Long version of village dog dinner time: population size discussion

By my definition, a community dog is a dog who is not attached to one particular owner, but part of the (human) community they share a space with. In some scientific papers, community dogs are referred to as unowned free-roaming dogs. The dogs in this video are community dogs in a village of approximately 1000 people.

A village dog, by my definition, is a free-roaming dog who lives in a village. Village dogs can be both owned or unowned, and owned and unowned free-roaming village dogs rub shoulders during the day. At night, the owned free-roamers will be home with their human family while the community dogs will wait for their dinner, and then find their own places to sleep. (In this particular village, lots of food stands are empty and covered at night, and they are easily accessible, and provide shelter from the elements. This is likely where at least some of them sleep.)

Interesting side note: I have not seen community dogs in cities. In my experience, urban free-roamers are usually owned.


Community dog population size

The community dog population is likely stable over time. That is to say, there is likely a certain number of dogs the niche the community is able to support, and it is fairly consistent. Let’s say (just picking a random number here) the community dog population is 10 dogs. Why would it be 10? Because there is enough food for 10 dogs. These dogs are intact, so they are having puppies (mixing their genes with owned village dogs), but this does not make the community dog population grow.

Throughout the day, they scavenge at food stands and find the chips and other food dropped by kids on their way home from school, and at night, they get fed by one or two people like Veronica in this video. Neither Veronica nor the kids are going to produce more left-overs or drop more food when there is a new litter of puppies on the ground. They share a space and share resources, and this is what it’s always been like. Nobody sees it as their obligation to support an ever-growing number of dogs (this would be as strange as supporting an ever-growing number of rats).

How does the population size stay consistent despite the fact that everyone is having puppies? Well, over 60% of free-roaming puppies die before they reach reproductive age themselves. This isn’t a shocking number; it’s similar for wild canids such as wolves. So only about 40% of all puppies even get to a point where they have the chance to permanently join the community dog population.

The community dog population sometimes opens up a spot: this happens when someone in town loses a dog, or maybe their kid really wants a dog, and they have the time, space, and resources to get one. So they’ll take one of the community dogs out of the population, and this dog will now become an owned village dog who eats at home and may or may not be free-roaming (most are, but unless they live very close to Veronica’s quesadilla stand, they are unlikely to keep coming back there once they get food at their house).

Let’s say someone just took a dog out of the community dog population. Now, there are only 9, which leaves one spot open – for example for a puppy to fill, like the white puppy in this video (*). A spot will also open up anytime one of the community dogs dies. How do they die? For example of age-related issues (the life expectancy of community dogs is lower than the life expectancy of pet dogs, just like the life expectancy of wild animals is significantly lower in the wild than in a zoo), because they get run over by a car, or are injured by a car in such a way that they can’t recover without veterinary care. Or if they happen to have or develop an illness that will kill them without veterinary care (cancer, diabetes, heart worm desease etc.). What happens to the rest of the new puppies? Well, puppies are cute. So some community puppies will immediately become owned village dogs because the humans know that the puppies are community puppies and can be claimed.

This particular village doesn’t generally have tourists, so it is unlikely that anyone gets stolen. The puppies who don’t become owned village dogs or find an open spot in the community population may make it to the next community over, and find an open spot there. Or they may get run over. Puppies don’t know what they are doing yet, and they are small. Even though drivers in this town generally look out for the dogs, the tinier you are, the harder you are to see, and if you don’t know that you shouldn’t fall asleep under a bus about to drive off … well. I’d venture this is the most common cause of death for puppies (but I do not have data on this).

Spay/neuter clinics

Let’s say you, an outsider, come into this town, learn about the stable community dog population and consider the fact that most puppies don’t make it a tragedy. You decide that there is a problem, and you are going to solve it. Your own background culture preaches spay and neuter, so you start a fundraiser and get a spay-and-neuter-clinic to come to this town, say, the first and third weekend of January. It’ll be in the churchyard, it’ll be free, and you start putting up posters to advertise it in November. The posters say to bring your dog to get them spayed/neutered.

