Why Food Is Used As A Reward In Training


Let us jump right in and start at the beginning…. A sweet little puppy face is looking up at you begging you to play. Because you are busy right now, you tell little Charlie, “not now, mommy’s busy”, but Sweet Face won’t take no for an answer. He tries to bite at your shoe….you tell him, “NO, Charlie, not my shoe!” He does the cutest little jump and tries your shoe again, biting more, and making adorable growling sounds, his tail wagging back and forth, still looking up at you, in between trying to pull at your shoe. It is hard not to smile. He is the cutest thing ever!

If only he would listen and understand that no means NO, and he wouldn’t go and pee on your favorite rug, or he wouldn’t bark all the time, and whine when you put him in his crate. And why won’t he just sit when you tell him, why do you have to say it again and again? Oh, but the most frustrating thing is that he won’t come when you call, especially out in the backyard, and  he ought to know by now what “sit” means. After all, he does listen and sits……when he wants to. He is just being stubborn. He has that mischievous look that tells you he does get it, but only when he wants to. Stubborn, I tell you!

Pretty soon he is old enough to start in puppy class. A friend of yours has recommended a trainer who does Puppy Start Right classes. You think this will be great for you and Charlie. After all, he is becoming too dependent on you and needs to meet other puppies and not be such a scaredy pup! He is now six months old. You had meant to start class earlier, but there was never a time in your busy schedule. First day at ‘school’, Charlie is hiding behind your legs with his tail tucked under his belly. The trainer seems very nice. She tells you he might need a bit of time to adjust. The class is using Positive Reinforcement. To be honest, you don’t really feel all those treats you are supposed to give to Charlie for doing what he should be doing in the first place, is really good for him. He will just gain weight. So you decide you will give him a treat from time to time. You tell him what a Good Boy he is when he sits, which still only happens when he ‘wants to’. After attending class for a few weeks, you decide you are not really getting anything out of it. Charlie still won’t listen or come when you call. It’s a waste of money and time….

Let’s break right there. Does the storyline seem familiar to you? Do you also have a ‘stubborn’ dog or puppy, who only listens when she wants to? Do you feel that dogs don’t need to get treats all the time, that they should just obey your commands? It’s not like you haven’t trained enough. Maybe you are tempted to call another trainer, who knows how to make your dog obey? You hear that a choke chain does teach the dog to walk nicely on leash…. She needs to know YOU are the Alpha. That’s what a dog trainer on tv says, so it must be right.

Why not take a step back for a moment…. Could it be that we are doing something wrong? That our communication with our dogs is not good enough? Could it be possible that we need to take a different perspective when communicating to our dogs what we want? Dogs are dogs. That is all they know how to be. They come to live with us in a strange home, they don’t understand the language we speak, all they know is how to chew, bark, jump to get attention…

Until they learn what to do instead of their normal dog behaviors, they don’t stand much of a chance of living up to our expectations. We think they understand what NO means because they seem to stop what they are doing in the moment “NO Charlie!” is shouted at them. Or if we hit them with the newspaper, or spray water on them for doing something we have told them time and time again NOT to be doing, they seem to ‘get it’. Sadly, this is not the case. Dogs learn by association, so in this case, your dog ascertains that doing these ‘NO NO’ behaviors in your presence is accompanied by something very unpleasant, so “I better not do that in my human’s presence again”. This may stop the behavior when you are around, but it only tells your dog that the only ‘safe’ time to engage in chewing on your furniture is when you are not present. This is why Positive Dog Training is about teaching your dog alternative behaviors, to give them a better option to obtain harmony and avoid pain (and for you not to having to replace any of your furniture!). It’s a WIN WIN  situation!

Dogs are motivated by food, water, sex, and the avoidance of pain. If they weren’t, they would die. The basic starting point when preparing to train a dog is to establish his motivation….what gets him pumped up and eager to learn. While we, as people, work for the cash payout, a nice piece of steak, chicken, cheese, meatball, etc. is all the payment a dog needs to work. When training, and to avoid weight gain for your dog, you therefore need to cut back on the amount of regular food and take the extra yummy treats down to pea-size.

Some dogs are more toy motivated, and a toy can definitely be used as a reward, as can going for a ride in the car, going for a walk, chasing a squirrel, etc. It is all about finding what is highly motivating to your dog. Dogs will work for what motivates them…..just like us humans, yet again. For most dogs, however, food is the lead motivator. If you want your puppy/dog to listen to you and focus on you, you need to have a ‘fat wallet’ (or treat pouch) full of extra yummy treats that you carry around. Make sure to pay up front whenever your cutie pie does something you like.

In order for training to work, the behavior you want your dog to learn has to be reinforced consistently with lots and lots of rewards. It really is quite simple. The more your Sweet Face gets paid, the more he will want to give you something in return. Positive Reinforcement works on the scientific principle that behaviors leading to positive consequences are likely to increase. Dogs learn that their actions have consequences. We as trainers/humans decide if the consequences should be positive or negative. Keeping in mind that dogs are motivated by the avoidance of aversives/pain, and are highly motivated by food, why would we not use food as a paycheck for a job well done? When we are patted on the back by our boss and told we did a great job, or we receive a big bonus for it, are we not motivated to keep doing more of the same?

Get your treats ready, pay the pooch! Be consistent. Keep some yummy treats in your pocket. Wait for your dog to come to you, then pay up. Trust me, you will soon be the center of his universe! Look out for more specifics on this topic in a future blog… In the meantime, keep up the good work!