dog to feed and train. She just isn't that interested in food. It is apparently not uncommon for the breed but it does make life difficult. She prefers to eat what and when she feels like it and not when we put food down for her. When it comes to training, she doesn't always care about a treat, especially if there are more fun things around. Ever tried to teach a dog to heel when it couldn't care less about the treats you're waving in it's nose at the right moments? It isn't very effective. Then there is the whole choice of food and feeding method--do I use kibble and which one or do I make homemade food or feed raw? As for treats, what to use and how much? The very worst is training treats when at the same time trying to teach her to eat when she is fed. She has to be hungry to learn to eat when you put the food down for her, but you need to give her treats during training to keep it progressing.

Right now Molly needs to learn to eat when fed. This eating when it suits her just doesn't cut it as an SD. She needs to have a predictable potty schedule and she needs to have eaten enough so we can go off for the day and not worry about her starving and being upset partway through because she hasn't eaten. People usually say, "She'll eat when she's hungry." Either this dog never gets hungry or she's got a will of steel. We tried when she was little. We'd put the bowl of food down and if she didn't eat, we'd take it away. Then I wasn't even training at this level. She would get it offered maybe 3 times a day. Usually after 3 days we'd break down with worry and start doctoring her food with all sorts of goodies or leaving it down for her to eat whenever just to get SOMETHING in her.

We're on day 5 now. We feed with a mix of Acana Lamb and Rice and Orijen. Molly demands variety in her food. She quickly gets bored with the same over and over. So we mix the two and it helps keep her interested in eating. Also Orijen is really high protein and although a lot of other people have good success with it, we worry about such a high level on daily basis. I don't subscribe to the no grain and raw feeding theories, especially for BCs. I can't imagine the poor shepherds that bred these dogs giving up that much raw meat and bones from their family diets to their dogs no matter how important the dogs were to their livelihoods. I can more easily imagine them sharing the potatoes and porridges and giving the dogs the scraps of meat and bones and the bones after the wife has cooked soup on them. I respect the people who feed raw as long as it works for their dogs. It is really all about finding a food and feeding method that works right for your family. I just wish Molly would learn to eat when she's offered something. She won't even always eat normally high value stuff when offered. She often comes back later for things or eats a little and waits.

I often use Orijen and sometimes the Acana as a basic low-value training treat. She likes it, it's easy to use, it's healthy, and that way I know she's getting good nutritious food into her system. But kibble has disadvantages. It isn't always very exciting for the dog, which is what I mean when I say "low value". She gets it most days anyway, so it isn't so much fun to work for. It is hard pieces, so the size it is, I have to feed. I can't break it in half or something to give smaller tidbits. I'm not supposed to be feeding her meals while training--just letting her know that I value what she did. Yesterday I found another disadvantage. It bounces. Yesterday I was trying to teach her to go around an object a few feet away from me. So I need to throw treats to her while we shape the behavior. But when I throw a treat and it hits the floor, it bounces irregularly and rolls. It ends up nowhere near where I tried to throw it. If I'm lucky it goes the right direction and lures her more around the object--a way of training the behavior but not what I was trying to do. More often than not, it goes in some other direction and leads her away from completing the behavior. I've noticed bad hits before but thought maybe it was my aim that was off. Now I'm sure that most times it is the kibble itself that causes the problem, not that I have perfect aim. But I'm not THAT bad from only a few feet.

As a moderate value treat, I use a brand of chewy kibble called Frolic. The makers have done a good job with the taste here because pretty much every dog really likes them. It comes in rings (think cheerios on steriods to get a size idea). The good thing is that this is chewy kibble. I don't have to rely on the piece size. Up until today, we'd been breaking them up manually. People tell you to break them in 4. I normally got 5-6 treats out of a single Frolic. This morning I awoke in a moment of brilliance. I can't break them smaller without them crumbling, but maybe I could cut them smaller and maintain consistency. So after breakfast I went to work. Now I get somewhere from 8 to 16 per Frolic. My average is probably around the 12. The pieces still seem to remain solid--they aren't crumbling to dust when I take them in my hand for training. Success--smaller training treats more friendly to parallel eat-when-fed training that still encourage Molly to work. As a side benefit, they pretty much stay where they land when I throw them. Not all the irregular bouncing of the other kibble.

For a high value treat that is transportable, we bought a bag of dried chicken pieces. The woman in the shop said I could break them in 4. I normally get 6-9. I don't think a knife would work on this because it is really hard, but I may try wire cutters later. These are also really expensive, but they're great for out-of-the-house training because of their portability and high value.

A cheaper (for us) high value treat is canned shrimp. DH gets the damaged cans from his work sometimes and they're fine for eating, just not for them to sell. Molly happens to love them. Unfortunately they're kinda nasty to handle a lot and my hands end up smelling. They don't keep at all and unless I close them tight in a plastic bag or plastic container, we can't even stand them in the fridge. So they're great for her and all natural but rather yuck for us.

I can also get treats out of left over meat. If we have hot dogs and have any left, she loves those cut up into little pieces. A piece of lunch meat on the edge of going bad is another good one--why leave it one more day just for DH to have to reject it for his lunch if I can cut it up tiny and train Molly with it? Those bits that are a little too gristly for us, not that it happens often, she also loves, but that she usually just gets in her food. Pieces of any kind of solid meat can be cut up and used. We do use a lot of our leftovers ourselves (for my lunches at home or to pack DH's or for dinner another night if there is enough) but if we forget something in the fridge and it is borderline or there is something that there just isn't enough of for a meal, it's great for her. Also if something is really inexpensive and we have a lot of it, it may even be worth putting some aside for the variety and the nutritional value or to train something special.

The advantage of having treats with different values is that they can help fine-tune a behavior. For example, Molly is still noisy when she helps me undress. So when we do a training practice to work on that, I have a range of treats at different values. We start with really easy tasks. Maybe a sock lying over my foot. If she makes noise, she gets a low value treat. If she is quiet, she gets a high value treat. If she makes a little noise but then is quiet, maybe she gets a moderate treat. She quickly learns what I want but at the same time is still rewarded for the actual behavior and has a high reward rate to avoid frustration. If she earns a few high value treats in a row, we make the behavior harder. Again, up and down with the level. If she gets several low value treats in a row and especially if she has any times where she doesn't earn a treat (fails to complete the behavior, throws in weird off-the-wall stuff, etc.), I make the job easier. This way Molly always knows when she is doing the behavior correctly but slowly learns that doing the behavior quietly is better than making noise while doing it. She's a talkative dog and she talks even more when she's frustrated.

Can you imagine trying to remove a pair of boots with your teeth? Especially if the person sometimes held them out one way and sometimes another so you can't just grab the top and pull every time? What if sometimes it was boots that needed to come off one way and sometimes it was shoes that work another way? One type is easier to take from the toe and the other from the heel. It'll take a while to figure out how to recognize the variations and which ones work which way. You'd grumble too.

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