Food, Glorious Food– Or is It?

dogbiscuit-1Training dogs with food is not only rewarding for the dog, but also for the owner.  That’s because it’s easy to see quick results when a command is taught using food.  However, what happens when the owner’s been schooling the dog on a command for several weeks, and then the owner issues the command, but food is missing from the equation?  Most likely, the dog chooses not to comply, so the owner runs to get a treat, and she often feeds the dog regardless of whether or not the command was heeded.  So what has the owner taught the dog?  Look at it from the dog’s point of view:

• Every time my owner asks me to sit, she has food in her hand, and she gives it to me.
• Today she asked me to sit, but she didn’t have any food.
• I didn’t sit.
• She didn’t make me sit.
• Instead, she ran over to the goody box, pulled out a treat, and fed me anyway.
• Why should I sit if there’s no food in her hand?
• Why should I sit at all if she feeds me no matter what?
• This is a good gig!

Often, the challenge with reward-based training is convincing owners to let go of their own dependence on food.  Yet, it’s hard for them because their dogs don’t respond as reliably as they did when food was present.  Thus, the example above illusdogownerface2facetrates the never-ending cycle that develops when owners are uncomfortable taking their dogs to the next level of training.  The good news is that if owners can free themselves of the “food fix,” their dogs will be EVEN BETTER at responding to commands, but it’s a process that dogs and owners must conquer together.

Look at it this way: food can be a valuable training tool, or it can be a crutch.  It should be every owner’s goal to use food as a valuable training tool.  But how?  Follow these simple rules:

• When introducing a new command, reward the dog every single time he performs correctly.  However, it’s equally important that food is withheld if the dog doesn’t complete the task.

• Once the dog’s been introduced to the command and begins to perform consistently, only reward him once for every 3-4 correct responses.  Nevertheless, the correct responses that go unrewarded should still receive ample praise!  Remember, don’t reward the dog for incomplete commands.

• And here’s the key:  if the dog doesn’t respond or stops responding to a command that he’s been performing reliably with a reward, then it’s the owner’s responsibility to insure that the dog follows through when food is absent.  For example, if the owner says “sit,” and the dog doesn’t comply, then the owner should help him into position and then praise, praise, praise– but no food!

• The come-when-called command is the one exception to the above rules.  Correct responses to come-when-called are rewarded  for every single accurate response for a longer period of time before decreasing the amount of food.  That’s because come-when-called is critical to the dog’s safety.  Eventually, however, the owner must insist that the dog come, even if there’s no food reward.  By the way, that’s why a leash and/or a contained space can be so helpful when teaching a dog to come!

• Once the dog is performing the command correctly but only receiving a single food treat for several correct responses, then it’s time to pare down the food to an occasional bonus, but still insist that the dog obeys.  Congratulations!  You and your dog have successfully navigated the training process.

As you may have surmised, dog training is lots of work.  However, dog ownership is a commitment, and with that commitment comes the responsibility of training.  The big payoff is that you’ll be amply rewarded throughout your dog’s life when he is well-behaved and a pleasure to live with.  In the meantime, indulge yourself with a hot fudge sundae, and keep up the good work!

Lori Mauger, freelance writer

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