Dog Training Dilemma – To Treat or Not to Treat?

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Since launching The Inquisitive Canine, I’m often asked about a somewhat meaty topic in the field of dog training and behavior – using food in training. So I thought I’d serve up a heaping helping of expertise in dog behavior with a side order of pawsitivity, discussing the who, what, how, when, and where of using food for training your inquisitive canine.

Using Food for Dog Training

Q: Should pet guardians use food to train their dogs? And if so, why?

JHM: Yes! Dog parents should use food to train their dogs. First, what is “training”? Training is just teaching your dog what you want them to do, when you want them to do it. We can motivate dogs using anything they like and want, including food, which is considered a primary reinforcer. Since dogs need to eat, why not use the food to our advantage? Instead of giving them their meals for free out of a bowl, use the food to get more of the behaviors you want by delivering it to them through training and/or enrichment toys. (For more on how dogs learn, check out our previous post on the fundamentals of dog training.)  

Q: What if a pet parent’s dog isn’t motivated by food? 

JHM: Dogs need to eat – they’ll eventually get hungry. So, maximize the dog’s appetite by training when they’re hungry. This doesn’t mean starve them until they can’t see straight. It just means using their regular meals for training. Also, think about motivation — some treats might not be to the dog’s liking. Experiment with different foods, maybe roasted carrots that have been cut up into training size pieces or small pieces of lean meats.  

Additionally, consider that the dog might be stressed and therefore not very hungry. Be sure to address any underlying physical or emotional concerns before embarking on your training journey. Then keep training sessions short, upbeat and tons-o-fun!

Q: Isn’t training with treats bribery? 

JHM: If you’re delivering the food before the dog performs the behavior, then yes, it would be considered bribery. Plus, the dog already got what he wanted, so why should he do anything else? This is not to say you can’t prompt the dog, using food as a lure. But, you’ll want to deliver the tasty morsel after the dog performs the behavior, as a reward. 

Using Food for Training - Please

Q: Shouldn’t dogs just do as they’re told out of respect and a desire to please their people? 

JHM: You raise the question of, “Are dogs really eager to please?” And it’s a good one. Without being the animal, or being able to read the dog’s mind, it is difficult to surmise exactly what the dog is thinking or what the internal motivational state is. It is also unfair to our dogs when we make these types of assumptions — it makes it about us and not them. Not only that, it can set dog guardians up for disappointment if their dog doesn’t do what they want them to do. As humans, and we’re animals too, we tend to take things personally if and when our dog doesn’t do what we ask. If we step back and look at things more scientifically, it’s best to ask what is motivating the dog and then change the outcomes based on the dog’s personal preferences, not what we think they should or shouldn’t like. It’s pretty safe to say though that what they most likely want, on a basic level, is to get more of the good stuff and avoid the unpleasant stuff. 

Q: Why isn’t saying “Good Dog” enough of a reward? 

JHM: Praise can be a lovely reinforcer! But, it’s best to work up to that level of a deep, rich, relationship. Here’s an example from our human world: Think about your first job — was it a volunteer position? Or, did you want to get paid? …Even if it was $0.10 for mowing the lawn? Yet, over time, you realized there were certain situations when you enjoyed volunteering and receiving praise from others and you were motivated by that internal feeling of goodness. 

Similarly, many dogs enjoy and are motivated by praise. How do we know this? Because they repeat the behavior. But, this doesn’t happen all of the time, especially when competing motivators outrank the “good dog” sentiment. (Sorry, chasing birds and squirrels is often a lot more fun than hearing ‘good dog.’) However, the more dog guardians reinforce behaviors, the more ends up in the bank of good experiences. This means that in the future, when all they have is a “good dog” as the motivator, their dog will likely follow through because they’ve had enough experience to know it makes them feel good inside, like volunteering. 

Q: Is anything else besides food and praise rewarding to dogs? 

JHM: Yes! When it comes to motivation, anything that the dog wants can be used to reinforce a behavior. This would include something edible, something to do, someone to socialize with, something to touch, someone to engage with, someone or something to play with, and something to investigate. Each dog is unique in their likes and dislikes. It’s best to learn what your dog’s preferences are and then use delivering these favorite things as ways to motivate your dog to do the things you want. 

Q: If people train with food, will they always need to use food? 

JHM: Again, think of food reinforcement as putting money in the bank. Every time you reinforce your dog with something highly motivating, like food, you make a deposit in the bank. You increase the account of building strong behaviors. 

Initially, dog guardians will want to pay off with food (or what the dog considers the strongest motivator) each and every time when the dog is first learning a new behavior. Once the dog is proficient at it, and is offering the behavior reliably, then intermittent food rewards are usually fine. Just keep in mind how challenging the skill is for the dog — or how important it is for the pet parent. 

Using Food for Training High Value

Q: If people train with food, will they always need to carry food with them? 

