Nom-Nom-Nom – Cookie Use in Canine Fitness

12.14.2020

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When I’m developing Canine Fitness plans, teaching group class, or presenting at a workshop, I always tend to get the same reaction at the amount of cookie/treats I’m encouraging my students to use:

Why do you want me to feed my dog so many treats?

or

My dog knows how to sit, down, and stand on cue. He doesn’t need cookies to perform.

I give the same answers when I hear this, but it can be tough to go into full detail, especially during a workshop where I only have a couple of hours with my students. The reasons for using treats also changes depending on what type of exercise is being performed. For the most part, we want canine fitness to be motivating for the dog. Why are there TVs in front of all of the cardio machines at the gym? Why do people spend hundreds of dollars on headphones to use during workouts? Humans also want some type of motivating entertainment while we workout. We also need Canine Fitness to be predictable, for both the dog and the handler. Creating a training loop during a canine fitness workout can help calm a frantic mind or instill confidence in an unsure dog.

Behavior –> Mark –> Treat –> Behavior –> Mark –> Treat –> Behavior

Equals

Clean training –> Clarity –> Easier for our dogs to understand –> More success –> Happy Dog –> Happy Handler

Static Exercises

Static exercises are when the dog does not move his or her feet at all and is holding a specific position (down, sit, stand). These exercises appear to be quite easy, so why should we bother using rewards for our dogs to just stand, sit, or lie down, and nothing else? These exercises are actually pretty tough for most dogs. It is essentially a “stay,” but in fitness we do not want to see any weight shifting or drifting from side to side or back and forth. For a number of dog owners, “stay” means don’t move from there without any requirement from the dog to hold a specific position (except in competition obedience). Sure, we can cue a “stay” if the dog knows stay as in “don’t move from this position”, but how often have you needed to have your dog do a “stand – stay” for a minute or more? How about doing a stand stay on an inflatable disc, infinity, or paw pods? If you have never taught your dog a “stay” in any of these positions, or on any of these objects, it is unfair to assume he or she will magically be able to do it.

Not only does “stay” often mean something else from dog to dog and situation to situation, being still is tough! Try it yourself. Stand up with good posture, set a timer for 1 minute and try to maintain your posture. Did you drift around? Did you shift your weight, or catch yourself shifting from side to side? Did you get bored and wonder why are you doing this? Did that minute feel pretty long? All of these reasons are why we start teaching static exercises with a high rate of reinforcement (give a lot of cookies). We can’t tell our dogs how much “just standing there” is going to help their physical fitness. At first, a high rate of reinforcement is needed to help train a dog to be able to hold the position, and stay motivated. As the dog gets stronger, and has a better understanding of what is being asked, the rate of reinforcement can decrease.

One way to make a static exercise harder, canine fitness trainers will add “weight shifting.” Weight shifting is simply encouraging the dog to shift their weight in any direction. You can use a nose target where a dog’s nose touches the handler’s hand or target stick. Walking/moving around to encourage the dog to shift weight by watching you is another option, but the dog needs to have a good “stay” (as in hold this position and don’t move). Another option is to manually shift the dog’s weight left and right. This option is generally used with dogs who need very targeted weight shifting or extra support. The last option for encouraging weight shifting is luring with a treat. I like this option the best because it is an easy technique for all skill levels, the handler is always close to the dog, and the dog stays motivated. I can also direct the dog’s head to where I want it to go and then come back to neutral. This creates clarity with a clean training loop (Lure Head Right –> Feed –> Dog moves head back to neutral where the rest of the cookies are –> Lure Head Left –> Feed –> Dog moves head back to neutral –> etc.) With hand targets or the handler walking around, the dog can look elsewhere between reps, which may or may not be useful for his or her exercise plan.

Dynamic Exercises

Dynamic exercises are when there is some type of movement. This can be changing positions, such as: sit to stands, down to stand, or any combination thereof. It is also when dogs are moving around objects, such as Figure 8s, walking over or under cavalettis, traversing body awareness obstacle courses, and plyometrics.

For position changes (sit to stand, sit to down, etc.) luring between the positions will help create a nice rhythm. This rhythm is needed to get a good work out in. When handlers are only using verbal cues and/or hand signals the dog will often “pause” between reps. This pause interrupts the efficiency and effectiveness of a rep scheme by adding “rest” when it is not intended. Cookies can also help us determine when a dog is fatigued. If a dog is happily moving between positions and suddenly refuses, it could be a sign of fatigue. I will ask the dog to do the movement two-three more times. If the dog still refuses to change positions two times in a row, I will then give the dog a break. If cookies are not being used, it can be tough to tell if lack of performance is because of fatigue or lack of motivation. In an effort to encourage more “luring” to keep the correct rhythm of the exercise I often ask the handlers to not give a verbal cue. Luring the position changes will also increase the likelihood of the dog performing the exercises with proper form.

Another consideration against using verbal cues, or hand signals, for position changes in canine fitness is the threat of poisoning cues. When a handler cues a behavior over and over, and the dog does not perform the behavior correctly, the dog is learning that he or she does not actually have to perform that behavior. You might accidentally train the dog that “sit” means “stand here and look cute.” I like to save my verbal cues, or hand signals, for when I will need them outside of fitness, such as in dog sports or daily life. I might need my dog to lie down on the pause table in agility. If by saying “down” over and over again in fitness teaches my dog “down” means “look over left shoulder,” I’ve poisoned my “down” cue and created more training work for me later.

When using treats for moving in certain patterns, over or under objects, the goal is to control the dog’s pace. Controlling the dog’s pace is important for injury prevention, encouraging proper form, and decreasing frantic behavior. For the most part, we want our dogs to move slowly for these exercises. Most dogs do not naturally have a slow gear. I have worked with plenty of agility dogs that are either not moving or taking off like a rocket. The combination of a harness and strategically placed cookies can help slow these dogs down. For dogs that are new to working on higher inflatable objects, cookies will help the encourage and motivate the dog to walk over those objects. Not only can cookies help slow dogs down, they can also encourage movement and give feedback to the confidence level of the dog.

That’s A LOT of Cookies

If you are concerned about the amount of calories you are feeding your dog, you do not have to give a cookie with each rep. You can lure two – three movements, then give a cookie and refill. Once a dog is proficient in body awareness work, give a cookie after each lap. I generally use my dog’s kibble for fitness work, and then reduce their meals by that amount of kibble. You can also use low calorie treats, such as: green beans, carrots, blue berries, sweet potato, broccoli, or other fruits or veggies your dog enjoys. Another option might be to break up commercial, low calorie treats.

Since Canine Fitness is not obedience, rally, agility, or any other sport there is no need to worry about decreasing the amount of food used immediately. Canine Fitness is not a competition, nor should it be, but it does compliment dog sports. It is important for fitness to look different than dog sports. Clarity is always good for our dogs, so using cookies to help our dogs understand the difference between sports, life, and fitness will increase motivation and confidence. I’ve seen this in my own dogs, especially my soft dog. Armada generally shuts down easily in training, since we started Canine Fitness, not only do I see better physical performance, but he also shows more confidence and resilience when training for sports.

 

Special Thanks to Siny Tsang, PhD CPCFT with Core Pawtential, LLC and Anna Kukhta, CPCFT for their help in editing this post.

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