Blog - Are treats the only positive training option when training your dog?

Posted Sunday, 12 August 2018

Are you worried about using treats to train your dog?

Some people won’t try positive dog training because they think it means they must use food to train their dogs. They worry that this might make their dog fat, food obsessed or that somehow, this equates to bribery.

Positive dog training is not all about using food, contrary to what many balanced or forceful trainers will tell you. Food is probably used most commonly, because most dogs love food. It is quick and easy to use. You need to feed them anyway, and it doesn’t require much creativity, making this method accessible to everyone. It works well as a reinforcer (in other words, to make a behaviour more probable). The failure to earn an expected treat also works as a punisher (in other words, to make a behaviour less probable). We need to be careful that we understand the difference between REWARD and REINFORCE here. A reward is something that happens for the dog that we hope they like well enough for them to do the behaviour reliably again (this is the REINFORCE bit).

However, you do not need to use food. There is a method called the Premack Principle. This method basically reinforces behaviour by allowing the dog to perform a behaviour he wants to do as a reward for something you want him to do. Here is an example. You are trying to teach your dog not to pull on the lead, but he keeps pulling on the lead to sniff the ground. Using the Premack principle, you would set up the dog to be walking a bit away from the interesting sniffs (because it is easier away from the sniffs), encourage your dog to walk on a slack lead, and when he does this, lead him over to the scent rich area to reward his slack lead walking with a sniffing opportunity. So here, we are offering the dog something he wants to do because he did something we want him to do. We are making a behaviour he wants to do contingent on a behaviour we want him to do. This makes the behaviour of walking on a slack lead more probable.

As an aside, if you allow your dog to sniff - which is very important for him - he will not need to pull on the lead to be able to access this important activity. Think about our use of social media, this is really your dog’s own version; Butt Book and Sniffer (think Facebook and Twitter). If you don’t use social media you probably watch TV, read the news, play sport, or do some other leisure activity you enjoy. So, don’t just think about training your dog to comply, think about what makes it easier or possible for your dog to do what you want him to do so it is easier for him to offer you the behaviours you want.

The smart trainer will also mix up the rewards they give their dog. When I work with Lily, I use play, chase and scenting heavily in my box of rewards. If we only use food, dogs can get bored. If they are not hungry, their motivation to work for food is reduced. Sometimes owners constantly use the same treat and the dog no longer wants that food. If the dog is highly excited, he won’t want food as his appetite may be suppressed. If very stressed/fearful (and hopefully we actively try to avoid making our dogs too stressed/fearful, but it can happen because of something else in the environment over which you have no control), the dog won’t want food.

Some trainers, who use more aversive methods of training, will argue dogs become food obsessed, which is why they won’t use food, instead choosing force. Dogs won’t be obsessed with food if you use food correctly. If the food comes AFTER the desired behaviour, and you fade out the food rewards appropriately (which many dog trainers do not do because they do not have enough skill), then the dog becomes keen to do the BEHAVIOUR, and does not become obsessed with food. Nor is the food bribery, as it comes after the behaviour; it’s a reward that often reinforces behaviour. You have to feed your dog, so why not use it in training? Would you do your day job if you were not paid? Then why expect dogs to work for us for nothing? We often desire dogs to do behaviours that are unnatural for them, therefore we need to work harder to motivate them.

Used wisely, food can be a great way to train dogs, but it should not be the only tool in the box and you must learn how to fade out the treats. Treats are not the only options available in dog training, but should be used alongside other kinds of rewards your dog likes to keep him motivated and for contingency in case your dog does not find food rewarding enough.