Step 1: Attention Puzzle
When people are reluctant about using food in training, it usually because they haven't learned how to use food effectively and worry the dog will only respond when they have food.
A reinforcer, however, is anything that follows a dog's behavior, which then leads to the dog repeating the behavior in order to get the same consequence. This is the basis of positive reinforcement.
I'm not sure when the dog training community started using this word, but we kind of shot ourselves in the foot. A treat is something you get infrequently in small amounts. An ice cream cone is a treat.
So often, I'll hear a dog owner tell their dog that they've received "enough" treats for training. What if your boss came to you and said you'd received enough pay for your work for the day. How motivated would you be to stay until 5pm?
We're not doing dogs a favor by rewarding their behavior. We are paying them for their work.
So, I'm slowly moving away from using "treat" to describe the use of food. Because that "treat" could be a piece of nutritionally complete dog food - even part of the dog's morning or evening meal.
But let's get back to the effective use of food.
For food to be effective as part of a positive reinforcement program, it has to meet two criteria:
1. It is a direct consequence of the dog's behavior
2. It is highly motivating to the dog in that moment.
The Dog Decides What’s Rewarding
We often fall into the trap of deciding what the dog "should" work for. But if it's not motivating to the dog, all that "should" won't get us anywhere.
Scenario A. You work overtime all week and miss important family events to finish a project and your boss gives you a $10 coffee gift card as thanks.
Scenario B. You are hours away from a deadline and feeling the stress when your coworker asks if you'll take on one of their projects in exchange for a $10 coffee gift card.
Scenario C. You're at the holiday party and having a good time. There's a trivia competition and whoever gets the next answer right wins a $10 coffee gift card.
In each of those scenarios the same gift card has different impacts. The effectiveness of a training reward in training also depends on the value to the dog in that situation.
What your dog will work for at home in a low-stress situation may not be effective in high-stress situations.
Make a chart similar to the one below. Write a column of 3-5 things you think your dog likes best. Now, make a column for each situation you will be training your dog.
Put an "X" in each box where your dog will pay attention to nothing else but you and that reward. You may end up with something like this:
Example for a dog that barks and lunges at other dogs. A "praise party" is getting silly with your dog, playing and praising: "Woo hoo! You're amazing!"
The good news is that if your dog will work for baby carrots and regular dog food with enthusiasm at home, you can save the high-calorie food like cheese for high-stress environments.
Deep Dive: If you want learn more about the hierarchy of reinforcers, check out this podcast episode.
Frequently Asked Questions
“When do I stop using food?”
A good training program always reinforces good choices, whether the dog has been in training a month or a decade. That said, WHAT we reinforce, WHEN we reinforce, and HOW we reinforce does change over time. Like everything else, what that looks like depends on each dog and situation.
"I don't want my dog to get fat."
Dogs become overweight from overfeeding and lack of exercise, not just using food in training.
First, food rewards are small little tastes, not whole snacks. The goal is quantity, not volume! I try to keep the size to around a pencil eraser (even smaller for the toy breeds). I easily can get 3-4 rewards out of one 1" square treat.
Second, if you are using high-quality treats, you can decrease your dog's meal on heavy training days. I use RedBarn Beef Roll, which is both high-value to dogs and a nutritionally complete dog food. So I don't worry about giving them less of their dry food on heavy training days.
Finally, there is no law that says you have to feed your dog from a bowl. Put their meal in your training pouch and mix in high-value treats. You can give the kibble in low-stress situations and the high-value food in high-stress situations.
"I want my dog to work for me, not the food"
Whether your dog works to avoid punishment or to get food, they still aren't doing it out of respect or because they see you as "pack leader." They are doing what works.
You have to feed your dog every day. How many pieces of food go in their bowl? That's how many times you could reward good behavior.
Training with food doesn't lessen the relationship between dogs and people, it strengthens it. Dogs trained with food work harder to find new ways to get you to deliver that food. You just have to decide which behaviors work and which behaviors don't!