What’s going to happen the first and third weekend of January? People are indeed going to come and get their dogs spayed and neutered for free. Some of the dogs who’ll end up spayed/neutered will be pet dogs (dogs who would not have contributed their genes to the community dog population in any case because they are not allowed to roam free). Most of them will be owned free-roaming village dogs, simply because most village dogs are owned free-roamers. So their genes were part of the village dog gene pool in the past, but won’t be in the future. Will there be a community dog at your spay/neuter clinic? Unlikely, unless you go out of your way to catch one and bring them to the clinic yourself. In any case, the vets you fund-raised for will have spayed and neutered a whole bunch of village dogs by the end of the second weekend, and you will feel good about yourself.

Does the population shrink?

Here’s the thing though: this is not going to make a dent in the size of the community dog population. The niche can still support 10 community dogs, and that means that there will always be 10 community dogs. Why? Because there is no way you’ll spay/neuter every single dog in the village. So you have decreased the gene pool by spaying/neutering owned free-roamers, but you are not decreasing the size of the population because there are still dogs having puppies left and right.

Even if – and this is not a realistic scenario – you managed to spay/neuter every single dog in this village, you would not decrease the size of the community dog population. The community dog population will stay at 10 for as long as the niche is able to support 10 dogs. How? Well, you’ve spayed/neutered everyone in this village, so there are no new puppies being born in this village right now. But the moment one of the existing village dog dies – a spot opens up, since there are now only 9 – someone else is going to fill this spot. If it is not a puppy being born in this village, it will be a dog from the next village over. This dog will likely not be spayed/neutered. Alright – so far, they are the only dog who is intact in this village. But if they are female, once they get in heat, a male dog from the next village over will pay her a visit. And now, you’ll have a bunch of puppies. There is now less supply of puppies in this village, so it’s entirely possible that all of these puppies become owned free-roaming village dogs right away. And they are all intact. You see where I’m going with this? I don’t know how to mathematically model this, but the thought experiment shows (I believe) that spay/neuter clinics do not impact population size in countries where dogs generally roam free. If you are reading this and know how to visualize the scenarios, go for it!

Yep, I have an opinion on this …

I’m not a vet, and I am not telling you whether to spay/neuter or not spay/neuter your dog(s) – that’s between you and your vet. I’m also not telling you whether to let or not let your dog roam free. This is between you and yourself (and maybe between you and your dog, but mostly, let’s be honest, between you and yourself. You are your dog’s benevolent or not-so-benevolent dictator, after all, and you are the one with the opposable thumbs who does or doesn’t open the gate.)

There is one thing I will tell you though: in my opinion, the fact that there are and always will be 10 (hypothetical number, remember) community dogs is not a problem. I am an outsider, and I am not going to organize any spay/neuter clinics.

I don’t come from a background culture that preaches spay/neuter – I come from a country where it is illegal to remove a dog’s reproductive organs unless it is medically necessary. It is possible that this is part of the reason I don’t see the consistent 10 community dogs as a problem – I don’t know. It is very likely part of the reason I do not spay or neuter my own dogs.

I don’t ever want biological kids and my periods are always painful, my gender identity is not feminine and I have zero emotional attachment to my reproductive organs. And yet, I have not spayed/neutered myself (even though it would be nice to not have periods). Since I don’t experience gender dysphoria, a surgery like this seems excessive. So why would I subject my dog to it?

Important aside: I fully support everyone’s right to have surgery. It should absolutely be covered by your medical insurance, and it is fucking aweful that the US has started taking these rights from the trans community. Fuck this fascist shit! I’m just saying I don’t want surgery myself. Anyways, I digress.

… or two …

I do not see free-roaming dogs and their life expectancy as a problem, I believe, because I’m under the impression that most community dogs are living a good life while they are alive, even if most puppies don’t survive. Sure, they may have fleas, which is annoying. They may have a bearable load of endoparasites they don’t notice much. But other than that? They have a lot of freedom, they eat better than my own dog (who is mostly on kibble), and they have active social lives and both human and canine friends. Death is a natural part of life – I don’t see it as tragic if a dog dies at a young rather than an old age as long as they don’t suffer, and the life that they did have was a pleasant one.

