You might have wondered whether you should use food rewards when training your dog. A lot of people ask this question and there are a lot of opinions about it as well. In this post I will try to how food rewards can be used to make your dog training more effective and more fun and also what you should avoid.
Now, some people will tell you that using food to train your dog is “cheating” that by doing so your dog will only do things when there he/she knows there is reward for it and it will not be truly obedient. They believe that dogs should simply obey, period.
If you see this from a dog’s point of view, constantly doing things without getting anything for it will get boring and the dog will loose motivation. Just imagine yourself that your boss asked you to work for no salary. Would you do that for long? No probably not. The same goes for a dog. Just working and working and getting nothing for it is no fun and not very motivating. An exiting reward however will make your dog motivated, training will be fun and more effective.
People who do not use rewards at all are often using “old school” training consisting of fear and force and they expect the dog to obey, or else.
But, do you really have to use food as a reward? Can’t you use play, praise and cuddles to reward your dog when it is doing something right? You sure can and it works really well with some dogs. There are dogs who don’t care that much for food and who really likes play or cuddles instead. Dogs are all different, they are individuals just like you and me and what works with one dog might not work with another. However, food is a motivator for most dogs and in many cases it remains the biggest motivator when training.
You might think that if you use food as a reward then your dog will only obey you when you have food in your hand. This is not the case, food is a great motivator and a way to accelerate the training while making it more fun both for your dog and for you. The food reward has to be used correctly though.
There is a difference between “bribing” and rewarding. If you have to show your dog a treat in order to make your dog do anything then you are “bribing” it whereas if you make your dog do something and then you give a treat after it has been accomplished, then you are rewarding it.
There is difference between these two. A bribe is something you give before your dog is doing anything and rewarding is something you give afterwards when the dog has performed what you wanted it to. You are thus rewarding the dog for doing the right thing. This what is often called Positive Reinforcement. You reward the dog for doing the right thing and that way your dog is motivated to do it again.
To avoid bribing your dog, you can keep the treat out of sight for your dog and only show it to him/her just before giving it. If your dog does not see the treat, it will perform what you ask for in hope of earning the treat instead of doing it because they know they will get a treat.
If you are bribing, you are however rewarding your dog for doing nothing before it gets the treat. Bribing is not and effective way to train a dog, rewarding is.
Does this mean you always have to reward your dog with treats to make do (or not do) something? No, it does not, Food treats are a great motivator when you start training but with the time you space out the rewards and give them less and less often.
Say for example that you give the command sit and then reward it with a treat, the dog will associate the treat with the command sit and next time you give the command it will sit hoping to get a treat. Now when this command has been practiced many times it will become second nature to your dog and it will sit whenever you give the command without even thinking of it.
At this point, you can start phasing out the treats, that is you start giving a treat every second time he/she performs it and then every third time and so on. Finally, you have come to a point when your dog obeys you without the need of using treats. It is however a good thing to continue using treats from time to time, it will make the training more stimulating and more fun for your dog but at this point you only give treats occasionally. There is no rush though, you can fade out the rewards over a period of several months.
So what you should give as treats? Anything that is safe for your dog to eat and that he/she really likes. It is good to vary the treats so you are not giving the same thing all the time. Giving the same boring dry biscuit all the time will make your dog a lot less motivated than if you vary the treats and give new exiting things as rewards.
Rewards do not have to be big, you can cut whatever you are giving into small pieces, your dog will still enjoy the reward. From time to time, you can give something bigger and better. Say for example a whole sausage. Cut it into 5 or 6 pieces (of course if you have a very small dog you adapt the reward to its size) and feed it to your dog one piece at a time. He is not going to believe his luck and will remember this treat for a long time. So when you are training your dog, the hope of getting another treat like this will be in your dog’s mind.
Think of it like when people buy a ticket at the lottery. From the moment they buy it the excitement grows bigger and bigger and they are dreaming of the big jackpot until the numbers are released and they realized they did not win. Next week they buy another ticket and it starts all over again. A dog who has “won” a Jackpot once will remember it and this will add excitement to the training.
One final thing. If you are worried that your dog is going to put on weight because of all the food rewards you are giving just compensate by giving less food for dinner. There are also low calorie dog treats you can give your dog if weight gain is an issue.
So to summarize this post, food rewards is a great way to train a dog. It does not work with all dogs but it works with most. Just remember to make your dog work for the reward. Do not show it to your dog before giving a command, but show it and give it afterwards when your dog has performed the task you wanted it to do.
Fade out food rewards slowly and gradually give them less often. Every once in a while give a “Jackpot” a really big and tasty reward that your dog will remember for a long time.
If needed, compensate the extra calories from the treats by giving less food for dinner.
Do you want to learn more? Here is a link to website that will teach everything you need about training your dog or puppy. There are more than 250 videos there (including how to use treats when training). If you want to try it out I suggest you sign up to this free 4 part video dog training course. Just click on the link below for the free course.
There is a lot that can be said about food rewards when training a dog. Do you have any tips and ideas you would like share or maybe some questions? In the case just write them in the comments field below.
All the best!