The process of getting reinforcers (treats or toys) off your body in preparation for entering an obedience or rally ring is something it's easy to overlook and rush. Most dogs act very differently when their handler has treats versus when the handler does not have treats, yet many people go straight from training with treats in their pockets to leaving treats on their crate and going into the ring.
When the dog starts off doing well in the ring, but then his or her performance degrades as the dog realizes that s/he is not going to get a reward, it can be very frustrating.
As the dog's performance gets worse, the handler tends to get confused and upset, emotions the dog can feel, leading to a further decline in behavior. As you can imagine, this can become a vicious cycle, and leaves the handler wondering why his/her dog shuts down in the ring.
The subject of removing reinforcers is quite complicated and requires much time and thought. To go through each step thoroughly would take an entire 6 week class (and in fact, there are several classes at FDSA that cover this, such as Bye Bye Cookie and Cookie Jar Games).
My intention in this post is to give you a brief overview and get you to start thinking about how you plan to get the treats/toys off your body.
The Learning Stage: Where do treats come from?
To begin, when my dog is learning behaviors, I always have rewards on my body. Personally I do not use a bait bag or training vest, because I don't want my dog to have that visual.
I find that dogs figure out pretty quickly that the bait bag contains treats, and will start to visually focus on it. It's also a clear sign that you have treats.
If you use a bait bag during the learning stages of training, I would recommend putting it behind your back, so it doesn't draw your dog's attention. I either train wearing a hoodie with pockets that can be accessed from either side, or I put treats in both pockets of my pants/shorts.
There are trainers that very successfully fade the visual cue of a bait bag, but I prefer not to use one in the first place.
Depending on what I'm doing with my dog, I will either leave the treats in my pocket when I cue behaviors, or I will have treats in my hand(s).
If the treats are in my hand(s), they are put there before I cue a behavior. I am careful to stand naturally and I would never cue a behavior with my hand in my pocket or bait bag.
If I'm using a lure to jumpstart a behavior, I will only do it a couple times then I get the treat out of my hand. I am careful that I never "bribe" my dogs with treats.
Even though I always have treats on my body in the learning stage, I do NOT always reward the dog with treats in my pockets!
Cookies in New Places: Using a dish to reward
When I'm in the training stage, I will also use a dish with treats on the ground or in a chair. The treats will remain in the dish, and I will either cue "dish" — which tells my dog that he or she may take the treat from the dish — or I will reach in and reward from the dish.
This is the first introduction to rewarding with treats off your body, and I start it very early in the training process. In order to use a bowl with treats your dog must understand that he or she can't take the treats without the proper reward marker.
Here is an example of me teaching puppy Excel a front foot target. Watch how I reward from a dish on the ground. You can see that I start this process very early in the training.
Taking Treats Off Your Body
Once my dog is fluent with a set of behaviors, I start working with treats off my body.
I keep it very simple, perhaps starting with treats on a chair or counter. Can the dog come away from those treats and do a hand touch? If so, I'll mark the behavior and grab a treat from the chair or counter.
Next time I'll ask for another easy behavior such as sit.
A few training sessions later I will start to chain behaviors together. Note that I have already practiced chaining several behaviors together previously, when the treats were on my body, but I didn't reward until the end of the chain, so the concept of chaining behaviors and getting rewarded at the end of the sequence is not new to my dog.
For example, I might ask for a sit then a down then mark and reward. I only chain together behaviors with which the dog is fluent.
Ring Preparation: Building on our foundation skills
When I start thinking about ring preparation, I've already trained plenty with the treats on the counter or the chair, so at this point I start to leave treats outside the "ring."
I'll start with leaving them on a chair right inside the ring. We'll go do a behavior in the ring, then will go to the treats to reward. I mark the behavior at the time it's done correctly, then proceed to the reward.
Depending on how long it takes me to get the reward, I will either use a marker like "yes" (get cookie from my hand) or "get it" (chase cookie on the ground), or I will use my marker cue "cookies" which means let's run together and get your cookies that are stored somewhere else. If it takes me more than 2-3 seconds to get to the reward, I will use "cookies."
Then I methodically work on getting further from the treats when I cue behaviors.
I also will be very thoughtful in how I chain behaviors together, with the ultimate goal being my dog working happily and to criteria for a period of around 10 minutes. This is my goal for AKC obedience; depending on the venue in which you compete you may want to adjust that time goal. I want my dog to think that the reward is always available, even if it's not on my body.
Once my dog is chaining together some behaviors successfully, I will start to leave the treats outside of the ring on a table. From there I'll move the treats even further from the ring and continue to slowly increase the number of behaviors that I ask for.
This is all a very slow process and I am making sure that my dog is performing to criteria and that he or she is comfortable with each stage before I move on.
By following a carefully crafted and laid-out plan, you can help prepare your dog for an actual trial with no reinforcers on your body, which will make the showing experience more pleasant for both you and your dog!