Why do We Use Food When Training?

1. Why use food rewards?

It’s nice to think that dogs live to please their masters, but like most of us, they live to better themselves. While asking a dog to do something, they think, “What’s in it for me right now?” Behaviors that are rewarded are more likely to be repeated, so when we reward our dogs, they know they are pleasing us! Understanding what your dog finds rewarding is an important step in the training process.

2. Using Food in Training

Food can be a very valuable reinforcement (like your paycheck!) for dogs during training. It is on a short list of things that dogs start with knowing is good. While most dogs learn to enjoy praise, petting and play – all good rewards — food still holds a special place in their mind due to its primal nature.

Some are worried they will train a dog who only works if he knows there’s food. This can happen if food is not used correctly. The food should be used as a reward and not a bribe. There is actually a big difference!

3. Reward Verses Bribe

If your dog does something you’ve asked him to, give him a reward. If you ask him to do something he knows how to do, and he doesn’t do it, maybe ask again. If he STILL doesn’t do it, and when you then reach into your pocket and get a treat or go towards the cookie jar, he quickly complies with your original request, THAT treat just became a bribe! You asked him to do it, he didn’t, you go to get food, then he decided to get to work. Strive to avoid this.

Dog Training

4. Prevent Bribery

Get the visual presence of the food out of the picture as soon as possible. When lure training, (think of the cookie on the dog’s nose to achieve a sit), you want to get the cookie away as soon as you see him grasp the basics of the behavior. Then, start using the same gesture without the cookie, and reward the dog with a treat from your pocket once he actually sits. This takes the reward further away from the job.

Another tip for preventing bribery is to make sure you have your dog’s full attention before asking him to do something. Make sure the dog is paying attention. Teach him to respond quickly to his name, so that he pays more attention to you. His name should get the same response as “Do you want a treat?”

5. Using Life Rewards

When your dog is responding to hand-signals along with treats, begin to vary how he gets his rewards. Sometimes use a treat, but often use something else he wants – like his leash put on to go for a walk, his favorite toy to be thrown, or an invitation to join you on the couch for snuggle time. Life rewards will help him realize that he can get what he wants by pleasing you.  This also allows you to use food randomly – as a surprise – this extremely exciting for dogs, and often motivates them to work even harder.

Training Tricks of the Trade

  • Use soft treats and make them small – about the size of a pea, this aids your timing as a trainer. They don’t care how big each treat is, they want more of them.
  • Try different types of treats. Cooked meats, cheese, hot dogs, pasta, dry cereal and even fruits and vegetables can be rewarding to dogs. Experiment to discover what excites him.
  • What’s exciting at home may be harder to get your dog’s attention in other environments. Save your “special” treats for training in distracting places.
  • Pet your dog as you deliver the treat. This will become a treat in itself.
  • Don’t go overboard! The goal is to achieve a trained dog – not a trained pudgy dog! Cut back what goes into the food bowl or use some of his kibble for training.
Puppy Being Trained

Posted with permission from the APDT site: http://www.apdt.com/

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