(We need to define/operationalize “a good life” as well as “freedom.” If you’re reading this – share your definition in the comments! Does it differ depending on the species you are talking about?)

… or three.

I am clearly projecting my own values on these dogs, and I am trying to stay aware of it. I personally value life quality A LOT, and life quantity not all that much. That, I believe, is the reason I see things the way I do: not a problem; just life. I also value personal freedom greatly, and “safety” (something else that needs to be defined/operationalized) relatively little. And I can’t stand it when someone tries to control me or doles out unsolicited advice.

Based on my own values, I am okay with the way community dogs and owned free-roaming village dogs live their lives, reproduce, and do their thing. It’s not my place to intervene into their lives, physical integrity, or reproductive behavior.

The video (finally, we’re talking about the video!)

The video starts just after Veronica, who runs a (most delicious!) quesadilla stand, has doled out the dogs’ dinner. Every day, throughout the day, she fills a bucket with leftovers, and in the evening, she’ll add whatever won’t be used anymore the next day. She and her granddaughter clean up, and then, the last thing they do before they go home: they empty out the bucket for the dogs. The dogs will start coming by and waiting around 6pm, when Veronica closes the place. The dogs’ dinner is around half past 6, when everything else has been cleaned and put away.

What do they eat, you wonder? Here in this video, the bucket contains intestines (chicken hearts – those are first to go, stomach – probably venison, liver), sheep bones, veggies (among them chili peppers, which are the red things the dogs only eat in the end), and tortillas de maíz. It’s pretty much what you’d feed your dog if you were feeding a home-cooked or raw diet.

Veronica knows the dogs, and they all have names, typically referring to a physical characteristic of theirs (for example, the little curly one is “Chinito” – literally “little curly guy”). Veronica also knows the dogs’ personalities. The brindle male with the black back, Wilson, is one she keeps in check: he used to beat the other dogs up and not let them eat until he was done. You can see this in the video: some of them don’t dare to approach the pile while Wilson is here, and Veronica will come back occasionally to shoo him away. He doesn’t show any food guarding behavior towards the other dogs, but based on their body language, we can tell that they are being tentative around him. (They are not afraid of Veronica, even though it might look that way because she stays close as long as Wilson is close – they are all sociable towards people.)

The only dog in the video who keeps a respectful distance from Veronica is Wilson: he has likely had a close encounter or two with that very bucket she is swinging at him. It is no longer necessary for her to implement punishment – he knows, just based on her coming closer or talking to him, when it is time to retreat. You can see him keep an eye on Veronica just like the other dogs are keeping an eye on him.

The female who only approaches the food towards the end and occasionally jumps on me is my friend – I don’t have a relationship with any of the others. However, that female may have had a memorable encounter with Wilson in the past because she doesn’t even think about approaching while he is around. You’ve met her in a previous video:

The white puppy is also particularly interesting. See how they’re experimenting with what they can get away with around Chinito, who has a bone the puppy would very much like for themselves?


(*) Foreshadowing: this very puppy is going to also be taken out of the community dog population, and become an owned free-roaming dog. You are going to meet them again under different circumstances in a future video.

Distractions as cues, day 8 – the first outside pre-recall hesitation!

Session 1, breakfast in location #2: we’re celebrating the first slow-down pre recall cue!!

Today is the first time I get a moment’s hesitation – Game’s body or her mind (but probably not both) consider turning around before I call! Watch closely to catch that moment. The slow-down happens right between seconds 00:02 and 00:03. This is amazing and shows me that we’re moving in the right direction!

In the commentary of the video, while Game is eating, I mention that this session was extra difficult because we just saw the intermittent neighborhood cat, which likely upped Game’s arousal. But! Retrospectively, I wonder if seeing the cat actually made things easier rather than harder.

