Okay, I’m obsessive. I maintain the library for my agility club, so I get to read everything for free… and sadly, most of my friends agree this is the perfect job for me because I read everything anyway and this way I get to do it for free. In the past few months I’ve read lots and lots of books on puppy foundation training and I’ve come to the conclusion that all really great dog trainers start with hand feeding the dog. They all have some sort of approach that’s their special approach. Susan Garrett calls it ItsYerChoice (can’t stand the grammar cuteness). Sue Ailsby called it Zen. Ian Dunbar calls it Leave It.
Zen and Leave It are pretty much the same thing. You start with a closed fist full of treats, and you wait for the dog to back away from the fist, and when he does, you give him one treat, either by dropping it on the floor for the dog (Zen) or handing it to the dog (Leave It). As the dog gets the picture, you add a cue: Ailsby uses “no” (said calmly) and Dunbar uses “leave it” (said calmly). Eventually, saying “no” will tell the dog “back off and leave that alone.” Works for me. I’ve trained that with both dogs, and I’ll train it with Rush. But not right away; I want him to think for himself, first.
ItsYourChoice, however, is about helping the dog decide for himself that backing off and leaving something alone is a way to get huge rewards. Start with the handful of treats, well-protected in your fist; let the dog sniff your fist and try to get the treats, but make sure he doesn’t succeed. After a few moments or a few long minutes (but trust me, it will happen), the dog will back up for a second or two. Open your hand so the treats are exposed, ready to close your fist if the dog moves back in, and pick up ONE treat in your other hand and feed it to the dog. As long as the dog stays away from the open hand of treats and doesn’t mug your treat hand, feed him treats at a slow relaxed rate.
With ItsYourChoice, once the dog understands the basic game, you want to make it HARDER for the dog to succeed, not easier. You can throw the treat a few feet away so that he moves away and comes back in for the treat. You can hold your open treat hand right under his nose. You can put the treats on the floor. But you always have to be ready to prevent the dog from grabbing the treats himself, at least in the beginning.
I’ve been practicing ItsYourChoice with every dog I can for a few months now. I’m getting better at it. I started with Elly and Dancer (who hadn’t played the game in a few years) about 4 months ago. I played with a friend’s border collie puppy who was mugging me at a trial. I’ve been playing with Rush.
Yesterday my friend Deena came over with her two dogs (Jenny and Magic)–she wanted to meet Rush. Dancer and Elly think her dogs are okay; we’ve shared a hotel room at trials a few times. Her dog Magic is very sweet, but extremely food motivated. In fact, I think I could persuade Magic to do just about anything, just using kibble. I was making lunch; Rush was in his exercise pen; Dancer and Elly were relaxed in the corner; Jenny was watching the puppy; Magic was desperately trying to get a taste of what I was cutting up (even though it was vegetables).
I asked Deena if I could teach Magic ItsYourChoice. She said okay, and I got a handful of dog treats, and I began. Magic mugged my hand, chewed on my fingers, tried to force her tongue under my thumb, and finally backed off just a bit. I uncurled my fingers just a bit and she moved right back in. Deena said “leave it!”, Magic backed right up, and I had to tell Deena to be quiet. I didn’t want to be saying “leave it!” every three seconds while I was cooking. Just the thought was annoying.
I wish we’d videotaped the training. Magic is five years old and very smart. Deena competes successfully in agility with her. But she’s nuts for food.
I waved my closed treat fist under her nose, and the “leave it!” lost its power immediately. She mugged my hand again, and finally backed off and sat down for a second. I opened my hand and actually got a treat out while she was still sitting. She lunged for my treat hand, and I put the treat back into my fist and closed it. You could see Magic trying to work out the rules. She mugged my fist again and then sat again, more quickly. This time I managed to open my fist, get a treat, and give it to her. But the second I gave it to her, she was up and mugging my fist again. Closed the fist and waited for her to back off again.
By now Dancer and Elly had noticed that treats were available and they came over and sat nicely waiting for treats to be delivered. This example seemed to help Magic figure out the rules and she flung herself into a down on the floor in a clear attempt to control herself and keep her nose away from my hand. I dropped a treat right between her paws. The excitement was almost too much for her and she came partway into a sit; I waited for her to go back into the down. I was able to give her five or six treats in a row then.
The whole session took only a few minutes, then I went back to chopping vegetables; I did two more sessions with her while Deena was visiting. By the third session, it was clear Magic had figured out that good things happen to dogs that lie down and wait calmly. At that point, I made it harder; I started throwing the treat so that Magic had to get up and run for the treat, then come back and lie down for the next one. She figured it out easily.
My thinking on this is that it’s very easy to make things easy for your dog. Saying “leave it” or “no” means he doesn’t need to think for himself; using ItsYourChoice requires the dog to think–and they seem to enjoy that and apply the lesson to the next experience.