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Food Rewards – and why we use them

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

A lot of people who have had dogs for many years always question why do we use food as a reward for training dogs?

The statements I often get are:

  1. I’ve always trained this way for all the time I have had dogs. My dog never gets given a treat it should do what I tell it when I tell it.
  2. I don’t want it to associate doing something with getting food
  3. My dog can already do the behaviour at home so I don’t want it to be rewarded when it does it somewhere else

Like many things dog training has evolved for the better over the years. In most circumstances, gone are the days of good old Barbara Woodhouse balling out commands and using a choke (check) chain to get a dog to do the behaviour that has been asked of the dog. Hopefully one day all the Cesar Millan followers will suddenly realise that he is actually causing more harm than good with his forceful dominant outdated pack rules. Unfortunately there are still many people out there who believe in dominance and discipline when it comes to training dogs and potentially in some cases I am sure they use these ‘bullying techniques’ with people too.

My response to people who question the use of treats in training “would you go to work if you didn’t get paid very much or at all”? ok so if you really love what you do then potentially yes, but fresh air never paid for the cost of living! We have to earn an income to pay to live.

So if you are making your dog work for you why wouldn’t you pay them?

In the 8 years I have been teaching I have had a handful of people who have refused to use treats to reward their dogs or they use very dry biscuit type treats that are non appetising and would be the equivalent of the dog eating cardboard. All of these dogs and owners have struggled to get good results at their assessment at the end of their 6 week course or if they are doing agility the dogs can lose interest very quickly in what they are doing.

We encourage clicker training in our classes and the clicker should be paired with a high value reward so when the dog hears the click sound they are rewarded afterwards with a piece of meat or cheese. They will then be more inclined to repeat the exercise as they know they will get “paid” for their efforts.

A prime example of when not treating your dog can become problematic…

You are out walking your dog in a local park where many dogs are walked. You let your dog off lead and it stays reasonably close to you. That is until it sees another dog. Your dog runs straight over to the dog and you are calling and calling and your dog wont come back. What’s the point? The other dog is much more fun. Your dog is being self rewarded by running over to the dog and running around playing with it. You wander over to where the other dog’s owner is and apologise and say “sorry, my dog is really friendly it just wants to play” it always does this. You continue chatting and laughing with the other owner whilst your dogs are playing – fantastic!

Or not? The question you need to ask yourself … Will your dog come back to you when you call it the first time?

In my experience of this the answer is probably no.

So that is fine if the dog is friendly. If however the other dog does not like other dogs and is either on or off lead and your bouncy friendly dog goes running over to it and gets attacked – the situation completely changes.

Who is in the wrong? The dog that attacks or the dog that got attacked?

If the other dog was on the lead then YOU are in the wrong for allowing your dog to approach another dog on lead. Your dog is completely out of control because you have not given them a good enough reason to come back to you. Their recall is likely to end up with being put back on the lead and taken home which means the fun stops. OR they will be put back on the lead and punished for not coming back when called. If you have done the latter by punishing your dog when it returns to you what you have done is punished the dog for coming back. It doesn’t understand that what it had done by running off to “play” with the other dog wasn’t acceptable. It had never been taught that you are far more fun and valuable than another dog that it could potentially play with.

If the “reactive” dog that your dog runs over to is also off lead then both owners are in the wrong. The owner of the reactive dog is in the wrong for not taking precautions knowing that their dog doesn’t like other dogs and the owner of the bouncy friendly dog is in the wrong for allowing their bundle of joy to go bounding up to another dog.

  • Who is going to take responsibility?
  • Who is going to pay for the potential vet bills that may be incurred?
  • Who is going to pay for the behaviour consult that you may need to help you to deal with the problem?

It could even escalate so much so that legal action is taken!

Yes this example may seem extreme to some people, however, dog attacks when out walking are becoming more and more common and this is down to lack of early socialisation and not using consistent reward based training methods.

Reward based training works. It is consistent. The dog always gets the same message. You can change the treats so the value is increased or decreased. You can do random rewards you can jack pot your dog. Mix it up keep it interesting make them work for their reward.

Most dogs are motivated by food. Dogs are natural scavengers so when offered a food reward that is different to their normal food then they are going to be really interested in it. Offer them a dry biscuit or a piece of dog food “kibble” may be not as interested. You will find a reward that works for your dog.