Dogs have become such a deeply integrated part of our daily lives as a society. They go on outings and adventures with us, we base our daily routines around taking care of their needs, and we pour many of our resources into their healthcare and activities that promote their wellbeing. But somehow when it comes to training dogs, some of the advice out there tends to be several years behind the most modern methods or about what is fact vs. myth. For a dog owner just trying to figure out what’s best for their dog, all of the conflicting information out there from friends and family (and sometimes on TV or the internet) can make deciding how to train your dog feel impossible.
Training with food rewards is something that is slowly becoming more and more commonplace as an accessible, effective, and ethical choice to change behavior. However, there are still a lot of myths that float around from more outdated sources about how training with food actually works. Today, we’re going to bust these myths!
Myth 1: Am I Just Bribing My Dog to Listen to Me?
Dogs (and humans) only behave in certain ways because they have a motivation driving them to do so. You get up to go pour yourself a glass of water because your thirst motivates you to do it. You call up an old friend to catch up on the phone because your desire to socialize motivates you to do it. You go into work every day because your desire to be paid motivates you to do it. Similarly, our dogs also perform behaviors to acquire something that motivates them! Training with food rewards is simply harnessing a dog’s food motivation to change their behavior. Giving a food reward to your dog in exchange for a behavior is known as “positive reinforcement,” which is one of four quadrants of operant conditioning. Something is considered positive reinforcement when it increases the likelihood of a behavior happening again. For example, giving a piece of cheese after your dog targets your hand on cue means that the next time you cue a hand target, your dog is more likely to do it again because they were positively reinforced for it with cheese, something they desire. Bribery, on the other hand, occurs when a reward is offered before a behavior to increase the likelihood of it happening in that exact moment. This means instead of the reward being a consequence to a behavior and encouraging that behavior to occur again, the reward is happening before or during the behavior and the learner is not making a connection that will cause the behavior to occur more frequently in the future.
Because behavior is driven by an underlying motivator, if we are not using motivators the dog desires to get behavior from our dogs, that means we are likely using motivators our dog wants to avoid. This means that we are training our dogs with discomfort, intimidation, and sometimes even pain to get behavior from them which can be very damaging to their confidence, to your relationship with them, and can often create unintended negative side effects. You may get rid of one behavior you don’t want from your dog through this style of training, but another problem behavior may pop up to replace it.
So, in summary: no matter what methods we choose to train with, our dogs are often either working to acquire or avoid something. Giving them rewards as a consequence following desired behavior is different from using food to influence behavior in the moment (bribery). Using rewards to train is the better alternative over using coercion or discomfort as it has a smaller potential for negative fallout, and encourages our dogs to work because they want to, not because they are trying to avoid what will happen if they don’t. All of us deserve fair payment for our efforts, and dogs are included in that!
Myth 2: Won’t My Dog Become Overweight?
Not if you are smart about it! Training with food while also maintaining your dog’s healthy weight is actually very easy to do so long as you take a few considerations into account. The main factors we look out for are:
Keeping track of portion sizes at meal time:
If you are training with significant portions of food throughout the day, you will need to take this into account when portioning out your dog’s breakfast and dinner. People commonly overlook this when starting to train with food. They will feed enough food throughout the day through training to account for a full meal for their dog, but won’t cut back on the amounts of food given at mealtimes so the dog ends up eating more calories than usual. When you’ve used a lot of food through training in a day, make sure to adjust the meals given accordingly.
Does your dog work for their regular diet? Use this to your advantage:
Some dogs have a higher drive for food than others. This means, a lot of dogs out there will work for their regular pieces of kibble! If this sounds like your dog, you may not need to use food outside of meals very often to train (except for training in high distraction or for “special” behaviors like recalls). If your dog is easily motivated to work for their regular everyday food they get at mealtimes, just portion out parts of their daily meals and set them aside to use in training throughout the day. If your dog is not motivated by their regular kibble, there are plenty of meal toppers and mix-ins for dogs from the pet store that can be used for training and tend to be higher value for more picky dogs. These toppers are often nutritionally complete and balanced, and can be fed as a meal!
Food used in training should be fed in small amounts per repetition:
Dogs do not need large pieces of food when training. Typically, food cut into pea-sized pieces is all it takes to effectively train behaviors with your dog, as they learn through frequent repetitions and not through the amount of the reward received. If you’re attentive about making sure to give your dog just a small, pea-sized piece of a treat per repetition in your training sessions, you will end up only using a fairly small amount of food overall!
Myth 3: But My Dog is Only Listening Because I Have Treats!
