Even though our dogs are reliant on us to provide them with food every day, dog owners (and countless dog trainers) still have trouble grasping the idea of getting the food out of the dog bowl and into the dog's training routine.
Food is universally motivating for all animals - we can't survive without it. Food is readily available and portable, and makes it possible to train in a variety of situations and environments.
So what is your reason for not using food in training?
I DON'T WANT TO BRIBE MY DOG
I don't want you to bribe your dog, either. In fact, it drives me nuts to see people bribe dogs in the guise of training. However, there is a big difference between bribing and reinforcing with food.
Bribery is the act of presenting the food to the dog in order to get the dog to perform a desired behavior.
Reinforcing is the act of presenting something a dog finds valuable (food, toy, praise, etc.) after the dog has performed the behavior.
Below are some examples of the difference between bribes and rewards in dog training.
Owner holds treat in front of dog while walking to keep dog in position
Owner presents treat after dog walks in heel position for varying distances
Owner holds treat next to eyes to encourage eye contact
Owner presents the treat after the dog has made eye contact
Owner extends treat filled hand before calling dog
Owner presents treat after the dog has come when called
In the case of bribed dogs, owners generally don't reward the dog for good behavior except for when they have a treat in their hand. The dog learns that it is only rewarding to respond to their owner when they can clearly see the owner is holding food.
The rewarded dog, on the other hand, learns that good things are delivered after he performs a behavior, and so is likely to perform that behavior without the owner having to present food first, making it very easy to integrate other types of non-food rewards into the dog's training program.
I WANT MY DOG TO RESPECT ME, NOT JUST WORK FOR A COOKIE
Who do you respect more: the boss who insists you work overtime without pay or the boss who recognizes your hard work and gives you an extra bonus in your pay at the end of the week? Who are you going to make the extra effort for? Who do you consider a good leader?
Dogs that are punished into "submission" don't work out of respect, any more than the person who gives their wallet to a mugger at gunpoint holds the criminal in high esteem. Force and intimidation may get a response, but it has nothing to do with respect, nor does it ensure a reliable response in the absence of a threat.
TREAT TRAINED DOGS GET FAT
Whether the food comes out of a bowl or from a hand doesn't matter - if the dog's owner is not carefully regulating the dog's food intake and providing sufficient exercise, the dog can become overweight. Overfeeding causes obesity, not training treats.
Further, because there is no rule that says dogs have to eat out of a bowl, owners can use the dog's entire meal as rewards during training, adding no additional calories to the dog's diet.
I'LL HAVE TO KEEP FOOD ON ME ALL THE TIME
The same could be said of choke chains, prong collars and shock collars. If the training isn't done correctly from the beginning, the dog's level of obedience will be dependent on whatever tools were used. It is not food, itself, that causes dependence, but the skill of the person using the tool.
Since a reward follows the dog performing the desired command, the dog doesn't have to see the reward before complying. This means other rewards can be introduced to the training process once the dog has learned the behavior is rewarding.
TREAT TRAINING DOESN'T WORK ON DOMINANT DOGS
Back when we didn't have the understanding of dog behavior that we have today, people used the word "dominant" to describe...well, pretty much everything from the breed to the behavior. Below are the three most common uses.
Dominant = Aggressive
When a dog is in a situation where it is stressed, the digestive system shuts down and the dog will refuse food. This is what trainers call over threshold. This does not mean that reward-based methods are not effective, but that they are being applied incorrectly. This often happens when owners or inept trainers expose the dog to a problem situation, wait for it to react and then attempt to train.
Knowledgeable trainers understand the importance of keeping a dog under-threshold, exposing the dog to the situation that triggers the problem behavior at point which the dog does not react with fear or aggression and is able to learn new behaviors.
Dominant = Stubborn
Some breeds were previously considered too dominant or stubborn to train. These breeds include most terriers, hounds and northern breeds, such as Huskies and Malamutes. These highly intelligent dogs just didn't respond well to forceful training methods. With the introduction of reward-based training methods, these dogs are now competing in obedience, agility and other competitions. Whether the reward is food or play, these dogs are learning that working with their owner that gets them the good things in life.
Dominant = Breed
Thanks to media misrepresentation and public ignorance, some breeds of dogs are assumed to be more aggressive than others. This has lead to the belief that certain breeds are more "dominant" than others and require more aversive training methods and equipment.
