There is a right way and a wrong way to use food when training your dog.
Proponents of food use in training will argue that by using food in your training regimen, you are working in harmony with your dog’s drive (specifically the food drive) and that it is one of the easiest ways to develop a dog who shows a natural and happy attitude toward training.
Detractors of the “food and training” approach argue, on the other hand, that dogs in the wild don’t give each other food bribes to get them to do things. Both arguments raise valid points.
It is my opinion that there are certain times and places where food can be incorporated into ones training regimen where the food will be used as a motivator, rather than as a bribe. What this means is that the dog you are training is working for you–instead of working for the food. The food is brought into the picture after the owner has already established a proper relationship with his dog, and has already instilled a sense of respect and willingness in his dog’s performance of commands.
So, in other words, the food is used to spice up the dogs attitude. In the dogs mind, he is thinking, ” Hey, I know my alpha-pack leader is going to make me do this, but now I’m going to get paid for a job I was already going to do for free. ”
Sometimes food can be used to communicate to an otherwise defensive or resistant dog that you want him to do something. For example, many times I will be in a position where I am working with a fairly fearful or somewhat unsocialized larger breed who won’t let me place him in the down (a submission) position. No matter how hard I press or rock him left and right, he has entered a zone in which he has clicked off all other options, because he thinks that by putting him in a submission position, it is a precursor to hurting, correcting, or causing him pain.
By bringing in food at this stage, you can fairly easily and pretty quickly get the dog into the down position. What happens is that the dog becomes so focused on the “positive” which the food represents, that he forgets all that other business about being dominant, and realizes that your desire, after all, is that you really don’t want to hurt him.
After only a couple of repetitions, the dog begins to understand what you want from him, and begins doing the exercise without serious resistance. It is usually at this point that I will eliminate the food. When you know that your dog understands what you want from him, and has shown you that he has the ability to associate the negative motivation with the desired behavior, there is no longer any need for the food… as at this point, the food will begin to be seen as a bribe. In all honesty, I don’t use food very much… simply because it is rarely needed to communicate what you want to your dog.
WARNING! THERE ARE PITFALLS IN RELYING ON FOOD!
A possible exception to this rule is in competition obedience training, when the food can be used to help the dog focus and target. But in general, if you are quick, direct, and to the point, you will be able to show your dog exactly what you want him to do, and will be praising him for doing the right thing before he even thinks about what approach you’re using to put him in that position.
So, in sum, my primary use of food, outside of competition training, is usually limited to getting a dog who is defensive to understand what I want him to do, so that he may later understand my commands. My secondary use of food is as a motivator to get the dog to work fast, and with a more positive attitude. As I’ve already talked about using food to improve your dog’s working attitude, let me mention briefly how food can be used to speed up performance of exercises.
HOW TO GET THE MOST ‘BANG’ FOR YOUR ‘BUCK’ WHEN USING FOOD IN YOUR TRAINING!
First, recognize that serious trainers want to get the most ‘bang’ for their ‘buck’ if they’re going to be working with their dog’s food drive. There’s no reason to waste valuable training time with a dog that is only half-heartedly interested in the food you’re using to motivate him.
If I’m going to dabble with getting my hands sticky and stinky from liver treats or other assorted canine appetizers, you bet I’m going to start with a dog who’s really motivated by the food. If your dog isn’t all that interested in the food you’re using, you have one of three options:
1.) Find a new treat that your dog is really motivated by. Make sure that this treat is one he can swallow quickly, because you don’t want the treat interrupting the flow of your training session.
2.) Get a new dog. For most people, this isn’t really an option. If for some reason it is, be sure to read the chapter on HOW TO CHOOSE A DOG OR PUPPY!
3.) Your third option is to stop feeding your dog just long enough to get him really interested in your treat. It shouldn’t take more than a few days (at the most) before your dog learns that training time equals meal time.
Once you’ve got your dog motivated for the food, my general rule of thumb is to give the command, then the negative motivation, then the verbal praise, and then the reward (the food in this case). If you haven’t figured it out yet, there are really two tricks to getting your dog to work fast with the food motivator.
First, make sure that the food IS motivational. This alone usually gets the dog working really fast. Whenever a dog really wants something… and I mean WANTS IT BAD… he’s going to be motivated to get it, as fast as he can.
Secondly, now that you’ve got the dog WANTING to get the treat really bad, you can incorporate a superior sense of timing in showing the dog that he will get the treat immediately after he does the desired behavior.
For example, in teaching the ‘down’, once the dog starts going into the down position really fast, you can begin dropping the treat as soon as the dog starts going down. This way, right at the moment the dog hits the deck, he will be getting his reward… the food.