Food is often the easiest reward you can use to train your dog, as it allows you to reinforce your dog quickly, so you can continue working on behaviours one straight after another. Nowadays, most handlers and professionals use food and toys to train their dogs, but there are a few rules, that most people are unaware of, so you can get the most out of training your dog.
The food you use in training needs to be of higher value than the distractions you and your dog are presented with. You are always competing for your dogs’ attention when you are training, and it will be much easier to have high value treats to offer your dog if the distractions are high. This means that you will initially have to experiment with different kinds of food to determine your dogs’ favorite treats from the ones they think are just OK.
As a general rule the dried treats are at the bottom of the list, this includes things like dried liver and jerky. Where as fresh, smelly, and meaty treats are usually considered the most valuable, such as raw beef, roast lamb/chicken, frankfurters, fresh chicken/liver balls, ham and cheese, you can prepare bags of these ahead of time. If you are training at home and nothing much is happening inside, you should be able to use some dried dog treats for training. However, these treats will not ‘cut it’ when you are at the park with other dogs/joggers/bikes/balls around your dog. This is where the fresh treats really make a difference to your dogs’ level of willingness to comply. Despite this, you should always set your dog up for success by maintaining reasonable expectations of your dog.
When you are teaching your dog a brand new exercise you will need to have food in your hand as a lure. This lure will allow you to move your hand in the direction you need your dogs’ nose to follow. The lure encourages your dog to try a behaviour, and if they get it right you can reinforce them for it by giving them the food in you hand. Because the food is close to their nose while you are luring you can give your dog the treat as soon as they perform the behaviour you are looking for. Make sure that the food is close to your dogs’ nose/mouth, even allow them to lick the food, as this will prevent jumping and snapping at your hand.
Food luring will help your dog make the connection between the request and the correct behaviour- making the behaviour much more likely to occur again. You should get rid of your food lure as soon as possible, maybe after only five luring turns. You should be careful that, by using a lure for too long, you don’t inadvertantly start bribing your dog.
Continuing to use food in your hand to entice your dog to do something for you is bribery, and should be avoided. You will not always have food with you, but you will still need your dog to listen to your requests. Moving away from the food lure quickly ensures that your dog will become conditioned to your signals rather than the promise of food.
Many people say to me, ‘my dog will always listen to me when I have food, but if I don’t have any food they just ignore me’, classic bribery. Usually, this is a result of not moving away from using food as a lure and/or the dog being reinforced with food every time they do what you have asked. Rather, once your dog has learned an exercise, you should remove the food from your hand and only reinforce your dog after really great efforts, or every now and again- randomly.
Dogs that are reinforced with food every single time they perform a behaviour develop a certain level of expectation that they will get food every time they sit, come, drop etc. If this expectation is not met, and no food is given, the dog will give up, usually after the first go.
If you have moved to random reinforcement as soon as you dog learns a behaviour, you are setting up the expectation that your dog will have to keep trying before being given the reinforcement. Your dog will then continue to work for you even without the promise of food. However, you should always take food with you on walks to allow opportunities to reinforce any good behaviours.
Another common problem with using food inappropriately is only ever giving your dog a set number of treat pieces, yes, dogs’ can count! If you only ever feed your dog one piece of food for sitting, coming, dropping, that’s all they will expect. Often dogs with this expectation will perform the behaviour, but will take the food and run off on you. This leaves you ‘hanging’ and continually having to ‘reset’ your dog.
The best remedy for a dog that takes the food and bolts, is to teach ‘all done’. Always give your dog varying amounts of food, their expectation will be that more food is coming, and they will remain with you until they get the ‘all done’ signal from you. Any exercise you do with your dog should be carried out until you give them the ‘all done’ signal.
Your dog will be more interested in working for you if you have not fed them a meal before training. The level of interest a dog has in food varies from dog to dog. If your dog is not too interested in food, do not feed them before going out for a walk for several hours. On the other hand some dogs are so food crazy that they will work for food even after a meal. Get to know your dogs’ optimal hunger time- where food becomes a strong motivator.
When I mention optimal time, I am referring to a dog that is not too full, nor too hungry. Some dogs’ that are already food motivated and are fasted before training can become a demanding nightmare during training, and are unable to take in any information because they are so hungry.
Some dogs are just not interested in any sort of food, no matter how long they have gone without a meal. If this is your dog you should stop feeding their meals from a bowl and every bit of food should come from your hand. Then, find their ‘currency’ it can be a toy, playing with you, or sweet talk and lots of cuddles, and you can then start feeding them while they engage in these ‘favourite’ activities so they start to develop a love for food by association.
Finally, a word about food at the dog park. Never feed another persons’ dog without their permission. Also, if you know that your dog is possessive over food, do not feed them close to another dog, or allow someone else to feed them, unless you are working with a professional dog trainer/behaviourist.
Using food to train your dog can be so beneficial to you and your dog, and will strengthen your bond. Your dog will love to train, and you will enjoy watching them think through training. When dogs are trained using food they work through a process of elimination to determine the behaviour that will bring the reward. This is so good for building confidence and brain development, and it means your dogs’ personality is able to shine through the training.