Even though our dogs are reliant on us to provide them with food every day, dog owners (and countless dog trainers) still have trouble grasping the idea of getting the food out of the dog bowl and into the dog's training routine.
Food is universally motivating for all animals - we can't survive without it. Food is readily available and portable, and makes it possible to train in a variety of situations and evironments.
So what is your reason for not using food in training?
I DON'T WANT TO BRIBE MY DOG
I don't want you to bribe your dog, either! But there is a BIG difference between bribing and rewarding with food.
BRIBERY is the act of presenting the food to the dog in order to get the dog to perform a desired behavior.
REWARDING is the act of presenting something a dog finds valuable (food, toy, praise, etc.) after the dog has performed the behavior.
Below are some examples of the difference between bribes and rewards in dog training.
Owner holds treat in front of dog while walking to keep dog in position
Owner presents treat after dog walks in heel position for varying distances
Owner presents treat then holds treat next to eyes to encourage eye contact
Owner presents the treat after the dog has made eye contact
Owner extends treat filled hand before calling dog
Owner presents treat after the dog has come when called
In the case of bribed dogs, the dog often learns that it is only rewarding to respond to their owner when they can clearly see the owner is holding food.
The rewarded dog, on the other hand, learns that good things are delivered after he performs a behavior, and so is likely to perform that behavior without the owner having to present food first, making it very easy to integrate other types of non-food rewards into the dog's training program.
Lures can be useful ways to move a dog into a desired position, and to teach dogs to follow our hands, especially when teaching hand signals for things like sit and down. However, use of these prompts should be faded quickly, to avoid dependence. Here's a first training session with a new puppy, I can fade the lure quickly with some lessons, while others may take another training session:
There are also times that bribes may be useful in an emergency, such as luring an untrained dog away from a potential danger, BUT if used repeatedly to get the behavior, it is bad training.
While food rewards may have been exclusively used this way 30 years-ago, bribery is not what positive reinforcement training is based on or reliant on.
I WANT MY DOG TO RESPECT ME
Who do you respect more: the boss who insists you work overtime without pay or the boss who recognizes your hard work and gives you an extra bonus in your pay at the end of the week? Who are you going to make the extra effort for?
Dogs that are trained with aversives don't work out of "respect," any more than the person who gives their wallet to a mugger at gunpoint holds the criminal in high esteem. Force and intimidation may get a response, but it has nothing to do with respect, nor does it ensure a reliable response in the absence of a threat (such as when your dog is off-leash, out of your reach).
Respect cannot be forced, it must be earned.
TREAT TRAINED DOGS GET FAT
Whether the food comes out of a bowl or from a hand doesn't matter - if the dog's owner is not carefully regulating the dog's food intake and providing sufficient exercise, the dog can become overweight. Overfeeding causes obesity, not training treats.
Further, because there is no rule that says dogs have to eat out of a bowl, owners can use the dog's entire meal as rewards during training, adding no additional calories to the dog's diet.
Food rewards have been a part of Parker's training regimen since he was a puppy. Now, even at over 9 years old, he gets compliments about his trim physique each time he visits his veterinarian.
I'LL HAVE TO KEEP FOOD ON ME ALL THE TIME
If the training isn't done correctly from the beginning, the dog's level of obedience will be dependent on whatever tools are used. When used correctly, rewards come after the dog has performed the behavior, so the dog doesn't need to see the reward in order to comply.
This means other rewards can be introduced to the training process once the dog has learned the new behavior.
It is not food, itself, that causes dependence, but lack of knowledge and skill on the part of the handler.
TREAT TRAINING DOESN'T WORK ON DOMINANT BREEDS
Someone forgot to tell Flirt that "treat training" doesn't work on Dobermans!
Back when we didn't have the understanding of dog behavior that we have today, people used the word "dominant" to describe...well, pretty much everything from the breed to the behavior. Below are the three most common uses.
