Now this should be a really simple subject, but as with all things in the dog training world. Guess what? It isn’t!
Positive dog trainers often get mocked by those prepared to use harsher methods and one of their big gripes is that treats do not always work! This is why they use other methods like shock collars.
The answer to this question is that it depends! It depends on what you are using food for. Before going into this in more detail, I need to talk about something called positive reinforcement.
What is positive reinforcement?
The term reinforcement means to strengthen. We strengthen behaviours by pairing the behaviour with a positive consequence – a reward. For us to pair this in a meaningful way, a behaviour is offered, a treat is given, and assuming the dog likes the treat, the behaviour will have been rewarded and reinforced. The reward is the treat and reinforcement is the consequence – the behaviour is strengthened and becomes more likely because the dog earns a treat.
Why won’t food always work?
However, there are occasions when a dog will not want to take food. In such cases, food is not going to work as a reinforcer because the dog does not want it. Reasons for this are varied, but here are a few possible explanations for why a dog would not want a treat:
1. The dog does not like the treat being offered.
2. The dog might not be hungry.
3. The dog might be afraid and his appetite suppressed.
4. Something else in the environment might be more important to the dog than food.
5. The dog would prefer the consequences of his own behaviour above the value of a food reward.
6. Food has assumed an aversive status. I will talk more about this below.
It is important to realise that, like humans, our food preferences vary. Our son wanted poached egg every day for breakfast and after about two months told me he never wanted to see an egg again! Like humans, dogs can have too much of a good thing so you should vary the food rewards being used.
Not all dogs are hungry all the time. Some can regulate how much they eat quite well, so if your dog is not hungry, the food may not be as important to him as it would be if he was a little hungry. This does not mean you should starve him as this would create a different problem. The dog could be fixated on the food and not be able to concentrate on what it is he should do to earn the food reward.
If the dog is fearful, he will not want food. Escape is far more important at that time and you should be able to read your dog’s emotional state and provide what he needs: safety.
The dog might be distracted by something else. Or the dog might prefer something else in the environment and this might be taking his attention away from the food you have on offer. For example, he might like to play with a dog MORE than eat a treat. In such cases, you should use PLAY as the reward as this is more likely to reinforce the behaviour. Calling your dog back is an example of this problem. You might want your dog to come to you for a treat, but he might want to play with another dog more. This is where you can call him to you first and then reward him for returning to you with a play with the dog by sending him to play. When you first do this you probably need to have him on a long line so you can control his access to the ultimate reward. This is an example of food not being of value to the dog.
How on earth could food become aversive to the dog?
Some people try to use food to make something less unpleasant for the dog. An example of this is clipping claws. Timing is very important. If you give the dog the treat BEFORE you clip the claws, food could come to predict claw clipping! Yikes! As claw clipping might be aversive and scary for your dog, this association with food can put the dog off the food.
I once saw a case where a client had been coaxing her dog into the boot using food. Once in the boot, he was shut in and off they went. After a short while, the dog would not get into the boot. As soon as the owner showed the dog the food, he recoiled and slunk away. The act of pairing getting into the boot with food, actually put the dog off the food. In fact, used the other way around, the food would have been associated with getting into the car boot and would have started to help the dog feel happier getting in as the food came afterwards. But more importantly, in this case, there was a mirror hanging down in the boot and this frightened the dog. Once this was removed the dog was confident to get into the boot. Don’t just assume food is the answer to everything; we need to look more holistically. Also, working at the dog’s pace by letting him jump up, give him a treat and then asking him to get out again would work better as it is done without putting the dog under any pressure.
So, if you are finding food rewards are not working with your dog, don’t just assume food doesn’t work. Step back and take a look at what you are doing wrong. The answer will be in this article somewhere. Food is just one possible reward, there are many other rewards we can give to our dogs as well as food. But if your dog will not take food, the chances are he is frightened and you will need to address this before you make much progress.