It's a question that's often ripe for controversy: is using treats for dog training an acceptable practice? Does using food undermine the dog's learning process, or does it strengthen it? Fortunately, we've learned so much about how dogs think, learn, and perceive the world, so let's talk about food and how it can affect the training process with your dog.
Is Using Treats for Dog Training Effective?
Here's the good news – when applied correctly, using food in training is highly effective and can help make the training process fun and efficient.
The reason food works so effectively to motivate dogs is because it's a primary reinforcer for them – unlike praise or toys, food is something your dog is innately motivated by.
We're going to talk about how to avoid common pitfalls that can accompany the use of food in training, what types of treats work best, and dispel some of the common myths surrounding treats.
Is Using Treats for Dog Training Bribery?
When we talk about treats in the context of training, this is the first elephant in the room to address. Treats can absolutely become a bribe, if used incorrectly.
Keep this in mind: the purpose of a bribe is to persuade someone to do something.
"Look at this treat! If you sit, I'll give it to you!"
Understandably, dogs who are trained in this way expect to see a reward prior to performing a behavior. They've come to expect that if they don't see the treat beforehand, it's unlikely they'll be rewarded, making them less likely to comply if they don't see that you have food.
So instead, focus on using food as a payment to your dog. The behavior happens first, and then your dog is (potentially) presented with a reward – more on the frequency of rewards later.
A few tips to ensure you're not bribing your dog when using treats for dog training:
- Keep food rewards tucked away in a pocket or up on a counter – only grab the reward after your dog has finished the behavior you've asked for.
- If you're using a "luring" strategy in your training (such as using a piece of food to lead your dog into a 'sit' position), it's important that you fade the lure away quickly.
- To do so, after 5-10 repetitions with the food, try using a hand signal that mimics the lure you were doing, but don't have food in your hand. After your dog finishes the behavior, it's time to quickly provide a reward!
- If your dog is struggling to phase out the lure, try having food in your hand delivering the hand signal, but provide the actual reward with your other hand after the behavior is complete.
- Be careful with the context and location in which you provide food. Dogs that are fed scraps from the table will beg from the table – and who can blame them!
Won't My Dog Only Listen If I Have Food?
This is why the frequency of rewards is so important!
When you're teaching a behavior for the first time, you'll want to reward every single time they get it right.
Once your dog is developing more fluency in the behavior, you'll want to move to a more intermittent schedule of rewards – instead of rewarding every time, you'll reward more randomly.
As long as you follow these steps, your dog will listen with or without food; they know that there's a good chance they'll be rewarded at some point during the exercise, so they'll willingly participate even though the food isn't visible or guaranteed.
What you reward gets repeated and the same goes for the opposite: what you stop rewarding, will stop being repeated. Even if your dog knows a behavior well, if you stop rewarding it entirely, you risk losing that behavior altogether.
Levels of Rewards
There are three levels of rewards in dog training. Let's go through them!
Typically, this is your dog's kibble. Many dogs will work happily for their food, especially if you're able to plan your training sessions around their mealtimes.
However, you might find that your dog is a bit less motivated by their kibble than other options, especially if there are distractions that you're competing with. This is why it's important to have other options in your wheelhouse!
Mid-value rewards will be what you'll use for the bulk of your training. We like soft, small training treats that can be manipulated into even smaller pieces, are quickly and easily consumed by the dog, and don't add a ton of extra calories to their daily diet.
Remember, all treats are not created equal! Treats that are crunchy, bland, and/or difficult to break can slow down your training process and may not be as motivating for your dog.
Whichever you decide, make sure that you really isolate your rewards for everyday training to ensure they retain their value to your dog. If your dog is constantly given treats without a real purpose, you risk losing your dog's motivation for training with them.
High-value rewards are reserved for the most "expensive" behaviors you ask your dog to perform, such as coming when called (especially when there are distractions to come away from), and when working on behavior modification with issues like leash reactivity or resource guarding.
These rewards must be preserved for those extra-special behaviors and training protocols, and we recommend using a variety of high-value rewards to keep your dog interested in them.
A few options to choose from:
- Shredded chicken
- String cheese
- Wet/canned dog food put into a squeeze pouch (this is great for dogs with allergies that can only have their food!)
- Shredded fish
Worried that your dog isn't food-motivated? The good news is, it's unlikely! Most dogs that are uninterested in food either need a change in reward, are too distracted or stressed to take food, or may have an underlying medical condition. However, toys and play are absolutely an option as well if your dog is motivated by them.
Make sure you're using the right level of reward for the behavior you're asking for, and work within the parameters of what your dog can handle. If your dog is stressed, uncomfortable, or upset, they likely won't take any food.
*Partnership Disclosure: We do not receive a commission on the sale of any of these treats. These are treats that we use regularly with our training clients and we wholeheartedly recommend them. The wonderful folks who make them do, however, provide treats for our amazing team!