Teaching Dogs to Focus Around Food

One of the common things I notice in teaching classes or helping out our puppy raisers is the complete focus, obsession even, the dogs' have with food.  At first it doesn't seem like a problem.  After all, it's easy for the food obsessed puppy to make their owner look good in those beginning stages.  As long as the food keeps coming at a decent rate their puppies are geniuses at following a cookie into sits, downs, spins, and even leg weaves.  Then the treat disappears and the dog acts like he has zero idea of what you want.  And it's probably true.  Cookie trance is super fun to demonstrate with the Corgi, Watch as his little eyes glaze over and he blindly stumbles around.

But it's not just the rookie mistakes I see.  With some handlers even if there IS food in their hand the dog can't do anything other than sit and drool at it.  Those people tell me "But he can't focus with food!"  That problem often rears in more advanced training where the dog actually has to concentrate on what he's doing.  Retrieve training is a biggy.  The puppy can retrieve items when food isn't present, but as soon as the treats come out it doesn't even cross his mind to open his mouth on an object.  In actuality, the puppy has zero concept of a working retrieve. When food is present the puppy isn't in a play mode and is just confused.

Focusing around food is something I work on continually with my puppies.  Free shaping instead of using a treat lure to get behaviors does a pretty nice job of at least teaching pups that food is dependent on them actually doing something, and sometimes that something even requires moving away from the food.

Food in the Hand
Next I do the simple Windmill Game of holding food out to the side and reward the puppy with the treat once they stop bouncing around and look at me to ask what the holdup is.  No little puppy, you haven't yet mastered the Jedi mind tricks to make food fly into your mouth.  Most dogs quickly grasp the concept of choosing eye contact over staring at food so it's pretty easy to graduate to making the game harder by moving the food hand around and then even jostling a bowl of food.

Food on the Ground
Next progression is to put that bowl of food on the ground.  At first just block the puppy from getting the bowl by using your body, rewarding frequently for any impulse control given and celebrating any actual eye contact.  But soon I start asking for simple behaviors.  Can puppy sit? down? rollover? and most importantly, can he do so without rushing to the food bowl after each repetition?  I am the one to physically reach in the dish and grab handfuls of kibble to reward from.  I personally don't release the dog to the dish when I'm done, but rather pick it up and present it to him so that he's never trembling for that magical release.

Adding Movement
So now the puppy can do stationary stuff with food on the ground, but can the puppy choose to move away from it?  Here's where I start asking the dog to do moving tricks such as go mat, touch a target, retrieve, pivot, 4 feet in a box, etc all while leaving the food alone.  When I get to this point the puppy knows really well that he can't release himself to the bowl so I'm really not having to guard it at all.  But we may have to take a break in order to stare at that lovely food dish together.  It sure is a beautiful dish.  Oh, we're ready to go back to work I guess.

Reverse Luring
The last thing I work on is actually using the food's placement in a tempting manner.  This is the Reverse Luring technique used as proofing.  Can the dog go to heel position if I'm wiggling food in my right hand?  Can he nail a perfect front with a treat tempting him barely off center?  Hold that stand stay as I bring treats to his butt?  By working through ignoring the food the dog has to concentrate harder on the task at hand.  This can help a ton in communicating to the dog exactly what position/movement is correct and at what point he's not quite there.

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Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.- Roger Caras

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