Dominant = Aggressive
When a dog is in a situation where it is stressed, the digestive system shuts down and the dog will refuse food. This is what trainers call over threshold. This does not mean that reward-based methods are not effective, but that they are being applied incorrectly. This often happens when owners or inept trainers expose the dog to a problem situation, wait for it to react and then attempt to train.
Knowledgeable trainers understand the importance of keeping a dog under-threshold, exposing the dog to the situation that triggers the problem behavior at point which the dog does not react with fear or aggression and is able to learn new behaviors.
Dominant = Stubborn
Some breeds were previously considered too dominant or stubborn to train. These breeds include most terriers, hounds and northern breeds, such as Huskies and Malamutes. These highly intelligent dogs just didn't respond well to forceful training methods. With the introduction of reward-based training methods, these dogs are now competing in obedience, agility and other competitions. Whether the reward is food or play, these dogs are learning that working with their owner that gets them the good things in life.
Dominant = "Aggressive" Breed
Thanks to media misrepresentation and public ignorance, some breeds of dogs are assumed to be more aggressive than others. This has lead to the belief that certain breeds are more "dominant" than others and require more aversive training methods and equipment.
In reality, positive dog trainers LOVE working with Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, Dobermans and other so-called dominant breeds because they are so easy to train with positive methods! Pit Bulls learn the same way Poodles do. In fact, anyone who has ever trained a Toy Poodle will tell you that training a small dog is often MUCH more difficult!
In each of these cases, this myth is perpetuated by those who have either never used food rewards or are unskilled at the use of food rewards.
Here's a video of a so-called "dominant" breed demonstrating a combination of formal obedience and advanced tricks training, all tought with positive reinforcement, including the use of food.
MY DOG ISN'T "FOOD MOTIVATED"
Your dog must eat to survive and is, therefore, naturally motivated by food. If your dog refuses food on a regular basis or in certain situations, you should investigate the cause.
Finding alternate motivators for your dog is one of the keys to getting your dog to work for rewards other than food. Whatever your dog likes, it probably falls under the categories of Food, Access or Attention.
FOOD seems obvious, but we often give away stuffed Kongs, bones, bully sticks and other food items.
ACCESS is anywhere your dog wants to go. Through a doorway, into the dog park, toward a favorite person or bush on the corner.
ATTENTION includes praising, petting or playing with your dog.
The more you give away, the fewer options you have for rewarding your dog for good behavior.
This video is an excellent example of how food can later transition to other rewards in the training process. Friend and professional trainer, Elissa Cline, demonstrates various training exercises rewarding her dog with something he loves...a toss of a pinecone!
A NOTE ON PETTING AS A REWARD
Rewards are defined by the individual dog, not the human.
To a dog that doesn't enjoy being pet, the intended reward actually has the opposite effect. Does the dog in the photo here look like he would be eager to repeat whatever caused the human to do this?
TEST: DOES YOUR DOG ENJOY PETTING?
Call your dog to you. When he reaches you, praise and pet him as if he did the most brilliant thing you've ever seen. Stop after a few seconds, and remove your hands and wait to see what your dog does.
Does he move closer for more attention?
Does he walk away?
Did he move away as soon as you pet him?
Dogs that enjoy petting don't make it a secret. They lean into you, nudge your hand and use other ways to communicate they want more. If your dog is only tolerating your attention or actively avoiding it, they don't find this attempt at affection very pleasurable...let alone rewarding!
Some dogs love fetch, some love to tug, others just want to be pet and praised. Knowing what your dog prefers will make training more fun and creates a stronger bond between you and your dog!
The benefits of using food in training are many. Food is cheap, plentiful, easy to take with you and allows for multiple repetitions in a short training session. When done correctly, reward-based training does not result in a dog that only behaves when food is present (unlike training that relies on squirt bottles, penny-filled cans and other aversives).
The ideal training program is one that uses a wide variety of rewards, from food and play to access and attention, including praise. By adjusting the type of reward to each individual dog and the training environment, your dog learns that you are the gateway to all things good and that working for you is the best way to get what they want.
There's no law that says dogs must only eat their food out of a bowl, so get your dog working for his meals and improve his training and behavior!