Using food as a reward and motivator is one of the primary ways we achieve good results in positive dog training. But some clients wonder if it means they’ll have to carry treats around forever in order to keep their dog cooperative. Never fear — used correctly, food is a highly effective tool that helps dogs learn, but you won’t need to use it constantly. (In fact, it’s better if you don’t….we’ll explain why below.)
Food rewards help your dog understand what behaviors you like and are strong enough to cut through the distractions that can keep your dog from paying attention and listening to you. It’s not “cheating” to use something highly desirable to encourage your dog to do what you ask — as long as you don’t just bribe your dog, but use the food appropriately.
To learn something new, you can use a technique known as luring to show the dog what behavior you want or show him how to move his body to do it. For example, moving a treat slowly over a dog’s head so he leans back to follow it encourages him to drop his back end into a sit. When he can do that consistently with the lure prompt (say 9 out of 10 times) you switch to using the food as a reward by giving it to the dog after he does what you request (in this case, sitting when asked or prompted with a hand signal).
Dogs are opportunistic — they do what works for them. If they do something and the consequence of doing it is pleasurable (like getting a tasty treat) they’ll do it again. So offering rewards for good behavior and for doing what we ask keeps good things happening.
“But doesn’t that mean you have to keep using food forever?” you may ask. Nope — you can achieve the same result by changing how and when you give the rewards, once the dog knows what it is you’re asking him to do. One highly effective way to do that is by randomizing when the dog gets a reward — say, every other time he complies, then once in five requests, etc. Basically, you become a slot machine — sometimes the dog gets a reward, sometimes he doesn’t. But he’ll keep “playing” because he never knows when he’ll get the payoff, just like playing a slot machine.
“Won’t using food in training add too many calories to my dog’s diet?” some clients ask. Again, not if you do it thoughtfully. Some options:
● Reduce the amount of food you feed at mealtimes to compensate for the extra food intake.
● Use part (or all!) of the food you typically feed at mealtimes as training rewards. Although we often use the word “treats” when describing training rewards, that doesn’t mean you have to use something other than their regular kibble, as long as it’s motivating for your dog.
And what about dogs who aren’t particularly food motivated? In some cases, just using novel or higher value food rewards (for example, small pieces of cheese or shredded chicken) will change a “picky” dog into a willing worker. Or if they truly aren’t interested in food for whatever reason (pickiness, stress/anxiety, illness, etc.) we can use other types of rewards — toys, attention, petting, playing — whatever your dog finds motivating. But for most dogs food is highly desirable and a potent encouragement to work with you on achieving those behaviors you want.
So, while you don’t have to be a puppy Pez dispenser, using food to show your dog what you want and encourage him to willingly comply with your requests is an effective and satisfying tool to help both of you to succeed in your training adventures.
For more information or to set up a training appointment, contact your local Wagly training professional.