A very wide spread misconception about using food in training, is that you mindlessly dull it out and will never be able to get the dog to perform reliably without it. I see many well meaning people feeding dogs treats just to feed treats without thinking through what message this conveys to the dog. If you feed your dog when they jump up on you, then you have told them that you’d like them to jump more. It is crucial, I will say that again, crucial, that you mindfully feed for actual behavior that you want to see more of. If you continually reach for you treats and feed for slow performance you are going to get more slow performances.
When you begin training a new behavior it is important that your dog gets a food reinforcement every time they get it right. In the beginning it is a guessing game for the dog. So, by using food you are making it extremely clear to your dog what behaviors work and that you’d like to see more of them. After your dog understands the behavior and can perform it reliably in a number of locations with a variety of distractions, then you can start to be clear about the level of performance that will earn a food reinforcement.
If you have ever trained with me, you have heard me ask the question, “Did the dog do the work for the behavior, or did you?” If you ask your dog to sit and then have to follow them around for 30 seconds before you actually get a sit, you did the work for the final behavior and a verbal “good dog” is an adequate reinforcement for the level of performance you received. On the other hand, if you prompt your dog to sit and within a second, they have planted their booty on the ground, that is a performance worth a food reinforcement. We are making it really clear to the dog how relevant timely performance is.
A frequent challenge my clients face is a dog who won’t perform in a timely manner without seeing the treat first. You should always ask for a behavior and receive it in a timely manner before you reach for the treat. While treat pouches can be a handy tool, dogs can quickly learn that they only have to perform when the treat pouch is attached to your waist. So make a habit out of sneaking a few treats in your pocket when the dog is outside, or stash a few treats around the house or yard for use when your dog is least expecting it. I keep a treat jar in the cabinet, I will cue my dogs to perform several behaviors without any food on me, all over the house and yard. If their performance is outstanding then I will walk to the cabinet and grab a few treats for them. It very quickly creates a motivated dog that is willing to perform for the chance at a wonderful reinforcement.
While for some dogs, a food reinforcement is top of the line, toys and games are also wonderful reinforcements. Sunny’s top of the line reinforcement is chasing a squeaky tennis ball. So I make a habit out of getting a number of stellar performances from him and then he gets to chase the ball. Sunny doesn’t have free access to the squeaky ball so that it doesn’t lose its appeal. Tiva loves to play tug. So we have a sacred tug toy, that is pulled out for… you guessed it, stellar performances! So really look at what motivates your dog and use it!
Rachel Laurie CPDT-KA