Here’s why: I do a lot – A LOT! – of recalls reinforced with access to chasing critters (mostly alley cats who don’t care or will jump out of reach and then give Game the finger, squirrels, and birds). She already knows that the fastest way to get to chase, which she loves, is to first check in with me and perform … whatever I’m asking, but usually a recall, a hand touch, middle position, or a sit. There was no cat recall reinforced by chasing today, but the cat thoughts on Game’s mind may have put her into more of a mindset of “distraction – check in with handler” than she’s used to having around food.

(As I mentioned in an earlier post, I allow Game to scavenge freely and rarely require behaviors of her when she finds food in the street. She scavenges every day, because finding food is very common here. I’d guesstimate that every day, she encounters between 2 and 5 steet meal. There is more free scavenging than kibble recall cue transfer training).

Going straight for food has a long and strong reinforcement history – but going after cats doesn’t because I never let her go after a cat without giving me a behavior first! It’ll be interesting to see what happens in our next session, when there is no pre-meal cat!

Session 2, dinner in location 2 (no cat, and no slow-down)

We didn’t meet the intermediate cat before this session, and Game didn’t slow down before I called her. We’ll see what tomorrow brings!

In today’s video, I explain my game plan for now:

+ Immediately release to the distraction with “okay” after the recall …
+ Unless Game predicts the “okay” relase. In that case, click or “Get it.”
+ If I do not have to recall her at all, but she turns around on her own, I will mark the moment of turning with “okay” (not requiring her to complete her return to me).

I’ll stick to this plan for the next few sessions.


If you want to work on this or similar behaviors with your own dogs, join me in Out and About at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy! Or check out any of our other classes … Game and I, for example, will be doing Nicole Wiebusch’s Heeling class at Gold this term! And we’ll be following along with Sara Brueske’s Bomb Proof Behaviors at Bronze!

Distractions as cues, day 7: “okay” release to the kibble right after recalling

Session 1, breakfast at location 2:

I’m calling Game, and immediately releasing her to the kibble with okay. This is to drive home the point that the fastest way TO the distraction is to come back first. Breakfast is a little smaller today because I’ve got a few more training goals for today, and more food will be had in other contexts later on! Also, some more neighborhood cat talk (and searching!)

A little remedial marker cue work:

Just sharing this session since I already mixed various marker cues into the earlier sessions here, and commented on them. Here, we’re doing remedial marker cue work on day #7, just using a click followed by a chunk of hot dog right after eating a single “free” treat from the floor.

Session 2, dinner at location 2:

Another evening, another round of training! Again, I follow the recall cue directly up with a release to the kibble.

In the video, I explain that this is a balancing act: On the one hand, I want Game to believe that the fastest way to the kibble is to come back to me first. On the other hand, I don’t want her to predict the release (not come all the way back). This will eventually happen if I always release her right away. I can either prevent it by alternating marker cues (recall – click; recall – get; recall – okay), or I can stick with my immediate “okay” release to the kibble for a few sessions, but switch things up again as soon as I see the self-release creep in. I think I’ll go for another immediate “okay” release tomorrow morning – but we’ll see. I might just change my mind after sleeping on it!


Wanna work on this or similar behaviors with your own dog? Join me in Out and About at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy!

Distractions as cues, day 6

Session 1, breakfast in location 2:

Hot dog chunks for “Get it” and the click, and then just a release to the pile of kibble. In this clip, I also explain what makes location #2 extra challenging: the intermittent neighborhood cat!

Session 2, dinner in location 2:

I explain why I’m leaving the plastic bag (the bag that held the kibble) out there with the food: for better visibility. And I reiterate why it is so important that the new cue (the visual/olfactory stimulus of the kibble) precede the old cue (the recall). I’m using hot dogs for the click and “get it” again.


Wanna learn this or lots of other fun skills with your own dog? Check out the FDSA schedule for the current term!

Distractions as cues, day 5

Session 1: breakfast at location 2

I’m using hot dogs for the click and the “Get it,” and not interrupting her when eating the pile of kibble.

