Training With Food
Food is cheap, convenient, and highly desirable to dogs. Unlike fetch and tug, it can be used in any environment and training scenario. But food isn't enough on its own for good results - we need to use it strategically for effective training.
Food Reward Basics
Food rewards are small bits of food that your dog will eat in most situations, especially around distractions. Look at the size of your dog's dry food (if you feed kibble). That's roughly the size of a food reward.
The small bags of "training treats" at the pet stores are overpriced and rarely enough for a training session. They can be nice to have as back-ups in your car or home office, but there are more economical options. Click here to see a list of recommended products.
I use the Red Barn Beef roll in our lessons. This 4# roll is about $15 and usually gets me through 4-6 lessons a week, plus training sessions with my own dog.
Bribes, Lures, and Distractions
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.
Bribe - Food is presented to the dog to get the dog to respond. The dog only responds when they see the food first. This is caused by poor training technique, not the use of food.
Lure - Food is used to guide the dog in a specific direction or position. The lure is then phased out until the dog will follow an empty hand, at which point the food is changed to a reinforcer. This is how most dogs learn hand signals in basic training.
Distraction - Food is used to keep dog’s attention away from a distraction/trigger in order to prevent an unwanted behavior. Distractions are not training, but they can be a helpful temporary tool in behavior modification.
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.
It's a Payment, Not a Treat
A treat is something special that is infrequent, like cake or a trip to the spa. We're not doing dogs a favor by rewarding their behavior, we're paying them for every task they complete, as soon as they complete it
Not All Rewards are Equal
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.
Every dog will vary in what they find rewarding. And that will change depending on the environment and scenario. If it's just you and your dog at home, their dry food may be great for training sessions. But take them to the park with trees full of squirrels, and that dry food quickly loses value.
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: Learn more about the hierarchy of reinforcers in this podcast episode.
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.
Never stop rewarding good behavior.
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.
Adjustments for low-activity dogs
For active dogs that get a lot of walks, hikes, or off-leash runs throughout the week, food rewards won't be a problem.
For low-activity dogs, I recommend using their regular meals for training as much as possible. You can feed half in their bowl or a puzzle toy, and the other half during their training session.
Food rewards are small tastes, not whole snacks. I try to keep the size of each bite to around a pencil eraser or smaller. If you are giving many small bites, you aren't necessarily giving a high volume of food.