It’s a long confused topic: how to properly use food in dog training. The goal is simple – we want to create a well behaved dog who will listen all the time, not just in the presence of food. This is definitely achievable, but it requires patience, repetition and most importantly, honesty! Be honest with yourself about your dog’s current level of training and ability to contend with distractions. Often, people put their dogs into situations they aren’t ready for and get embarrassed when they don’t respond well. The human solution is to then pull out food and “bribe” the dog into listening. This is very superficial and although you may, in that post-bribe moment, have your dog’s attention, you are teaching them they don’t have to think in order to earn reward. They can behave as impulsively as they want and you will bribe them into focusing when you want their attention. What we want to do in food training is establish a reward history so that our dogs will eventually look to us for cues and information when faced with choices.
Using food in training is a quick way to achieve results with most dogs. The majority of dogs will work happily to try to earn a morsel of food as eating speaks to their basest instinct. In order to use food effectively, you must be aware of your dog’s success level and the distractions he is facing. Starting to teach skills in the face of over-distraction is a sure way to fail and fall into the habit of bribery.
Steps to training successfully with food:
1 – Showing or luring our dogs – Start in a calm, quiet environment. Dogs must be able to focus in order to learn. We can use food to show our dogs what we want (I.e. lure) in the early stages of training only. As soon as our dog understands what we are asking of them, we must get rid of the food as a lure. Be sure your dog truly understands the skill you are teaching before you move on to step 2.
2 – Adding a cue – Whether it’s a verbal or a signal, a cue is the next step once your dog understands the skill. Timing is important when adding a cue. We want to ensure our dog hears the cue independently, then sees the lure we used in step 1. So, give a clear cue, pause for about a second and then lure.
3 – Dropping the lure – Once you’ve established your cue, it’s time to drop the lure. Since you’ve spent some time on step 2, your dog should understand how to perform the behaviour on a cue. This is where you need to have a plan. What are you going to do if the dog doesn’t respond as you expect? You’ll need an action aside from going back to the lure. Unfortunately, all to often, dogs will not do what they’ve been asked (usually due to distractions over-facing them) and the handler will then pull out food. This teaches the dog that they don’t have to think or be focused. If their handler wants something from them, they’ll wave a cookie in their face! This is where you end up with a dog who will only do something when food is present.
4 – Establishing a variable reward schedule – We want to be sure that our dogs still get rewarded for working hard for us. This will keep them keen and keep their skills sharp – after all, you wouldn’t go to work everyday without a paycheck, right? Once the skills are set and the dog understands, we must vary our reward schedule. We should always have a variety of rewards at our disposal. This doesn’t mean always having a pocket full of food, rather it means being in tune with your dog and knowing what they find valuable. After one repetition, your dog may get a scratch behind the ears or a word of praise. Sometimes their reward may come in the form of a game and other times as a piece of food. As long as the dog finds it valuable, you can use anything in your training toolbox. What’s important is that we randomize the reward and ensure it comes AFTER the desired behaviour has been performed.
5 – Adding distraction – Once your dog has mastered the cue without distractions, it’s time to add them in. Be careful to start small and build your dog up. Refer to last week’s post, on how to proof your dog through distractions here for good information on building behaviour regardless of what your dog may face.
Remember that repetition is important to understanding. Have fun with your training and keep honest with yourself about your dog’s progress and you’ll master food training in no time!