Using food to train your dog – myths explored
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Some people question the use of food rewards in dog training as they think that this is tantamount to bribery, that their dog will get fat, that their dog should just behave well because they love their family or that their dog will become spoilt / bratty with no set boundaries.
We explore these myths here:
Is reward based training basically bribery?
Bribery means to act dishonestly – to ask someone else to complete your school essay in exchange for money for example.
Rewarding means to motivate to action. If my son emptied the dishwasher, either of his own accord (like that would happen!) or because I have asked him (still unlikely) I would reward him by cooking his favourite dinner or giving him a chocolate bar, for example, in the hope that this would induce him to repeat the helpful dishwasher emptying. This is exactly what we are doing when we are training dogs to repeat an action we like – using rewards (whether they are food, play or life rewards) to induce the action to be repeated.
Trainers may begin to teach a new behaviour by luring (holding a piece of food under our dog’s nose) to get a dog into the required position but would quickly move onto rewarding the good behaviour because we need our dogs to comply to our requests always (not just when we have a piece of food in our hands). Rewarding your dog when they have complied with your requests will keep your dog motivated to carry on doing what you ask and make your life with them a whole lot easier, happier and safer.
Won’t my dog get fat with all these treats?
Food rewards need to be taken from your dog’s daily food quota; instead of putting that exciting food into a boring bowl for 5 minutes of enjoyment by your dog (or 2 seconds in the case of mine) you will use it to reward your dog during training or provide boredom busting in the form of enrichment activities such as a stuffed Kong or a game of ‘find it’ for example.
It is convenient and effective to teach new behaviours with food but as your dog grows and learns, the reward doesn’t always have to be food but something that your dog finds rewarding that’s appropriate for the lesson. My adult dog is rewarded for a perfect recall with a game of tuggy or her beloved orange ball.
A helpful tool when deciding what to use to reward your adult dog is to compile a list of your dog’s favourite things (in order of how valuable each thing is). For my dog this list looks something like this (most loved is number 1):
High Value Rewards
- Orange ball
- Roast chicken
- Wotsits – I kid you not – used very sparingly or accidentally when my 2 year old grandson feeds them to her!
- ‘Find it’ game
Medium Value Rewards
- Everyday kibble – with movement added (toss it, hide it etc.
- Game of tug
- Nature’s Menu – 100% meat treats
Low Value Rewards
1. Everyday kibble – no movement (just fed to her)
Human beings do things purely out of love, why doesn’t my dog?
As far as your dog is concerned he is showing love with his gorgeous displays of wigglyness when he sees you (we’re pretty fond of making up words as well as dogs and people here) and all the other gorgeous things that your dog does to show that he loves you. Coming when he’s called (for example) is not a canine act of love, it’s not beneficial to your dog, in his view – your dog is loving running around. Giving your dog a reward when he comes back to you has introduced a huge dollop of benefit for your dog so it’s likely to be happily repeated again and again. Happy Days.
Will my dog learn appropriate boundaries and behaviour using positive methods?
Guide dogs for the blind are trained using modern, positive training techniques, as are many service dogs including sniffer dogs, search and rescue dogs etc. The articles below explore the training methods used to train guide dogs and a bomb detection dog. I think we all agree that Guide Dogs have learned appropriate (amazing!) boundaries and behaviour.