There are a lot of folks that think that if you use food rewards to train your dog, then your dog won’t be responsive to direction unless you have food to “bribe” her.
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In fact, this is an often-used excuse for using punishment-based training methods. Although it certainly doesn’t have to be true, sometimes inexperienced owners and handlers make it true by failing to understand when and how to fade food rewards.
If the only time you ever train your dog is with a bag full of treats hanging on your waist, then yes, it’s very likely that you will be mostly ignored in just about every other situation. Dogs are smarter than you think!
In this article you will learn why food rewards are preferred by most reinforcement based professional trainers, some tips on keeping food rewards healthy, and how to move away from using food rewards once your dog is performing a behavior to your expectations.
Why Most Trainers Use Food to Teach New Behavior:
Both reward and punishment can motivate your dog (and people too!) to learn. The benefit of using reward as the “go-to” training tool is that in addition to being effective, it helps to build a bond of trust with your dog.
Have you ever been punished for making a mistake when you did not understand what it was that you really did wrong? That is how dogs feel, every time they are punished for failing to be mind-readers! When your dog feels safe in the training environment, she will volunteer new behaviors (critical for some training techniques) as well as give you her eager, confident, focus.
Another big plus of using food as a reward has to do with “rate of reinforcement,” a fancy term that just means the faster you can solicit a behavior and reward it, the faster your dog will learn it. Unlike most other rewards, food rewards can be repeated as fast as every single second, making it the top choice for trainers looking to train complex behaviors like running an agility course or training service animal tasks.
What Food to Use for Training:
If you are lucky enough to have an extremely food motivated dog (ahem….like a Lab!), then your canine is likely to work eagerly for their regular kibble. This is a real bonus because it means that you can set aside a portion of his regular feed and save it to be dispensed one piece at a time during training.
If you have a picky eater on your hands, it might be a little trickier. But don’t think you have to go all out and train with nothing but cheese and hotdogs or expensive (and fattening) commercial treats. Learn more here. Instead, use a mix of pea sized safe foods your dog really gets excited about and some of his regular kibble rations. Smush them up in the bag to get the scent of the higher value foods all over boring-old-kibble. This will keep him engaged in learning, while helping you keep his waistline in check.
When to Fade Food:
Knowing when the time is right to fade food rewards is important. Since food is the most effective reward for “shaping” behavior incrementally towards a final goal, it makes sense to wait until AFTER the behavior is exactly where you want it before you start any of the methods listed here to start moving away from food.
In addition, you want to be sure the behavior is largely “proofed” before taking it out of the regular training routine where food motivators reign supreme. Have you practiced the behavior in a parking lot? Around other people? Around other dogs? Until you have rewarded the behavior in a wide variety of contexts, it isn’t really “learned” so keep the rewards coming.
How to Fade Food:
There are several methods to fading food rewards. Feel free to mix and match these methods…that will keep her guessing!
Once you are getting the right behavior (either on command or in conjunction with a certain stimulus), then you can start choosing only the VERY BEST examples of it to reward with food. For example, if you are working on recall, you can start rewarding only those recalls that are instant, with a very fast speed on that return.
What does your dog love besides food? Once she has a behavior down pat, you can start to reward her with other things such as pets, a toss of the ball or a game of tug. In fact, once you realize the power of motivators, you can start to ask for known behaviors before giving her any of the things she loves.
Once you are using (mostly) non-food motivators to reinforce known behaviors, it is time to make sure you add in some big-time surprise rewards to the mix. These rewards need to be when he least expects them.
Frankly, they can be food or non-food rewards. Just make them BIG!
The point is, if your canine never knows when he is going to hit the jackpot for giving you the behavior you expect, then he is going to be that much more excited about rolling those dice. (Yes, if you were wondering, this is the principle behind gambling.)
This technique is perfect for use both in and out of formal training sessions. It’s simple: Instead of rewarding after every single cue/behavior, you can start to ask for several known behaviors in a row, followed by a reward (food or otherwise) for successful completion of the chain. This will get her used to giving you what you are asking for, without expecting food for every single trick.
Just because you are using the power of food to train new behavior, doesn’t mean your stuck with a dog that will only perform when you have treats in hand. By using the techniques outlined in this guide, you can have the best of both worlds: The fastest training method out there, and freedom from food rewards once behavior is learned.