Session 2: dinner at location 2

More of the same: hot dogs for “Get it” and the click, and then I let her finish dinner in peace. I switch around the order of things here: first “Get it,” then the click. This morning, I did it the other way around. I’ll also go straight to an “Okay” release after the recall soon, to keep things interesting.

By the way, the reason I keep letting Game get really close to the kibble before calling is that for this particular exercise, I want to be sure she is seeing and smelling the distraction first (cue transfer), and I want to give her as much time as possible to think of coming back before reaching the pile of kibble.


Wanna learn this or lots of other fun skills with your own dog? Check out the FDSA schedule for the current term!

Distractions as cues, day 4 – upwards and onwards to location #2!

Session 1, breakfast at location 2:

We’re at step 4 now:

We want to only increase one criterion at a time rather than several criteria at once. We also know that dogs don’t generalize well – so we are going to need to train this behavior in several locations, and with all kinds of different food distractions (in our example). In the training phase, you will only either change the food distraction, and keep the location the same, or change the location, and keep the food distraction the same. In the example videos I’m going to show you, I’ll use the same food distraction (kibble), and show you how to get to the goal behavior (the distraction becomes a recall cue) in two locations. You will want to train this in more than just two locations (3-10, depending on your dog, should get you location generalization), and you’ll want to use more than one food distraction (again, 3-10, depending on your dog, should get you the desired results). I am guesstimating that most dogs will need around five kinds of food in five different locations to generalize.

This is our first session in our second location. I keep the distraction (kibble) the same, but change the location. The reason I’m leaving the yellow bag next to my pile of kibble is to further ensure Game is going to notice the distraction. Why is this important? Remember we are using a cue transfer process here: the new cue followed by the old cue. The new cue is a visual/olfactory cue: a food distraction. The old cue is the recall cue. Eventually, the new cue (the food distraction) will become a reliable predictor for the old cue (the recall), and end up serving as a recall cue itself.

Here, the reinforcers I have on my body are the same value as the distraction again (kibble). That’s no problem for my recall cue because I know Game’s recall cue is excellent.

I am not heeding my own advice from our last session, and am still sticking marker cue interruptions into this session rather than working on them separately. I’ve learned not to use the click while Game is eating for now, especially when I only have kibble – but I can still do “Get it”s. Well … you’ll see Game take her time to chase the treat, and me explain that “Get it” is not up to my standards out here anymore, either. I want these marker cues to be really sharp: Game should stop eating and look at my hand to see where I’m going to toss the treat as soon as she hears the cue, not only after she sees it flying through the air. Chrissi, repeat note to self: work on this separately, and really dedicate time to it! Working on it separately is going to ensure I’m giving my marker cue behaviors the attention they deserve, and really thinking about how to set up the session so both Game and I will be successful.

You’ll see me also test Game’s “Leave it” in the middle of this session (00:15). It’s sharp as ever, and I reward it with a click and treat from my hand. This click is easy for Game because there is no food right in front of her nose that I’m clicking her away from!

Once Game is searching for her last two or three pieces of kibble, you’ll see me use another marker cue (simply because I happen to still have part of her breakfast in my pocket) you haven’t seen me use in this series yet: “Treats,” which is my marker for a treat scatter (01:11).

Session 2, dinner at location 2:

I’m using a chunk of hotdog for my recall click here, just to start getting Game’s hopes for post-click hotdogs back up. Then, I “okay” her to release to the kibble, and let her finish dinner in peace.


Wanna work on this or similar behaviors with your own dog? Join me in Out and About at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy!

Distractions as cues: day 3 – yabadabadoo!

Session 1 (breakfast):

Remember I’m still at step 3: I will stay there until Game predicts the recall on the first rep of a new session. I can’t stress the importance of this enough. It is the first rep of a session that shows you whether learning has occurred! If the first rep doesn’t show cue prediction, but the third one does, we are not there yet. Why? Because it’s easy to repeat what just got rewarded (rep 3). It’s hard to remember 12 hours later (rep 1)! But it’s the 12 hours later memory that we’re interested in building!

