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The Top Foundation Skill in Dog Training

When I first started training animals I was lucky enough to have a dog that had a great food drive. She would anything and everything I put in front of her that was edible (thankfully, she did not inherit that 'I'll eat anything even if it's not edible' trait commonly associated with labs). So training her was rather easy from the start. She would work for anything.

I definitely took for granted how easy it was to deliver her reinforcement. If I threw her a treat after she correctly did a behavior, she honed in on it like a missile to retrieve it. She was also shockingly good at catching treats mid-air, even if I hadn't intended for her to catch them (a skill that earned her the nickname 'the cobra'. She was also fairly respectful about taking treats from your hand, even waiting for them to be delivered to her.

When I started working with other peoples dogs, or some of the Zoo's animals, I realized not all animals come with such a great ability to understand how, when, and where their reinforcement will be delivered. This really made me realize the importance of actually teaching animals how to receive reinforcement, something I had previously thought would have been rather instinctual. Now, I incorporate it as one of the first things all dog owners should teach their dogs. A foundation skill of such importance that almost all further training relies upon it.

While working at the Zoo, a co-worker and I were set the task of teaching an Eurasian eagle owl a recall back to the glove. This was an important behavior for Forrest, since he was part of our show at the time, and would free-fly across our crowded audience and back behind stage and into his crate. Every so often he would take 'a day trip' and instead of flying to his crate like he was supposed to, he would fly to a neighboring tree and just chill for a while. We always recovered him, but sometimes with a little more effort than we were comfortable with.

Recall Training
Kay with Forrest the Eurasian eagle owl

Forrest had never been trained to fly to a persons glove (handlers where a thick leather glove on their left hand where the owl perches while we carry them). He had been trained to step onto our gloves from a branch or other perch, but not to fly directly to our gloves. It became clear to us that having this kind of recall behavior could be helpful to us on those occasional times he decides to take one of his day trips.

We developed a solid training plan for him, which included back chaining, first teaching him to hop short distances from a perch to our glove, then slowly increasing the distance he had to hop until he was actually flying a good distance to us for reinforcement. But that was the hardest part. How do we safely deliver his reinforcement?

Owls catch their prey with the incredibly strong and sharp talons. When Forrest saw food, his instinct was to grab the food (a dead mouse) with his feet in such a way that could hurt our free hands. Also, if he grabbed his food with his feet after landing on our glove, he was likely to take off again before we had time to secure him with his equipment (owls where equipment called a leash and jesses on their legs because that is the strongest part of the birds body, which then allow us to safely control and transport them, similar to putting a leash and collar on a dog). What first had to train Forrest how to receive his reinforcement from our hands (often in a small dish) directly to his beak, after he landed on our glove and after we had a hold of his equipment. In case you are wondering, patience and impulse control is not something that come easily to an owl.

This was absolutely critical in our ability to train Forrest to fly to our glove. It wasn't the flight itself, or landing gently on our gloved hand, it was how to receive reinforcement. Without that critical component in the training loop, we had no way of teaching him the behavior we wanted, and that it would pay off for him.

With dogs, I have noticed a similar problem. Many people have complained to me that using food reinforcers is difficult with their dogs because they take the treats so harshly from their hands. That's something I experienced with one of my own dogs as well. He would take treats from my hand so roughly it hurt. So what do we do?

With any new dog I work with, I like to test their food motivation, and then see how they receive treats. Will they take it gently from my hand? Will they run after and locate a treat thrown away from them on the ground? So many puppies have a hard time seeing and finding treats thrown on the floor. It takes some time to teach them how to use their nose to locate them. Will they wait to take a treat placed in front of their nose, or try to snap it up as soon as they see or smell it?

There are several training games we can play with dogs to teach them how to appropriately receive food. Hannah Brannigan outlines some of the best training games to teach your dog how to receive reinforcement in her new book Awesome Obedience, and anyone who is interested in obedience should really check it out. One of the first chapters is entirely based on motivation and delivering reinforcement.

When working with puppies, the first reinforcement game I look to teach them is how to retrieve a treat thrown to the ground, and then to re-orient their attention back to me. This is a skill that is surprisingly difficult for a lot of dogs, and therefore worthy of our attention.

Step one: Offer your dog 5 or more treats in succession for paying attention to you (i.e. standing in front of you, looking in your direction)

Step two: After your dog eats that fifth treat, drop a treat on the ground between you and him. When he looks back up at you after finishing that treat, click, deliver a treat to his mouth, then throw a second treat a little further away on the ground (maybe one foot to the side)

Step three: After he eats the second treat, wait for him to look back at you, then click, and treat to the mouth again, followed by a second treat thrown just slightly further away than last time.

Repeat these steps until you are throwing the treat farther and farther, and the dog continues to re-orient his attention back to you after eating the thrown treat.

Take note if your dog does not re-orient to you after eating the thrown treat. You have probably reached a point where he has grown tired or satiated, or perhaps because a new distraction has arrived. Note when those things happen, or what the distraction is, so you can work on and practice keeping his attention among lower level distractions later. For now take a break.

There are many more skills to work on when teaching your dog how to receive reinforcement, but this is a good place to start. It may seem silly to focus your training time on something that may feel so trivial, but being able to reinforce your dog quickly, accurately, and safely is the cornerstone of dog training. Without reinforcement, without being able to deliver reinforcement efficiently, training becomes unpredictable and confusing to our animals, which does not create a positive learning environment for anyone.

If you and your dog or puppy are struggling with this foundational skill, please reach out to us, and check out Hannah Brannigans book Awesome Obedience! You can find it here

Again, feel free to reach out to us at, or through our website's contact page , if you are interested in our dog training services. We are now offering online options as well!

Happy Tails,

Foundation Skills in Dog Training
Kay's dogs Zooey and Koda

Kay Rutland

Lead Dog Trainer

Cascade Canine

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