By Joan Hunter Mayer
Puppy parents, do you sometimes feel like you are “cheating” when using treats to train your dog? Or have you been accused of bribery? Since launching The Inquisitive Canine, I’ve been asked a lot about this chubby meaty topic. And I love it when this question comes up because there are many myths circulating in doggy verse about training with treats that I really want to clear up. If you have ever faced the dog training dilemma, “To treat or not to treat?” Then the Insider Cure is the right place for you!
First, think about your training goals.
Training just means teaching dogs what to do and when to do it. I encourage my clients to acknowledge and reward the behaviors they want as behaviors that are rewarded (or reinforced) are repeated. Training from this perspective enables you to both strengthen the bond with your dog and find positive, practical solutions to everyday challenges! And it starts with figuring out what motivates your dog.
We can motivate dogs with anything they want and want, including food.
Every time you reinforce your dog’s behavior with something very motivating like food, you are building strong behaviors. Pro Tip: Make sure you deliver the tasty bite after the dog’s behavior as a reward, not beforehand (that’s a bribe). Think of the nutritional fortification adequately delivered as if you were putting money in the bank. As you increase the account, you build your dog’s confidence, increase the likelihood that they will repeat desirable behaviors (for you), and the best part is to strengthen the bond you share. In other words – yes – you were right all along – dog parents should use food to raise their dogs.
Therefore, I can only warmly recommend that you carry treats with youeven if it’s something small that fits in a pocket, especially for the “just in case” situations. (A treat bag is a handy option here too; you can check local pet supplies as well as online.) Remember, the more “deposits” you make to the reinforcement bank, the better your chances are later on. Use praise, petting, and happy talking as reinforcement if that is your ultimate goal.
Praise can also be a nice amplifier.
But it’s best to work your way up to this level of deep, rich relationship. Here’s why. Do you remember your first “real” job? Do you know the one who got you a paycheck? They expected to be paid in cash, not just a pat on the back and a few words of encouragement! Keep this in mind when teaching your dog a skill that is challenging to him – or very important to you. There will be times when you’ll want to reach for a super high quality treat, such as tempting bites. For doggy payday, think small, soft, and smelly!
Ask your dog’s vet (or a veterinary nutritionist) when it comes to food choices for exercise. Just as you turn to an attorney, not your plumber, for legal advice, when it comes to deciding what to feed or not to feed your pup, you are reaching out to someone who has been professionally involved in the pet nutrition issue. This step is especially important if your pet has any food allergies or sensitivities.
Think about how you can maximize motivation.
Experiment with a variety of approved foods after consulting your veterinarian. How about some roasted carrots cut into training size pieces or small pieces of lean meat? Helpful Tip: Avoid anything that is too filling or too dry that will cause your dog to get satiated and thirsty, which will interfere with training. When in doubt, try different goodies and your doll will tell you what she finds very motivating. How? Usually by enthusiastically offering a behavior (or behaviors) without being asked, staying engaged in the training and ignoring the squirrel walking by!
Using food for exercise doesn’t mean your dog is getting extra calories in addition to what he or she is already receiving. Our pets should only get their regular daily calorie intake through enrichment toys and training games and not (only) from the bowl.
Using food as reinforcement can become more intermittent once your dog is practiced and begins to offer the behavior you train yourself just because it’s fun! Remember, however, that even with highly skilled, experienced dogs, you may want to fortify occasionally to keep motivation going. Your pawsome pup just did a 100 yard recall in a crowded park or beach ?! Yes – reward it generously !! Also, remember to reinforce “independent” activities, such as playing alone or sitting quietly on the mat without being told to do so. Here, too, behaviors that are rewarded are repeated.
Just because you have goodies with you doesn’t mean you have to use them.
Do you usually take a wallet or credit card with you when you leave the house? Many of us take money with us just in case, but often we return home without spending a penny. A dog example could be something like working on a leash with distractions. You want to empower your dog to be good at running around certain distractions, such as bikes, so bring treats. Lo and behold, you go for a walk and never run into a cyclist, which means there are no treats for your dog this time around. That’s okay! He still enjoyed going on adventures, a rewarding experience in itself!
Every dog is unique in their likes and dislikes. When you know your dog’s preferences, you can use these favorite things as a way to motivate your dog to do more of the things you want. In addition to tidbits, rewards can include praise, doing something, someone to talk to, something to touch, someone to join in, someone or something to play with, something to research, or any number of other “real rewards”.
Since dogs have to eat, why not use the food to our advantage?
For example, think ahead and plan to exercise when you know your dog is going to be hungry. And instead of giving him meals “for free” from a bowl, use part of his daily nutritional requirements as training rewards and in enriching toys. Of course, that doesn’t mean you will starve your dog until he can no longer see clearly! It just means using some of your regular meals strategically to encourage and reinforce the behaviors you like. An important note here: remember that a dog who is physically or emotionally stressed may not be very hungry. So make sure to keep the training sessions short, optimistic and fun!
This reward-based approach is part of a whistling culture shift in modern dog training.
Please note that it is not advisable to reward certain behaviors with treats and then use aversives (such as choking, prongs, or shock collars) to “correct” undesirable behavior. It can make dogs fearful of training sessions because they associate supply behavior with fear and pain. And it’s downright confusing! A human analogy would be that your significant other would come home with flowers and then slap you in the face when you do something they don’t like. A better alternative for those times when your dog is doing something you don’t want is to ask yourself what should your dog do instead. Ask him to do that. Then reward him for it. Not only will this redirect your dog towards something more productive, but it will also teach your dog what to do in the future. The message will be much clearer, more consistent, and friendlier.
And there you have it – a heaping helping of who, what, how, when, and where to use food (and other rewards) in training your dog. Would you like to learn more about a Pawsitive Approach for Positive Results ™? Please contact us. We look forward to hearing from you and your always curious furry friend.
The Inquisitive Canine was founded by Santa Barbara canine behavioral consultant and certified professional dog trainer Joan Hunter Mayer. Joan and her team have made it their business to offer humane, energetic and practical solutions that meet the challenges of dogs and their people in everyday life. Let’s bark with the dogs, cheer people and have fun!