Using Food Rewards for Training

The way to a dogs heart (& brain!) is usually… but not always…. food.  In order to motivate your dog into making the right choice (and do what you are asking) food can work really well.  It helps to reinforce the message, especially when used alongside verbal praise or a clicker, that the dog made the right choice. Generally, the more the dog likes the food that’s given as a reward, the better the message goes in and the more likely you are to get a repeat of the 'good' behaviour.  Win for you - win for the dog.

But often food is over used or used incorrectly and that’s when it’s not such a great tool.

There are 5 key things to know when using food rewards

  1. What to give
  2. How much to give
  3. When to give it
  4. How to give it
  5. When to stop giving it
  1. What to give

Food rewards need to be something the dog likes, or they are just pointless! Some dogs will work for any kind of food, others are more discerning. Whatever you are using now, I bet there is something the dog likes better, and that he or she would benefit from you ringing the changes with something a bit different every now and then. Imagine the things your dog likes as being on a ladder – the food he will eat but not be that interested in is at the bottom, (e.g. his usual kibble) and at the top will be something smelly, meaty and delicious – (e.g. roast chicken, hot dogs etc.) with lots of things in the middle.  Play around with the foods you are using and try some new things – sometimes the thing your dog craves when you are cooking can be the best treats to use. Some things to try are:

There are loads of commercially available treats out there. Try to avoid the ones where cereals or wheat top the ingredient list – go for treats with a good percentage of actual meat, and bear in mind that generally you get what you pay for…  In most cases, the smellier, wetter and meatier the treat the harder the dog will work for it.

This doesn’t mean you should always offer the best treats though. Once a behaviour is being offered consistently, mix it up. Reward the best efforts with the best treats, the less good with the less good treats etc. Occasionally, for an exceptional recall for example, or a first poo outside in the right place, give a ‘jackpot’ of treats , 5 or 6 treats one after the other to really maximise the message that the dog did REALLY well!

  1. How much to give?

When training your dog, you need to be rewarding repeatedly over several sessions a day. For that reason, the size of the treat is crucial. If the dog has to chew it, it’s too big.  If it’s bigger than your smallest fingernail, it’s too big. If it’s more than 1cm in any dimension, it’s too big.  Tiny bits of delicious smelly meaty treat will work much better than a huge piece of dry dog biscuit. The dog needs to be able to taste it and swallow in one go so you can keep working, he can keep focussing and everyone can keep moving on.  

If you are concerned that your dog will put on weight because of the amount of treats required, then cut down his meal allowance, or use his dinner as a reward. For example, if he is fed kibble, and values it enough to work for it, feed him his breakfast over a couple of 3 minute training sessions, piece by piece.

  1. When to give it

Timing is everything! Generally, the food is the ‘secondary reinforcer’ – that means, when the dog does well, the first thing you should do, immediately the behaviour is performed,  is use a click, or a verbal marker – (such as ‘yes!’ or ‘good!’) to let the dog know he made the right choice. THEN back up the marker with the food reward. This is because you can reward with your voice or clicker much more accurately than you can with food. Especially if you have to open the packet or root in your pocket, break a piece off and then offer it to the dog. Time taken = too long.  The food though, is what makes the big impression!

For effective training, have treats pre-prepared, cut into the right size pieces, and carry them in a pouch or bag attached to you somehow, so that you can dip in your hand and pull out one or two without any fuss, draw strings, or zips with just one hand.

Be careful though, what you are rewarding. If your timing is off, you could end up the dog standing up after the sit, rather than the sit itself.  Or, if you reward everything the dog does, right or wrong, he will be confused about what it is that you want. . If you ask him to do something and it doesn’t happen, and then you reward anyway, you are rewarding the dog for ignoring you.  As my trainer once told me, ‘if you reward rubbish, you’ll get rubbish’, only her language was a bit riper than that...

It makes sense not to train after the dog has eaten a big dinner, is tired or stressed, as these will all diminish his desire to eat anything, even something yummy, unless he’s a Labrador… 

Lastly - don't use food as a 'bribe' to get the dog to do something it really doesn't want to do, or is scared of (e.g. nail clipping, vets inspection) as this can have the effect of giving negative associations with food - the worst thing you could do! Your dog then associates treats with being worried and will stop taking treats as rewards ' just in case'....

  1. How to give it

Usually, we would offer the food direct to the dogs mouth between your thumb and forefinger. But, if your dog is a snatcher, and you fear for your fingers, you can (as well as teaching how to take food nicely…) offer the food on the flat of your palm, or throw the food on the floor immediately in front of the dog instead.  

Or, especially with very small dogs, smear the end of a wooden spoon with cream cheese or something equally sticky, and use that to reward the dog so you don’t have to continually bend down. Or, toss treats for him to catch,  IF he is an excellent catcher of course!

  1. When to stop giving it

Don’t worry. You are not necessarily condemned to be carrying round lumps of cooked chicken for the rest of your dog’s life. Although – some people do!

As soon as a behaviour becomes easy and second nature for the dog – (‘sit’ usually is the first thing in this category) then you can start to reduce the amount of food you are using, and the value of the treats themselves, until you are rewarding 1 in every 6 to 10 ‘sits’ and then only the best and quickest. Eventually, you won’t need to reward with food at all, although it does no harm to chuck in the occasional surprise to keep the dog alive to the possibility that there just might be something in it for him... This is particularly true with behaviours that are easily lost such as recall.

If you drop the food rewards too soon, some dogs get wise pretty quickly and will know if you don’t have food on you, and not do as asked. But if you have phased it out slowly enough, the transition will be less noticeable to the dog, and the response rate should stay the same. If it drops off, reintroduce food again and reduce the value to the lowest value food you can get away with.

 “But my dog doesn’t like treats!”

If this is you, I can guarantee that either one, several, or all of these things are true:

All dogs have to eat to stay alive, and so there will be something he will eat, but have a think about what else is going on and maybe try again later, with a different food, or in a different place. 

12-06-2016

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