Food Rewards, Good or Bad?

Dogs, I know this will come as a surprise to some, are not for legged humans. While the domesticated dog has adapted to living with us, they are still not human, they are dogs. They do not understand language and are more instinctual than we are. We all talk to our dogs, but not for the dog’s benefit, but for ours. We all do it and it makes us feel good to talk to them and they learn to accept it, but they have no clue what we are talking about. Even the few words that we teach them, (sit, down, come, etc.) are lost to them if we put them in a sentence. One of the first things to do when training a dog is to stop talking so much.

Everyone is impressed when they see a well-behaved dog. The dog follows all directions the first time. He is calm and walks on a leash without pulling. This dog is able to greet new people without getting excited and doesn’t jump. What most people don’t understand is the amount of work that goes into training that dog. Dogs are not born well-behaved. In fact, a well-behaved dog is the result of an owner who knows how to communicate what it is they expect.

Affective dog training requires repetition, knowledge, and timing.

Just like most of us dogs are motivated to do things by getting paid. There are three basic things that dogs find rewarding play, affection, and food that can be used to motivate them to do things that you want. For most dogs, food is by far the most effective motivator. Unfortunately, you can’t put your dog on an allowance and give them a big steak at the end of the week. A dog’s motivation comes from immediate gratification. If you don’t pay them NOW, they have no idea what it is for.
In an environment with few distractions, If the food is desired, and the dog is hungry I can teach almost any dog a new skill in minutes. I know what many who are reading this are going to say, if you use treats the dog will only perform the behavior if your pocket is full of their favorite treat. This is very true if you use treats incorrectly. This would be an example of how having a little bit of knowledge can get you in trouble. Knowing how to properly use food as a reward can change your life.

Food/treats are great for teaching your dog new tasks, tricks, or commands. It is also great at shaping or improving behavior. Once the dog knows the command it is time to back off on the rewards. What do I mean “knows the command”? This means the dog is proficient at the task and makes very few mistakes. You ask your dog to sit, and he sits immediately. You don’t need to say sit two, three, four times before he sits. Now it is time to move on to phase 2 of training.

Many dog owners do not ever move on to phase 2. They know how to reward good behavior and continue to mark and reward every time their dog does what is asked. The dog learns that every time they are asked to sit they will get a treat. What happens if you don’t have any treats in your pocket? The first few times she will sit and wonder where the heck is my treat. If this continues to happen, she will try to figure out if you have any treats. Your dog will quickly learn that if your pockets are empty, she isn’t going to sit. The trick is to transition from rewarding every behavior to random reinforcement and to correct noncompliance.

The Transition to random reinforcement starts by rewarding every other sit. Then move to random reinforcement. It must be truly random, not always every 3rd occurrence. In conjunction, it is time to add corrections for noncompliance or poor performance. Once the dog is proficient at a command, and he is slow to perform, you say sit and it takes 5 seconds for him to sit he needs to know that is not acceptable. Just like you tell your teenager to clean their room and 5 days later they haven’t done it, they are going to get some type of consequence. The consequence needs to be meaningful. You tell your teenager, OK no Lawrence Welk for you, the room will never get cleaned. (I know I’m old, if you don’t know who Lawrence Welk was look him up) But if you take away their phone that room will be spotless. The same is true for your dog, the correction needs to be meaningful and timely. If your dog doesn’t sit and then they don’t get their favorite chew toy before they go to bed, he will continue not to sit. Now, if he doesn’t sit and you say “no” and provide a little leash pressure, your dog will understand, oh I need to sit when he says sit.

So, now you can use food rewards to teach new behaviors and not need to bribe your dog into performing what you want.

Happy Training.

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