Training animals with food goes back as long as humans have been working with animals. How long is that? No one knows for sure, but it is safe to say many thousands of years. It’s not difficult to see why. Food is a natural motivator. We see a trend happening now with Clickers and Positive Reinforcement Training and the shelves are full of books with scientific data about the effectiveness of this and that. You can wrap it up and market it however you want but it’s nothing new and it’s really not that complicated… dogs love food and if they are hungry, will do just about anything to get it.

So, with that said, is it a good idea to train a dog with food? That, like most questions, will depend on who you ask. Some people are very adamant against it and some people train pretty much with nothing else. For me it is about balance and common sense. I don’t buy into the whole “them” or “us” thing. I like to use whatever works. “Works” meaning gets the results I want with the least amount of side effects. I personally like to use food, at least in the beginning/learning phase, but only within reason and not with every dog or every situation.

Let’s look at some of the pros and cons.

Pros

Cons

Reduces Resistance

Creates Food Dependency

                      Increases Focus

Causes Over-Stimulation

Creates Positive Association

Does Not Build Respect

The Trick with Using Treats

The trick is to get the pros without the cons. Positive does not mean Permissive and treats are simply one of the tools in our tool box. You have to first get the behavior in order to positively reinforce it. It is possible (and in my opinion mandatory) to physically place your dog (gently) into position and still use food as a reward. Dogs that are trained strictly with food and no physical contact often become touch sensitive, have no respect for their human and have to be “paid” for every request. This is not a healthy relationship and can even lead to aggression.

We can start by using treats to lure our dog into a position but we then move on to expecting the behavior without the lure. At that point you give the treat after they have given the behavior. Now it has gone from being a lure to being a reward. The real trick is to avoid the bribe.

“What’s the difference between a Lure, Bribe and Reward?”

Lure (Luring is only for teaching something new, it should go away very quickly.) If I take a piece of food in my hand and hold it in front of my dog’s nose, then move it back over his head and he drops into a sitting position, that is a Lure.

Reward – If I say “Sit”, my dogs sits and I then give him the food, that’s a Reward. If I just lured my dog into a sit, I now give the food and it has become a Reward. If I am teaching my dog to sit by pulling up on the leash and he sits, I then give the food, it is a Reward.

Bribe – If I say “Sit” and my dog just looks at me so I pull out a piece of food and show it then he sits, that’s a Bribe. Now you have a “Pay Me” dog who says “Show Me the Money!”  This is not good and one of the main reasons that many people don’t use food in their training.

“How do we Avoid the Bribe?”

We can avoid the “Show Me the Money” syndrome simply by not falling for it. Luring is very effective because there is something about the dog doing it on their own without being forced into position that is very powerful. It makes them think. At the same time though, it is just as important that they learn to accept being physically (gently) placed into position. We need to train using both methods and both can still be rewarded with food. Once you are sure that the dog knows what the command means you can then say “Sit” and give a second or two, if they don’t comply simply place them into position. If they know what it means when you have food then they know what it means when you don’t. Soon enough they will learn that it pays to listen to you and that they really don’t have a choice anyhow. That is why we call it Obedience. We are giving commands not requests….aren’t we? It’s rewarding but it’s also mandatory.

“Do I have to use food forever?”

No, you do not have to use food forever (or at all for that matter). You do not need food to train a dog but you do need some kind of motivation. Even old school “Yank and Crank” trainers are still using motivation, it’s just negative motivation. I do use corrections, don’t get me wrong, but I would rather have my dogs work for something good as opposed to only working to avoid something bad. It’s like the difference between a child who works to get an A versus a child who works to avoid an F. You start them off with a lot of finger painting and recess and stars and smiley faces and gradually expect more and more. They learn to love learning and go on to do great things.  At first you put every painting and paper on the fridge. Then it becomes every report card. Then it becomes the diplomas and trophies. With your dog you can also use affection, a tennis ball, a Frisbee….whatever you want, just make it rewarding for the dog and yourself as much as possible.  I still reward my dogs with food, and always will, but not because I have to and not for every little thing.

The key is “weaning” your dog off of the food. As you train you continually expect more and more. First they get a treat as soon as they sit. Then they get it after they sit for a period of time. Then they get a treat after they sit and stay. Eventually you begin “chaining” or “sequencing” a bunch of things together and the treats get farther and farther apart.

Another key is conditioning them to verbal praise and affection. “Good Dog” is not naturally all that rewarding to a dog. Many dogs like to be touched but some don’t.  Most dogs, however, do like food, especially if they are hungry, so what we do is combine the three. As we give the treat we also say “good dog” and pet them at the same time. Now as you move forward with your training you can use less food and more praise and affection. Eventually, you can be working at a distance and saying “good dog” and you will see their tail wagging and their spirits high. At that point you may choose to eliminate the food altogether or as I do, just give it intermittently. With practice, patience and consistency you won’t have to carry food every time you take your dogs out; it will be a nice to have not a need to have.

