Using food rewards in dog training

August 19, 2016
I am pleased to say it doesn’t happen very often nowadays, but occasionally I still do get clients who are very reluctant to use food rewards when training their dogs or puppies. It baffles me, as it is like asking us to go to work and not get paid at the end of the month….after all, our salary is what motivates us to keep going into work, and rewards us for work we have done. So why ask your dog to constantly do things for us, without there being anything ‘in it’ for them?
Food is one of the highest value resources to dogs….we all need food to survive. In order to reward dogs in training, whatever you use to reward your dog HAS to be motivating for that particular dog. Food works very well because pretty much all dogs are motivated by food….if you think your dog is not food motivated then it is highly likely you are not using the right food! Food is a perfect reward for dogs as it is portable, small, there are many different varieties you can use, and it enables us to reward our dog quickly and repeatedly.
So lets look at some possible reasons WHY people might be reluctant to use food when training their dogs, and address each in turn:-
1) I want my dog to respect me
Going back to a human example of going into work for no salary. Who is going to earn your respect more….a boss who asks you to constantly work overtime but never pay you for it….or a boss who gives you a regular bonus in your pay packet in recognition of your hard work? I know what my answer would be!  Using non reward based methods to train dogs (ie aversive methods) does not mean your dog is doing things for you out of respect……they are more likely worried about what is going to happen if they don’t do something.  This is not how I want my dog to feel….nor any dog of a client of mine. Respect has to be earned over time by building that all important bond.  Training should be enjoyable for dog and human….thats how you get a dog who is keen to do things…because doing what you ask them to do has become a pleasurable and rewarding experience.
2) I don’t want my dog to get fat
The size of each food reward should be very small….it only needs to be a taste. If you do a lot of training one day, simply reduce your dog’s intake of food for their next meal. Also, dogs do not need to eat their meals out of a bowl (or as is my preference, any interactive food toy to give them mental stimulation)….you can measure out their daily food ration in the morning, and use part of that for training throughout the day. As long as it is motivating for your dog.  Their kibble may well be absolutely fine for training work in the house, but when you work around more distractions you will possibly have to increase the value of the food reward.  I use food rewards a lot with my own dog….if I go to workshops with him some of my clients are surprised when I tell them exactly how many packets of cocktail sausages and cheese I have gone through in a weekend! I would then just give him a very tiny dinner…and my dog is not overweight at all.
3) I will have to have food on me at all times for the rest of my dog’s life
Absolutely not true! As I tell everyone who comes to my classes, initially we use food to lure the dogs into the position we want, in order to help them understand what we are asking, in order to reward them. BUT….we want to get rid of that food lure pretty quickly. Then what we want is for your dog to perform the behaviour, and THEN the reward appears, therefore the dog’s ability to perform that behaviour is not dependent on the reward being visible at all. Once that behaviour is reliable, we can then fade out food rewards so that we reward intermittently, and also introduce new, different rewards, such as toys and praise (again, if these are favoured by your dog).  It is not food rewards that cause dependence, but how they are used, which is why I try to get all my clients away from using food lures as soon as possible early on.
4) My dog is not food motivated
All dogs are motivated by food….as mentioned earlier on, it is a really high value resource to dogs and they need it so survive. When people have told me their dog is not food motivated, there is always another reason that dog is not interested in the food. The dog is stressed or overly aroused……when a dog gets ‘over threshold’ and reaches a certain level of anxiety or arousal, it loses the interest in food.  Often dogs may take food at home, but not outdoors….which would indicate the dog is either finding the environment too stressful or exciting for it to be condusive to learning.
Another reason for dogs refusing food is that the food presented to the dog is simply not high value enough or the dog is not interested in that particular food. If you are offering dry kibble, and your dog is not interested, try small pieces of cheese, chicken, hot dog etc.
If your dog displays a sudden change of appetite, and is turning down food both at home and outside, then this could be a sign that your dog is not feeling well, so a trip to the vet should be made.
5) Food rewards don’t work on certain breeds or for ‘aggressive’ dogs
Honestly – reward based training using food rewards, work with ALL breeds and definitely can have a profound effect when working with dogs displaying reactivity. It used to be thought that certain breeds of dogs are more ‘stubborn’ and ‘aggressive’ and need a ‘firm hand’….this is absolutely not the case!  If you take a dog who is reactive to other dogs, for example….if aversive methods are applied they can easily make the behaviours worse….after all when does using aggression to deal with aggression ever work?  Dogs who have previously been assumed to need a ‘firm hand’ such as dobermans, german shepherd, rottweillers, huskies and even terriers, are actually incredibly receptive to reward based training. They are very sensitive breeds, and using aversive methods with such breeds can actually introduce additional behavioural issues.  My own rescue dog used to be very fear reactive to other dogs and people that he didn’t know…..and had anyone used aversive and forceful methods with him I have no doubt that he would have been put to sleep years ago…simply because he was being misunderstood, and that makes me very sad. I have used the clicker and food rewards to slowly change his emotional response to his ‘triggers’, and now if I stand talking to someone, regardless of whether they have a dog or not, he will sit there and look at the person/dog, then look back at me, look back at the person/dog, look back at me….because the clicker and food rewards have taught him to have a positive emotional response to the triggers that would previously have sent him into a frenzy.  If trainers or owners say their dog of a certain breed doesnt respond to reward based training, then it is going to be because they are not applying it correctly….no doubt about it!
So I hope now you can see that food rewards are a valuable tool when training your dog. Food is fairly cheap, plentiful and means you can do many repetitions during a training session. Plus it is much clearer to your dog what he has done that has been rewarded.  It is a good idea to use a variety of rewards and ways of delivering those rewards, but whatever rewards you use MUST be tailored to that dog and the environment you are training in.  At Polite Paws we want your dog to see you are the provider of good stuff so working with you is a really rewarding experience for them. If you have any questions or would like to find out more about how to apply rewards correctly, or how to start off using reward based methods, please contact us 🙂

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