Sometimes I get inquiries from people who are interested in working with their dogs, but who are adamant about no longer using food as a reward when training them. Their reason is they’ve used treats in training before, but now their dogs only comply when food is present. I think it’s a shame to write off the use of food rewards completely since most dogs are motivated by it and it makes for a great paycheck when our dogs do what we want them to. Rather than discontinuing the use of treats, it’s much more important to learn how to use food rewards correctly. Most people who encounter this particular problem have inadvertently made food a crutch and once they realize their dependency, they are eager to break their habit and suddenly they go to the extreme of cutting their dogs off from all food rewards, period!
In this article, we will focus on the proper way of using and fading out food rewards as well as exploring other forms of reinforcement that you can use to pay your pooch for their hard labor.
When you are first teaching your pup a new behavior, such as sitting, they are in the learning phase. They are still figuring out the mechanics of the behavior and what it is that they have to do to be rewarded. During this phase, it is important to reward your dog every single time they give you the desired behavior because reinforcement ensures that the behavior will actually increase. With every piece of jerky doled out for a nice sit, the likelihood of your dog giving you another sit goes up. Once your dog becomes reliable (your dog complies 85%-90% of the time) at giving you the behavior when you ask them for it in a particular environment*, that’s when you want to start becoming careful about the use of food rewards.
After a behavior is learned, it is actually crucial to start using less food. Believe it or not, this is actually what will make the behavior more durable. Let me paint you a couple of scenarios:
1) You teach your dog to sit on cue and reward your dog for sitting each and every single time with a treat far beyond the learning stage. One day you wake up and realize both you and your dog have a huge dependency on food when doing this exercise. You decide to cut food out completely. How soon after making such a decision do you think your dog’s sitting behavior will die off? Fairly quickly. It will only take a few unrewarded sits for your dog to realize there’s no longer a reason to comply.
2) You teach your dog to sit on cue and reward your dog for sitting each and every single time when they’re still learning. Once you realize your dog is reliably sitting for you and that you are no longer in the learning phase, you quickly switch to a different method of rewarding them. Now, you only give your dog a treat for sitting once in awhile. Perhaps out of ten sits, your dog gets a food reward for six of them and you dole out the jerky pretty randomly. One day you find yourself without any treats in the house. How soon do you think your dog’s sitting behavior will die off? It will take a good amount of time.
The reason why the dog in scenario #2 would continue to perform for you is because the dog understands that only once in awhile will they get a treat, but since they don’t know when they’re going to get the reward, they’re going to follow through with the behavior just to see if per chance, they’ve won themselves a tidbit. In scenario #1, you’ve taught your dog that every sit produces a treat. When you fail to uphold your end of the bargain, the dog sees no reason to uphold theirs.
Aside from learning how to properly use food in training, I think that people should explore other things they can use to reward their dogs. We call these non-food reinforcers, “life rewards”. A life reward can be anything your dog enjoys dearly. Some things I use with Lucy as life rewards are: sniffing the ground outside, playing tug, petting, taking a trip to Prospect Park in our Brooklyn neighborhood, and getting to come up on furniture to hang out with me. Before she gets to enjoy any of these things, I ask her to do something for me first such as sitting, lying down, rolling over, or kissing me. If you get into the habit of using life rewards, the day you find yourself without a crumb in your pocket to give to your dog, you can turn around and look at your environment and find at least one other way to reward them.
*Dogs may have a difficult time generalizing behavior when the environment or scenario changes. Your dog may be reliable with sitting in your livingroom, but not so much when they’re on a busy street.