Timing is Everything…“You have to strike when the iron’s hot.”

We’ve all heard this sort of saying right? I’m sure we all have to agree that timing is of the essence in most of life, but what does that mean exactly? If you listen to a group of musicians you will hear a lot of talk about phrasing. “Oh man, that guy’s phrasing is amazing!” When you listen to a group of dog trainers you will hear them talk about timing. “I just hired a new assistant, he doesn’t have much experience but his timing is great!” What are they talking about? Sometimes it’s just a matter of a nano-second that makes one musician’s phrasing so sweet or that keeps a dog trainer from getting a bad bite. Other times it’s a matter of being at the right place at the right time that gives us a sense of luck or destiny. All that being what it is, whether it’s the President delivering his State of the Union or just the delivery of treats to our dog, timing is everything.

“When exactly do I give them the treat?

Timing the delivery of the treat is very important. Keeping in mind that dogs learn by association we need to be absolutely sure they know what they are getting “paid” for. The key here is to reward the behavior and not the release. In other words, if we are working on sit, we give them the treat while their butt is still on the ground, not after they have gotten up. In the beginning this would be done as a marker (i.e. just as their butt touches the ground).

As we begin to add time to the sit we would set a goal for say 5 seconds. (Being fair to the dog we would not begin adding these 5 seconds until the dog is sitting reliably with the food lure as well as accepting physical placement techniques with no fuss.)  All things being done properly we will have been using our release command from the very start. Now that we have set the goal, we will have our dog sit, wait 5 seconds, give the treat, praise and then release. It is critical that it happens in that order and that the dog understands that the reward does not mean they are released. We give the treat just at the goal and before the release.

“What if my dog won’t sit for that long?”

This is where we need to do two things. The first thing to do is a fairness check. For instance, is the goal of a 5 second sit fair to the dog? If we have been following the plan outlined above, the dog is sitting easily, accepts physical placement and we have been implementing the release command consistently, then 5 seconds should be a fair goal.

The second thing we have to do is implement some enforcement. We are starting to raise the bar a bit and learn that “Positive Does Not Mean Permissive.” We are using food, petting and praise as positive reinforcement but we are also using physical placement techniques as good old fashioned enforcementWe have to get it before we can reward it. When our dog gets up, I mean if they even start to lift that butt…if they even think about it, we have to quickly place them back into position. This may happen 2 or 3 times before we get our 5 seconds and that’s just fine. Once we get the 5 seconds then praise/reward and release.

As the bar goes higher and higher and we go to 10 seconds, 15 seconds, 30 seconds and so on we want to always end our session on a high note. Always end with a success so our dogs leave feeling good and will look forward to the next training experience. If they are having a hard time with something and not getting it after a few tries go back to something easier. This could mean going to an easier version of the same exercise or going to something entirely different. Say they are having a hard time with down but are really good at sit, it may be a good idea to have them sit so we can have some success and come back to down a little later. If they are having a hard time with a 30 second sit we can go back to 20 seconds. Please don’t misunderstand me here. I am not saying to give up, just to pace the training appropriately. It is best to keep it as fun as possible and remember that practice, patience and consistency (along with good technique of course) are the keys to success. Have fun and take pride in their progress!

Treat Training Tips and Summary

  • Small, Soft, Tasty and Special – Only given when training. Pea sized, not a meal, just a way of saying job well done. Soft- eaten quickly and no crumbs.
  • Healthy – Avoid anything with grains, sugars or preservatives. These ingredients are bad for your dogs health and create spastic behavior, not good for learning. Real meat is the best and usually cheaper than processed dog treats.
  • Don’t Bribe – We don’t want a “Show Me the Money” dog.
  • From Your Hand – Food does not come from the ground!
  • Pairing: Pair treats with petting and praise. Helps with conditioning verbal praise and weaning off of treats
  • Treat Bag – Clips on your belt. Convenient and helpful with timing. Refrigerate and keep it clean.
  • Hungry Dog – train when dog is hungry.
  • Deduct calories from meals – if using a lot of treats, subtract some calories from meals.
  • Eliminate Treats If: It becomes a distraction.( If the food is hyping your dog out stop using it) Dog is not food motivated. (Find a new motivator or make sure they are hungry)

Enjoy your training sessions. Keep them upbeat, motivating and fun for both you and your dog.

Chad Culp–Certified Dog Trainer, Behavior Consultant, Certified Holistic Chef for Animals

Copyright 2005-2013 Chad Culp, Thriving Canine. All rights reserved. Chad@ThrivingCanine.com