In reality, positive dog trainers LOVE working with Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, Dobermans and other so-called dominant breeds because they are so easy to train with positive methods! Pit Bulls learn the same way Poodles do. In fact, anyone who has ever trained a Toy Poodle will tell you that training a small dog is often MUCH more difficult!
In each of these cases, this myth is perpetuated by those who have either never used food rewards or are unskilled at the use of food rewards.
MY DOG ISN'T "FOOD MOTIVATED"
Your dog must eat to survive and is, therefore, naturally motivated by food. Dogs are scavengers by nature and so every bit of food they can find is valuable.
However, when I meet a dog that refuses even the best of treats, it is usually because of one of the following reasons:
STRESS OR ANXIETY - The most common reason a dog might not be food-motivated is stress. When a dog reaches a certain level of stress due to either anxiety or aggression, they stop accepting food. This is the brain's way of making sure that all available energy is being used for essential functions in times of crisis. Digestion is not an essential function when being chased by a bear, so the brain shuts that part down.
If a dog is normally motivated by treats at home but refuses them outside of the house, then he may be too stressed for training in that environment.
Stress isn't always related to fear. Another form of stress is overarousal. This is seen in dogs that get so excited to see other dogs or people, they aren't interested in anything else in the envrionment, including food. A little training for self-control and attention around distractions usually solves the problem.
LOW VALUE TREATS - If you are offering your dog another piece of the same dry dog food that's been sitting in their bowl all day, that probably isn't going to be more exciting than the five dogs sitting across from them in class. Play with that dog or get a piece of something I can have anytime I want? Um, I think I'll choose the dog!
The type of treat does matter. If your dog turns their nose up at a dry, crunchy biscuit, try a soft, smelly jerky treat or even a small bit of turkey hot dog. For dogs that are extra particular, I often find a jar of chicken baby food wins over the pickiest of pooches.
SATIATION - When a dog has access to a full bowl of food 24/7, food isn't always that interesting. The food is always available and so the dog decides when they want to eat. For these dogs, limiting each feeding session to no more than 20 minutes not only encourages your dog to clean their bowl (which will help you spot health problems later on), but also puts you in ultimate charge of that resource.
ILLNESS - A common sign of illness is a dog that suddenly refuses food at home. Any dog that exhibits an abrupt change in appetite should visit their vet to rule out medical issues. One dog that appeared "picky" about food turned out to have multiple teeth that needed to be extracted!
While there are dogs who are less motivated by food than other types of rewards, they are incredibly rare.
LIFE REWARDS: Food, Access & Attention
Finding alternate motivators for your dog is one of the keys to getting your dog to work for rewards other than food. Whatever your dog likes, it probably falls under the categories of Food, Access or Attention.
Food seems obvious, but we often give away stuffed Kongs, bones, bully sticks and other food items.
Access is anywhere your dog wants to go. Through a doorway, into the dog park, toward a favorite person or bush on the corner.
Attention includes praising, petting or playing with your dog.
The more you give away, the fewer options you have for rewarding your dog for good behavior.
PETTING AS A REWARD
Rewards are defined by the individual dog, not the human. To a dog that doesn't enjoy being pet, the intended reward actually has the opposite effect. Does the dog in the photo here look like he would be eager to repeat whatever caused the human to do this?
TEST: DOES YOUR DOG ENJOY PETTING? Call your dog to you. When he reaches you, praise and pet him as if he did the most brilliant thing you've ever seen. Stop after a few seconds, and remove your hands and wait to see what your dog does.
Does he move closer for more attention? Does he walk away and shake his body as if shaking off water?
Dogs that enjoy petting don't make it a secret. They lean into you, nudge your hand and use other ways to communicate they want more. If your dog is only tolerating your attention or actively avoiding it, they don't find this attempt at affection very pleasurable...let alone rewarding!
Some dogs love fetch, some love to tug, others just want to be pet and praised. Knowing what your dog prefers will make training more fun and creates a stronger bond between you and your dog!
The ideal training program is one that uses a wide variety of rewards, from food and play to access and attention, including praise. By adjusting the type of reward to each individual dog and the training environment, your dog learns that you are the gateway to all things good and that working for you is the best way to get what they want.
Serenity Canine Behavior Ⓒ2022 Lisa Mullinax. All rights reserved.