Training dogs with treats is good for a while

“ALL SHE WANTS IS THE TREAT” – addressing complexities of training with food

Someone out there has put a spell on us. It was, no doubt, the many years of using more traditional style training where the use of food may have been considered ‘bribery’. When I began training in the late ’80’s, I would not have considered it, though there was a man on the horizon, Dr. Ian Dunbar, who would turn us on our compassionate ear, and begin to lead us into a way to communicate with our dogs effectively using positive reinforcement.

Since then much behavioral research has been introduced, showing the expeditious manner in which dogs learn when food is presented as reinforcement for desirable behavior, and also how it is faded when the behavior is habituated.

I will state the obvious here, because we often bring dogs into our lives with such completeness that we expect them to act like, and learn like, humans. Given they aren’t, and English is not their first language, it is unfair to expect they know it all when they arrive; however if they do, then we have been gifted an exceptional dog at reading the signals that are required to coexist. What can happen in this process, and a reason why I get called in for assistance, is that anxiety has been created, in large part, due to dogs not having enough information to feel confident they can navigate this human environment.

So, now back to the treat part….There is a huge part of her dog brain that is engaged and fascinated with how to get one of those goodies, yes. But please don’t get confused, she is also LEARNING.

With this style of teaching,

Learning is fun,

It’s interactive,

It’s time spent with you,

It’s lower stress method of introducing new and higher level learning in lower stress way

So yes, she’s probably having a lot of FUN.

Using food, we’re accessing parts of her brain that receives information, and helps her remember faster and with more hormone and neuron activity to assist us in the training process. The corner we have to take with the thinking of using food, is that it is not bribery, rather they are learning what you are reinforcing in the process. Keep in mind when your pup looks to you for that yummy goodie, there is also an imprinting process that is happening in her brain, to help her remember just what she was doing to earn it.

When we are able to provide information that is going to make all our lives easier, and she is enthused about it, then it shouldn’t matter what we are using to accomplish the process. It does matter however, the awareness of methods and timing we are using toward training, and not bribing. Complexities that can be involved with this, such as;

When do I provide the food reward?

How do I provide the food reward?

When do I fade, or stretch, times of giving food reinforcement for the amount of times she is responding to my commands?

What types of food rewards do I use?

Where do I keep my food rewards while I’m training?

These are all perfect reasons to find a reputable trainer to help you identify when and how to apply the process. Below I provide a snippet of information, to help understand the process better, and help your comfort level of working with food.

Another misconception of training using food is that we are using bribery to get results, and that we will forever need to have food at the ready for our dogs to comply. That is not the case I’m happy to say!

Let’s use the recall as our example with puppy, Molly. As we are teaching her recall,

You call her to you (Molly, come!),

Molly comes running, and you give her food reward when she gets to you,

Next time you call her, she comes running and you don’t have anything!,

Next 2 times you call her you have something,

Next time you have nothing.

Since she has not yet learned what the word represents, which is to drop what she’s doing and come to you, then she’s learning an environmental reinforcer, which may be to look to see if you have something so she can determine whether its worth it to her to come. Therefore it is critical to her learning the command, that every time she comes to you while she is learning this word, you give her a goodie to teach her and begin building neuropathway that ‘come’ means ‘coming to you’. Then, over time, you provide what is called “stretching” whereby you expect more times of her coming to you between food rewards (while still verbally excited to see her of course)

So, in future it would look like this:

You call her to you (Molly, come!)

Molly comes running, and you give her food reward for getting to you

Don’t expect anything of her when she gets there, by the way! You are building a positive association with the word right now, no other agenda.

Every time you call her = food reward when she gets to you.

When she is coming to you consistently, comprehension is high, and she appears to have a positive association with the word, begin fading the level of reinforcement, or stretching.

Pair food reward with verbal praise, as when you fade the food, eventually, the verbal will remain

Many say, ‘my dog is not food motivated’. What this translates for a trainer is that the reinforcement value of the food is not sufficient to get her attention in that environment. I often make a recommendation in beginning training protocol, to lift the bowl during feeding times instead of feeding her all of those training opportunitiesJ This doesn’t mean she is going hungry, it means you may wish to begin by doing the following:

Measure out the amount of food you feed each meal

Use this food in your daily training regimen, both for active and passive training…and reinforce heavily. Examples:

Active = taking 5 minutes to work on a command

Passive = reinforcing when she sits down when greets you coming home, rather than jumping

Spike her food with some cooked liver or chicken gizzard, meatballs, or some other such goodie (when thawing a frozen goodie, it helps all the kibble in the bowl taste yummier. This is your friend when you are expanding your dogs training bubble. The higher the value, the higher the relevance in that environment!

Purchase ‘treats’ from the pet store, or make them yourself, to provide variety

Reward with small bite morsels. It is distracting and takes time for your dog to be chewing large biscuits during training.

If you’re concerned about weight gain during training time, increase her exercise quotient, or feed from what you would have during mealtime.

Keep treats in various places around the house to reinforce behavior as it occurs. I call this passive training….you have not asked for it, but she may be drawing from former reinforcement experience that this is what you want)

Examples of this is lying on her bed when you sit down to eat your meal, sits instead of jumping on you, running to the window and not barking at the passerby, and so on.

I hope from this, you imagine your future of handing her a food reward as a learning experience rather than bribery! When it occurs to you that ‘she’s only doing it for the treat’, remind yourself that THIS IS the learning process. The vehicle to introduce her to this foreign language of ours just happens to taste really good.

Now, what in the world do you want your dog to learn, and I’ll show you a yummy way to accomplish it!!!

Patti Howard BS, CCS, ACCN is specialist in dog behavior, training and nutrition in the greater Olympia area.