Do you worry about using food in training? Do you worry that you will always have to use it? Will your dog become obsessed with food? Can you use ‘human’ food, or should it always be ‘dog’ food? Will using food make my dog fat? Using food means you are bribing not training. I don’t need to use food; my dog loves me and that should be enough.
I think there is still confusion about using food in dog training, still some old school myths running around, so I wanted to address this.
Firstly, get comfortable with using food when you are training your dog (or any animal). Food is a fantastic tool that you have easy access to, so why not use it? Do you get paid to do your job? How about if I told you that when you are learnt your job, and when you are really good at it, that’s when I will stop paying you – how do you feel now? Are you still keen to work hard? To listen and respond to what your boss asks you to do? This is what I say when people ask me when I can stop using food in training.
Food is a primary reinforcer, and most dogs find it valuable. I can already hear people saying “my dog isn’t interested in food when another dog is around” (or insert your own distraction) and yes I agree food doesn’t trump lots of distractions and I’m not saying it will, but used correctly it is a powerful tool. Food can be used to create powerful positive associations for dogs as well as counter condition negative associations. It’s easy to use, lots of different variety can be used (kibble vs sausage) and your dog needs to eat so let’s get used to not seeing these are ‘treats’ but actually as part of their daily food allowance.
Your dog gets to choose what food is rewarding. Stop thinking about human food versus dog food. One of the activities I often get my clients to do is use a tray, pop 8 different types of food on that tray and then put on floor and watch to see which items the dog eats first. Some examples of food are: cheese, sausage, chicken, fish cubes, soft cheese, strawberries, cucumber, blueberries, kibble etc. If you haven’t ever done this, I really want to encourage you to try this – a wonderful way for your dog showing you what their personal level of each food reward is. That can be useful information when you are training. I am not a fan of getting your dog ‘working’ for all of their daily food, but you certainly need to find the balance of what food they have when you are training. You are in full control of what they eat, therefore there is no need for your dog to gain weight when you use food in training.
How do you deliver food is another way of creating value in using food. Do you get deliver to their mouth? Do you scatter food on the floor so they can sniff to find it? Do you throw it away, so they chase it? Do you chuck in the air, so they catch it? So many different ways to use food and depending on your dog’s personality they will have a preferred way for receiving food. Some dogs would love to chase it across the floor, whilst some would look at you with the ‘you’ve got to be kidding – I now have to run to earn my reward!!!’ Another fun game to try with your dog – how do they like to receive their food reward?
I pay my dogs regularly and have no shame in doing so. It’s interesting that people sometimes comment when they see me using food. For example, when walking on the canal and a bike goes past, I’ll ask my dogs to sit and wait whilst the bike goes past, I will then give my dogs a food reward and some people will quip “they’ll do anything for food” in a way that is them almost suggesting my dogs need to have food to listen. I just smile and don’t say anything because they don’t understand, but I do find it interesting that people seem to judge dog owners that are seen to use food. I get full of joy when I see someone walking down the street delivering food rewards to their dog when you can clearly see them practicing their loose lead walking.
So does that mean I always have to use food? I will go back to my point of: Do you get paid to do your job? So Yes, some form of reward should always be used but as my dog’s learning increases the payments do reduce. I would expect my dog to do more, work harder or longer for the ‘payment’. When I started Hoopers training, I would reward my dog for simply doing 1 Hoop. Now, I expect them to run a whole course of 20 obstacles for a reward. Starting to teach loose lead walking, I pay every step and overtime reduce this down to some food rewards and verbal praise. I often say pay according to difficulty. If I am at home, no distractions around, then a mix of kibble/biscuits I would use, but the moment I go outside on a walk or to a training class, the value of my payment/food reward goes up.
Getting paid for doing a job is a big reinforcer, but it’s not the only reason we go to work. We have relationships with co-workers, pride in your job and learning skills are all motivations to work. Linking that back to dog training, when your dog is learning new skills, or you are still building your relationship, more frequent rewards are needed, as your relationship builds, and there is intrinsic value in learning and playing together, then that also forms part of their motivation.
Overtime, your dog will often work without food because they truly enjoy the activity, the teamwork of playing with you and they have been reinforced previously so now it is valuable for them to do. This is all about relationship and history of learning and reinforcements that will get you to the goal of you and your dog being a great team.