JHM: In the beginning stages of training, it’ll be important that you’re prepared. So yes, I would highly recommend you carry treats on you, even if it’s something small that fits in a pocket, especially for the “just in case” situations. Keep in mind that the more “deposits” you make in the reinforcement bank, the better chance you’ll have later on using praise, petting, and happy talk as the reinforcer. Practice makes perfect and practice also creates positive conditioned responses, so your dog will likely be happy to “volunteer” their time, performing behaviors for you just because they enjoy it. But, keep in mind that even for those highly skilled, experienced dogs, you’ll still want to reinforce with food on occasion, to help keep up the motivation. 

Something to also think about is just because you have treats on you, it doesn’t mean you’ll need to use them. Similar to us taking our wallet or credit card with us when we leave home. We take money with us in case we need it, but there are many times that we don’t. An inquisitive canine example would be leash walking with distractions. You want to reinforce your dog for walking nicely around specific distractions, such as bicycles, so you bring your treats with you. Lo and behold you go out for your walk and never encounter a cyclist, which means no treats for your dog. That’s ok! He still had fun adventuring out! 

Q: What food(s) should guardians use for training?

JHM: When it comes to choosing the types of foods to use, first double-check with your dog’s veterinarian. (Or a veterinary nutritionist.) Just like you go to a lawyer for legal advice, and not your plumber, go to someone who has been professionally educated on the topic of pet nutrition when it comes to deciding what to feed, or not feed, your pup. This step is especially important if your pet has food allergies or sensitivities. 

Additionally, please consult this list from ASPCA animal poison control for people foods that you should avoid feeding your pets.

In general, in training, it’s best to use your dog’s real food to help ensure he or she is meeting their nutritional needs. From there, look at the ingredients in your dog’s food. You can likely use those items in their natural states. For instance, if your dog’s food is chicken-based, then you can use chicken for training. If it includes other proteins, vegetables, or grains, then you can use those as well. Some dogs can tolerate dairy, so small pieces of low-fat cheese mixed in can be exceptionally rewarding. 

There will be times you’ll want to use something high value, for those times when the behavior might be more challenging for the dog to perform. You want the food morsels to be enticing, but not filling or dry. (Dogs fill up and get thirsty, which interferes with training.) Think small, soft, and stinky! 

Q: Are high value treats the ones that are most expensive at the boutique pet supply store?

When choosing high value treats, consider them from your dog’s point of view. The price tag of the treat doesn’t equate to the taste or motivational value, usually. “High value” could mean small pieces of plain, lean, leftover roast chicken from last night’s dinner or small pieces of steak. Pound-for-pound, the chicken might cost less than the fancy dog treats. Experiment by trying out different “treats” and your inquisitive canine will tell you what she considers high value. How? Usually by trying to jump in your lap, offering a behavior (or behaviors) without being asked, staying engaged in the training, and ignoring the squirrel running by!

Q: If I train with food, won’t all the extra calories make my dog fat?

JHM: Using food for training doesn’t mean your dog should be getting extra calories on top of what he or she is already receiving. Our pets should just be receiving their regular daily caloric intake through training and enrichment toys and games and not (only) out of a bowl. 

Q: I’m trying to avoid single use plastic (bags, etc.). Can you recommend a good treat pouch?

JHM: When it comes to purchasing a treat pouch, it’s all about personal preference. There are quite a few good ones out there. You can check local pet supply places, as well as online.

Using Food for Training - Off Leash Play

Q: Should people train with treats to reward desired behavior and then also use correction/punishment-based training to discourage behaviors they don’t want? 

JHM: Taking an approach such as rewarding behaviors, then using aversives (such as choke, prong or shock collars) to “correct” behaviors, can lead to dogs becoming afraid of training sessions because they associate offering behaviors with fear and pain. And it’s downright confusing! A human analogy would be your significant other coming home with flowers to give you, then slapping you across the face if you did something they didn’t like. 

A more scientific, humane alternative for those times your dog is doing something you don’t want is to ask yourself what you want your dog to do instead. Ask him to do that. Then reward him for it. Not only will this redirect your dog to something more productive, it will also teach your dog what you want them to do in the future. The message will be much more clear, consistent and kind. This reward-based approach is part of the exciting pawsitive cultural shift in dog training, dedicated to strengthening the human-canine bond!


Feeling Inquisitive about the to treat or not to treat dilemma? Comment or contact us directly about using food for training.

References:

Important Things to Focus on When Dog Training –https://inquisitivecanine.com/2021/03/13/what-are-the-most-important-things-to-focus-on-when-dog-training/

Are Dogs Really Eager to Please? – https://thebark.com/content/are-dogs-really-eager-please 

People Foods to Avoid Feeding Your Pets – https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/people-foods-avoid-feeding-your-pets

A Pawsitive Cultural Shift in Dog Training – https://inquisitivecanine.com/2021/05/12/a-pawsitive-cultural-shift-in-dog-training/

Additional Resources:

https://www.petinsurance.com/healthzone/pet-health/pet-food-and-recipes/alternate-dog-treats/

https://vetnutrition.tufts.edu/2020/06/tips-for-training-with-food-rewards/

https://www.k9ofmine.com/best-training-treat-pouches/


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