I posted some time back about Athena suddenly going off her food and treats, making clicker training a real challenge. With the last obedience trials for the year coming up, I began to panic. Turns out she was in a great deal of discomfort because she had a fungal infection in her ears! Poor baby. I didn’t appreciate how much pain she was in until I accidentally bumped her ear while I was playing with her today. She squealed, but bless her heart, she went after that ball and brought it back to me.
When a dog shows no interest in treats while you’re training, and the reason is that the dog is not food-oriented, the next best thing to use as rewards is toys and games. Athena loves to play tug and fetch, more than treats. She will pass up cheese for her ball. So I used her tug/fetch toy as a reward after the click.
She loved it. Today I worked through the Novice exercises with her and a bit of the Beginner’s material, using no clicker or treats, just play as her reward. I haven’t seen her this enthusiastic for a very long time, all this despite the pain in her ears. During the sit- and down-stays I could see her swiveling her ears from discomfort. It was as though she didn’t quite know what to do with her aching ears.
Under normal circumstances, I like to use treats when teaching a new behavior because it’s quicker and makes for greater precision. I use toys/games after the dog knows the exercise to add a bit of motivation. I found myself teaching Athena the retrieve by rewarding her with a game of fetch. Here’s what I did:
I shaped Athena holding the dumbell in her mouth. Everytime she bit down on the dumbell, I clicked and threw a ball for her to fetch. I did this a few times, making sure to stop before she grew tired of the game.
When a dog, who understands how to execute various tasks, fails to perform well during training sessions or trials, there is a good reason. Perhaps the dog is simply having an off-day, or like my Athena, in some kind of pain. It’s up to us humans to recognize that something’s up with the dog and not push it to do a task that it’s not quite ready to do at that precise moment.