When people ask me how to teach their pet a trick, or how to change certain behaviour they often appear a little of put when I suggest the use of food. “But I don’t want to use food” or “Then my dog will only work for treats” are responses that I am often met with.
Food is something that a dog needs to survive and many dogs will have a favourite food, why not instead of just giving a dog the same food, in the same bowl every day, you use some or all of that food to reinforce the behaviours that you like during the day. This is not only just more exciting for the dog but by rewarding the good behaviours you are encouraging them to happen again. More importantly food is something a dog likes! And if you have something a dog likes during a training session you can guarantee that your dog is going to work harder to get it. I mean which kind of training session would you prefer; one where you are punished or corrected for everything you do wrong, or one where you are given a small piece of your favourite food every time you do something the trainer likes. The dog is going to be more willing to try new behaviours, and is going to enjoy sessions if he knows nothing bad is going to happen to him, if he does something I didn’t ask for the worst that could happen is he doesn’t get the small piece of food.
(Loose lead walking and taking my socks off, both learned with the help of treats)
The most common issue that people have with using food is the concept of ‘if I ask my dog to do something, he should just do it’. Why? This is the same principle as you going to work for absolutely no pay, you wouldn’t like it, and you would do the minimum amount of work that you could get away with. Providing a reward such as food or a wage in the above scenario creates a motivation. You are going to work harder, and you might actually want to go to work because you know you are going to get paid! You can in fact set up a food hierarchy when training. Many dogs will work for their ordinary dog food in an area of low distractions such as in their own garden, but when you venture out you up the reward to a food that they absolutely love, in my dogs case this is Cheese! By upping the reward value you are able to train and reward your dog for good behaviours when you are out and about.
The food is not used as a bribe which is another common misconception, at first the treat is used to lure or to shape a new behaviour and then the food is not given until after the dog performs the desired behaviour. It is not a bribe, it is a reward.
“My dog will put on loads of weight if I use food in training” is something else I also hear owners worrying about when using food as a reward. This is not the case at all, you can measure out their food that they would eat at meal times during the day and simply take a proportion of the food out to use in training. This way the dog is not taking in any extra calories during the day. Adding to this, when you are using food in training, the amount of food you are giving each time is very small; no bigger than your little finger nail, it is more of just a taste rather than a great big biscuit.
When the dog has got the hang of something you have taught him for example sitting you can slowly start phasing out the amounts of treats you are using. Instead of rewarding every sit you start to reward one in four sits for example. By randomly rewarding the dog for a behaviour you actually encourage it, this is because he doesn’t know when the reward is coming so he will happily repeat the behaviour in the hope that this time he will get a piece of food. Some people may eventually phase out food rewards all together or instead use toys for example.I personally do not have a problem with carrying treats around, if my dog does something I like, I want to be able to reward him.
Food is a primary reinforcer, it is something that a dog needs to survive; food, water etc, instead of using pain and intimidation to train our dogs why not use something they actually like? I would much rather see a dog trained using treats and toys than a dog that is forced to perform a behaviour through fear of a shock or prong collar.