In the session below, you’ll see that “Get it!” (my cue for a tossed treat) is higher value than my click: Game has no problem interrupting her feast in order to chase a single piece of kibble! But I fail when trying to insert a click later. In the end of the video, you hear me think loudly: I should probably use a higher value treat for the click for a few sessions to help sharpen the take-food-from-hand behavior back up to the point I want it to be!

Session 2 (dinner):

She’s got it! She’s really got it! Yabadabadoo!!

In this video, Game predicts my recall on the first rep of a new session. This is my black-and-white criterion for moving on to step 4 – which I will show you tomorrow!

In this session, I also finally use a higher value treat (a chunk of hot dog) for my click. Even though I try to combine it with an opportune moment at 00:54, Game keeps eating the kibble on the floor. I’m going to have to work on this behavior separately.

This is a good reminder that ideally, in our training sessions, we will focus on ONE behavior at a time. Here, I should be focusing on my cue transfer from verbal recall to sight/smell of kibble! Which Game just accomplished in this session for the first time!! Note to self: let her finish her food in peace, and work on marker cue interruptions separately.

(The treat Game gets in the end for free is a piece of kibble, not hot dog – just something I found in my treat pouch.)

In any case, we’re celebrating our success with a little toy play in the end of this session. On to step 4 tomorrow!


If you want to work on this or similar behaviors with your own dogs, join me in Out and About at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy! Or check out any of our other classes … Game and I, for example, will be doing Nicole Wiebusch’s Heeling class at Gold this term! And we’ll be following along with Sara Brueske’s Bomb Proof Behaviors at Bronze! There’s something on the schedule for everyone this term! It’s going to be a fun one!

Distractions as cues, day 2

(We’re at step 3 of our training plan.)

Day 2, session 1: breakfast

I put down rugs today to prevent sliding on the tiles.

This video doesn’t only show Game being a brilliant learner – it also reveals a hole in my marker cue training: my click is not strong enough to get her to leave the food on the ground. (I know that a recall cue or leave it would get her to leave the food behind, but I need to sharpen up that click!) Marker cues are cues, just like other cues. My tongue click is a cue to eat food from my hand. In order to do so, the previous behavior (in this case, eating food from the floor) needs to be interrupted.

In this session, the treats from my hand are the same as the food on the floor (kibble).

Session 2: dinner

In this session, you’ll see me work on the click by using it at opportune moments (right when there is no treat left in front of Game’s nose on the floor).

I’m setting myself up for success in this way even though the treats from my hand are the exact same as the treats on the ground. I’m re-establishing the habit of immediately responding to my click.

You’ll see the session end in personal play, and looking for a toy. That’s how Game expresses joy and pride in her own work!


Wanna work on this or similar behaviors with your own dog? Join me in Out and About at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy!

Distractions as cues, day 1, session 1: dinner fun indoors

Here, you see me work on step 2 from yesterday’s post:

Practice your verbal cue with an easy version of your distraction in an easy location (at home, in your house). Make sure to cue the behavior after the dog has seen or accessed the distraction (new cue – old cue, in this situation, means first comes the distraction, then the verbal cue). We want the distraction to predict the verbal cue.

Fun with marker cues!

You’ll also see me use 3 marker cues in this session: tongue click (food from hand), “Get it!” (chase a thrown treat), and “Okay” (release to the environment, in this case, the kibble on the floor). I call Game out of eating a few times just to make sure my recall cue is as strong as it needs to be for this training project to work – and it is.

I’m using the same value food here from my hand and from the floor (kibble).

Please note: if your dog does not like being “pestered,” only interrupt them once while they are eating. Game doesn’t mind because she’s a Mal, and loves to work. Not all dogs are like that. While we want to test our recall cue, we also want to make sure it keeps its positive connotations and doesn’t feel like we are nagging the dog!


Wanna work on this or similar behaviors with your own dog? Join me in Out and About at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy!