If you run into an issue with your dog that they will only perform known, learned behaviors when they know you have treats, and will blow you off otherwise, that is a training error. Not an error with using food itself! This means that at some point, your dog made the association that food itself is a cue for behavior and training only happens “in a vacuum” when having structured sessions instead of in your day to day routine. Thankfully, this is an easy fix. This information tells you that you need to get better about having “impromptu” training sessions when going about your daily routine: reward behaviors you see your dog doing on their own accord that you like. Ask for behaviors randomly throughout the day with no food visible, then reward them heavily with food that was just out of sight. Wear your treat pouch around the house even when you’re not training so the treat pouch itself isn’t cueing your dog. Set up jars of treats around common areas so you can grab a reward when you need it without the dog knowing it was nearby. There are plenty of workarounds to un-doing this behavior!
We also train with food for a reason that sounds counterintuitive: so that when we DON’T have food, the behavior is still likely to be reliable! We can build up the reliability of a behavior by building what is known as a “reinforcement history.” The more history a dog builds with being rewarded for performing a behavior in different environments, contexts, and difficulty levels, the more likely that they are able to do the behavior even when we’re caught off guard without treats because of their lengthy past of being rewarded. The more practice with food rewards that we put in with a behavior when we don’t need it, the more likely our dog is going to be able to do the behavior when we actually need it and aren’t prepared with food.
Myth 4: Am I “Rewarding” Naughty Behavior?
Sometimes, because a training session can move so quickly to an outsider looking in, it may look like certain undesirable behaviors are being rewarded with food when working on modifying a “problem.” However, it’s important to keep in mind that for dogs, training happens in the moment. Not one second ago, not a minute ago. Using a clicker or a marker word like “yes!” allows us to pinpoint exact behaviors to communicate to our dogs specifically what they’re doing that is generating the coming reward. So, if a dog is barking for attention, we are able to pinpoint the very instant they are quiet with a click or a “yes!” and reward for that. To an outsider who isn’t keeping a close eye on timing, it may look like the barking is what is getting a reward. But in reality, it was the very instant the dog was quiet! Getting really good and really exact with your timing is crucial to ensure you are marking and rewarding the desired behaviors with your dog, and finding opportunities to build on behaviors you want to see more of.
Additionally, sometimes we use food to help a dog change associations to things around them instead of rewarding a specific behavior. This is known as counter-conditioning. So, in these scenarios, we are pairing food and the good feelings it brings a dog to either something the dog finds neutral or aversive. For example, if a dog is afraid of the doorbell and barks at the sound of it as a stress response, we will pair the sound of the doorbell at low levels with high-value food the dog loves, so they systematically learn to pair the doorbell sound with the good feelings that come with eating high-value food. So, the barking in this scenario actually decreases and is not being reinforced, because it is a stress response and not to acquire something from us. When we are using food to decrease their stress, we’re also decreasing the behavior associated with that stress.
Myth 5: Will I Have To Feed All These Treats Forever?!
The short, complicated answer is: yes and no!
As a dog fully learns and understands a behavior (typically we look for a 90% success rate), we can actually start tapering off some of our food rewards and start rewarding the dog intermittently. The rewards should not typically stop entirely (we don’t go to work expecting one day to stop receiving paychecks!), but come in random intervals instead of after every single repetition like they were in the “learning” stage of a new behavior. For example, when teaching loose leash walking, we start out by keeping a really high rate of reinforcement with the dog, and reward them for every couple of steps of walking on a loose leash. As time goes on and the behavior is really consistent in different environments and contexts, we will start rewarding just occasionally throughout the walk for good leash behavior. Sometimes we reward after 5 steps, sometimes after 30 or 40 steps. The dog doesn’t know when the next treat is coming, which will actually end up strengthening the behavior. This also takes some pressure off of you and allows you to be able to be a little more relaxed with your rewards and enjoy your dog’s enjoyable behavior!
Food is also not the only tool in our toolbox that we can use to reinforce behavior we like from our dogs! With certain impulse control exercises, like waiting to be released through the door, the actual release from the behavior itself to move forward through the door can become the reward once the behavior is learned. Out on walks, we can train our dogs to sniff on cue, and use this as a reward as dogs find sniffing very reinforcing. Some dogs are very motivated by toys or praise, depending on your dog’s personality and what you’re asking them to do, these can also be great replacements for food rewards! It’s all a matter of getting creative- if it is something your dog desires, you can likely find a way to use it as reinforcement for behavior you want.
Using food to train our dogs can be a really powerful means to get desirable behavior. It gives them something they enjoy as payment for participating, and it gives us an easily accessible means to turn something we don’t want into long-lasting behavior change. Dogs need our help to learn how to navigate our human world and learn what is appropriate. The best way to do this is to guide them to the correct answers with rewards as opposed to setting them up to learn through failure. Using food rewards can be a really effective means of doing so! Don’t be afraid of the myths, reward your dog!