Distractions as cues, day 0: the theory

I want to add a new adventure to my Out & About class – these videos, or segments of them, will probably be a part of it eventually! For now, I’ve just been playing around with this and it isn’t a finished lecture yet, so I’m sharing it publicly here instead!

One of my students has been thinking of turning food distractions on the ground into a recall cue. I’ve been thinking of various ways to get to that stage, and am going to share my experimentation journey with you all. You could use this protocols for distractions other than food, and behaviors other than a recall.

Foundation behaviors for our example:

  1. A strong recall away from food. Ideally, you will already have a recall no matter whether the dog is approaching the food distraction or already in the middle of eating it. Alternatively, an equally strong “Leave it” cue will do the trick as well.
  2. A marker cue that means food from your hand.
  3. A release cue that serves as a release to the environment (in our case, to the distraction). I have several release cues; in this case, I am going to use my generic “Okay.” It’s a marker cue that releases the dog to whatever the previous cue told them not to access.

Goal behavior:

Dog sees or smells food —> dog returns to handler —> dog gets rewarded from handler or with permission to access/eat the distraction.

Game is used to scavenge on our walks, and I am not going to take this behavior from her. It’s one of her biggest joys, and she’s got a stomach of steel and is surrounded by amazing street food to be found. So I’m only going to teach the goal behavior (use the distraction as a cue to come back towards me) with her kibble (which isn’t something she ever finds on the street). I don’t want her to show me all the food sources she finds in the street. I want her to continue to be able to freely scavenge.

In any case, assuming you don ‘t want the free scavenging, your steps will be the following. Game and I will skip the generalization steps, and we will start this video series with the foundation behaviors already in place.

Steps for turning a distraction into a cue:

  1. Teach your foundation behavior on a verbal cue to fluency and generalize it until you can use it anywhere and at any time, off leash, no matter what distractions are present (with our food example, this could be a watch the handler, a leave it, a recall, or even a sit or a down, or barking – whatever you want the distraction to eventually be the cue for). It just needs to be incompatible with accessing the distraction.
  2. Practice your verbal cue with an easy version of your distraction in an easy location (at home, in your house). Make sure to cue the behavior after the dog has seen or accessed the distraction (new cue – old cue, in this situation, means first comes the distraction, then the verbal cue). We want the distraction to predict the verbal cue.
  3. Stay at step 2 until your dog complete the behavior you are looking for on the first rep of a NEW session, without you having had time to say your verbal cue between the dog seeing/smelling the distraction, and you saying the old verbal cue. You now have a distraction as a cue in one location: at home!
  4. We want to only increase one criterion at a time rather than several criteria at once. We also know that dogs don’t generalize well – so we are going to need to train this behavior in several locations, and with all kinds of different food distractions (in our example). You will only either change the food distraction, and keep the location the same, or change the location, and keep the food distraction the same. In the example videos I’m going to show you, I’ll use the same food distraction (kibble), and show you how to reach the goal behavior (the distraction becomes a recall cue) in two locations. You will want to train this in more than just two locations (3-10, depending on your dog, should get you location generalization), and you’ll want to use more than one food distraction (again, 3-10, depending on your dog, should get you the desired results). I am guesstimating that most dogs will need around five kinds of food in five different locations to generalize.
  5. Use it in real life, and keep rewarding most reps really well – either from your hand, or by releasing your dog to the distraction! That last step is important because you will sometoimes come across distractions you can’t trump with your reward. A dog who believes that the fastest way TO the distraction is to come back to you first will come back – even when they know you have nothing higher value on your body.

Why is this working?

We are using a cue transfer process for this, and we are going to use an environmental reward (the distraction itself becomes the reward; many trainers refer to this as “Premacking“). Therefore, we need to start with a strong verbal cue that we will eventually transfer to a visual or olfactory cue (the distraction): the distraction comes to predict the strong verbal cue, and eventually, the behavior will be exhibited as soon as our learner sees the distraction.

The next post in this series is going to show Game’s first session (step 2)!